Above: Historian John Beach in the study of his Buckhead home. Photo by Joe Earle.
John Beach clicked a few keys and one of several computer screens on the desk in the library of his Paces Ferry home displayed a map covered with scribbled words highlighted in magenta.
The scrawl covered the screen like graffiti on a city wall. The brightly colored words marked locations where nearly two centuries ago surveyors had spotted significant trees when laying out land lots in Buckhead. Beach’s computer laid the locations of the trees over a modern map of the area.
As the 64-year-old Beach sees it, this combination of old and new maps can be the start of something. He’s president of the Buckhead Heritage Society. When the mapping is done and published, local students, members of garden clubs or other neighborhood volunteers can use the resulting new map to track down any of the “land lot” trees that have survived the decades of development and bad weather since that original map was drawn.
Why go to all this trouble for a few trees?
“These trees are part of the history of Buckhead,” Beach said. Besides, they have something to say about the Buckhead environment, and about what was there before.
Part of the appeal of studying history, after all, is making connections between the present and the past. It lets us see just how we got from there to here. Beach thinks history as something that helps create a sense of place. “It makes me feel more connected to an area to understand what’s happened in the past,” he said.
Beach is about as connected to Buckhead as anyone can get. His family has been in Atlanta for generations and his resume sketches a portrait of an old-fashioned Buckhead Boy: he grew up near the Bobby Jones Golf Course; went to both Lovett and Westminster; and lives in a house he says once was owned by noted Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett. Beach’s computer-screen-topped desk sits in a study that once was Garrett’s, the writer known for producing a definitive, multi-volume study of Atlanta’s history.
Beach even owns the web address BuckheadBoys.com, although he said it now only whisks visitors to the website for his construction company, Paces Construction, which started in 2002 (he was in computers before that) and specializes in renovating older homes.
Beach said he’s interested in combining his lifelong interest in history with his background in using computers. “I’s hard to explain,” he said. “I like the [intersection] of old and new,” he said. “I like using technology to track and visualize history… What personally excites me is finding new ways to use historical scholarship to make better decisions moving forward. In my mind, coming from a computer background, it’s about collecting the information and making it actionable.”
Looking for patterns
Things may change, he said, but there’s often a pattern beneath the changes. “Think about Buckhead right now,” he said. “198 years ago, this was the Creek nation. The United States signed a treaty with the Creek nation transferring this land to the U.S. government and then to Georgia.”
Soon the Creeks were moved out and new settlers moved in. Over the generations since, he said, Buckhead has repeated the pattern: new people move in and displace residents who had been there before. “That’s a continuous process that has happened,” he said. The trick is to recognize it and learn from it, to figure out how to mix old and new and keep both side by side.
“Buckhead means something different to different people,” he said. “It wasn’t all built at the same time … so we get a broad array of house styles, which makes it interesting to me in trying to figure out how to preserve it, or parts of it. We do not want to see Buckhead becoming Anywhere USA, with a lot of 8,000-square-foot mansions.”
That may mean keeping tabs on old things, such as the oldest trees in the forest. They’ve survived a lot, after all. Once found, they may be able to help new residents figure out what to hold on to.