Buckhead’s origins can be traced to December 18, 1838, when Henry Irby purchased 202 ½ acres of land surrounding the intersection of present day Peachtree and West Paces Ferry Roads from Daniel Johnson for $650. Irby, who grew up the son of a harness maker in South Carolina, married Sardis Walraven and the couple settled into a one story log cabin in the vicinity of where Whole Foods stands today.
At the time, the vast majority of Buckhead’s residents, like Irby, supported themselves through farming. Indeed, the 1850 Federal Census of the Buckhead District lists 408 residents with a total of 56 farmers, 8 laborers, a lawyer, a doctor, a blacksmith, and a carpenter.
Irby’s farm, according to the 1850 Federal Non-Population Schedule, was valued at $5,000 and his possessions included three horses, two cows, two oxen, 32 sheep, 40 swine, 37 bushels of wheat, 1,320 bushels of corn, 180 bushels of oats, 100 lbs of butter, 30 bags of sweet potatoes, three bushels of peas and beans and 10 pounds of wool. His “slaughtered” livestock was worth $58.
Irby later built a one story frame general store on his property in the northwest angle of present day West Paces Ferry and Roswell Roads, about where the Lime Fresh Mexican Grill Restaurant (formerly Johnny Rockets) is now located. According to Irby’s grandson, Seaborn L. Ivey, who was interviewed by Wilbur Kurtz in 1935, the store was a one story structure approximately 20×40 feet in size with a fireplace and a large front porch.
While Mr. Ivey stated that Irby sold liquor at the store, there was no “tavern” in the commonly accepted sense of the word. Regardless, the general store quickly became a gathering spot for people who lived in the “Buckhead” community as it was informally called at the time.
But how did Buckhead get its famous name? While there are several stories, the most likely explanation involves a hunter named John Whitley.
Whitley, who appears in census records for the Buckhead area as early as 1830, lived in a one room log cabin with a fieldstone chimney just north of Vinings. To support his growing family, Whitley planted fields of corn, cotton and tobacco and farmed them with implements made in his own blacksmith shop. A master gunsmith, Whitley also hunted the abundant wildlife in the area with flint lock rifles he made by hand.
According to newspaper accounts and Whitley family oral history, Whitley killed a large buck on one of his frequent hunting forays and placed its head on a post. The previously mentioned Seaborn Ivey recalled that the buck’s head was fixed on a 3 or 4 foot high stake at a stream across Paces Ferry Road, now West Paces Ferry, from his grandfather’s house, which would put it in the approximate location of the St. Regis Hotel. Indeed, when that lot was originally developed, an existing stream was piped under the concrete and now emerges across Slaton Drive in the Smith Family Farm at the Atlanta History Center.
So impressive was the deer head that people began to tell their friends that they would see them at the buck’s head and the area became colloquially known as Buckhead. The first official appearance of the name “Buckhead” can be found in a December 22, 1840 Act of the Georgia Legislature, which established Henry Irby’s house “at the place known as Buck Head” as an election district.
On October 5, 1841, perhaps because there was already a U.S. Post Office in Morgan County, Georgia known as “Buckhead”, a U.S. Post Office was established at the Irby settlement and designated as “Irbyville”. Thereafter, the names Buckhead and Irbyville were used interchangeably for several years before Irbyville fell out of favor and the historic name, Buckhead, prevailed.
Henry Irby, John Whitley and the unfortunate buck are all central figures in the formation of what we now know as Buckhead. Like Irby and Whitley, Buckhead’s rural beginnings are long gone, with the exception of the deer that can still be seen running along West Paces Ferry Road. But tangible links to both men still exist. Henry Irby rests under an impressive obelisk at the Sardis Methodist Cemetery on Powers Ferry Road. And the cabin that Whitley built in Vinings in the early 1800s is now located behind a private residence in Buckhead off West Paces Ferry, where it was moved when the construction of Interstate 285 disrupted its serene existence.
On March 1, 2013, the Buckhead Heritage Society and the Buckhead Business Association will celebrate the origins of Buckhead with a 175th Anniversary Celebration at the historic Buckhead Theatre.
Fittingly, Sam Massell and Charlie Loudermilk, two Buckhead icons, will be the honorary co-chairs of the event. More information and tickets can be obtained on the Buckhead Heritage website BuckheadHeritage.com.
Garrett, Franklin, Atlanta & Environs, Vol. I Barnhart, Susan Kessler, Buckhead: A Place for All Time, Hill Street Press 1996 Research Notes of Sharon Matthews, great great great granddaughter of Henry Irby, November 5, 2012.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution Newspaper Articles and Interviews of Karen Whitley. Wilbur Kurtz Manuscript Collection Box 130, Kenan Archives, Atlanta History Center