Local Author Uncovers The History Of Buckhead

Author Susan Kessler Barnard

Sure, you may have heard the popular “Buck’s Head” origin story from Henry Irby’s tavern back in 1840, but have you ever read about the Native Americans who called this area home before colonization? And how much do you really know about the more than century of history since the community’s inception? Buckhead residents have raised their families here, built businesses, endured wars and the Depression, embraced technological advances, and cultivated a tremendous sense of community. One Buckhead resident, Susan Kessler Barnard, was intrigued by the history lurking just beneath the surface of this place she calls home, and she decided it was time to bring those stories to life.  

Our office copy of Buckhead : A Place For All Time has been heavily earmarked for later reference

In 2006 Barnard published a book called Buckhead : A Place For All Time. The book is a testament to the community and is the most comprehensive account of Buckhead’s long history, featuring stories from around 125 residents who call Buckhead home. Many of the families quoted within have been a part of the community for generation after generation, and their first-hand accounts provide a unique perspective into the history of Buckhead. “That’s really what the book was about – family histories,” said Barnard.

It took hundreds of hours of research, interviewing, and writing over the course of 3 or 4 years to bring this book to life, a compilation that included a number of historical photographs pulled from the archives at the Atlanta History Center. “I knew I wasn’t going to get rich on it, it was something I wanted to do,” explained Barnard. “I guess I really like researching and editing, those are my two favorite things. I like digging around.” It’s incredibly fortunate for us that the inspiration struck Barnard to pursue this publication, as many of the stories within would have otherwise been lost to history, and since its completion some of those quoted have since passed away.

As told by Barnard, Buckhead began like many other small towns. First a few families set up homes there, bringing with them industry, mills, businesses, trading, and the beginnings of an economy. “I always said that I was really dealing in the early times with about five families,” she explained, many of them continuing their legacy through the naming of streets and communities such as the Howells and Colliers. As the years passed these established families intermingled and prospered as the population of Buckhead continued to grow with an influx of transplants from Atlanta and beyond. In her research, Barnard was able to meet a member of the Irby family after coming across a picture, and was able to trace back the origins of Buckhead through the use of family histories and mementos.

While conducting numerous interviews and spending many hours searching the “unimaginable amount of information” in the archives at the Atlanta History Center, Barnard boldly began contacting families and requesting information. Only one person said no. “I wasn’t in a rush, I wanted to get it right,” she said. “That was what was important.”

Author Susan Kessler Barnard autographs a copy of her book

The book covers all of Buckhead’s history, beginning in pre-colonial days when the area was inhabited by Native American tribes, then through the early pioneer days, the civil war and its aftermath, the beginnings of Buckhead suburbs, WWII, all the way to the 1950s. Barnard’s in-depth research unveiled numerous family stories and histories passed down verbally by members of the original founding families and is an invaluable resource.

Found within its pages are stories that chronicle Buckhead’s evolution from a quaint wooded village to a bustling metropolitan center. Did you know that Buckhead was once home to a number of potters who gathered the clay from along riverbanks to make their wares? Perhaps you’ve imagined what your neighborhood used to look like when the streets were full of horses and carriages, or what Buckhead Village used to look like when it was populated by independent pharmacies and jot-em-down stores. Even those with a modicum of interest in the history of our community will find themselves enthralled by the stories gathered by Barnard.

A Labor Of Love

Barnard says she never really intended to turn a profit with the publication, but instead just to gain a deeper understanding of Buckhead’s history. “I think I’ve just done what was the right thing to do at the time, what was fun,” Barnard explained. “I loved Buckhead and I knew that was a story that I wanted to write, and the more I got into it I realized why I liked it. It really amazes me when people don’t pay attention to where they are.”

During the course of compiling the resources for the book as well as her contribution to the Images of America Series with her Buckhead photo book, many times Barnard found herself in odd or unusual situations. At times her work led her to carefully removing old photos from picture frames and darting out to scan them before returning them to the anxiously waiting owners, or even crawling around in bushes to get images of homes and schools.

“There were stories I wanted to tell that I didn’t have any pictures for,” she continued. “I went under bushes, around trees, I was afraid someone in the house would see me crawling around in the garden trying to get a picture. I was certain I was going to get arrested, but I didn’t. It was fun, added a little spice to what I was doing,” Barnard laughed, her eyes twinkling mischievously.

Barnard’s book, Buckhead : A Place for All Time, is arguably the best compilation of personal accounts regarding Buckhead’s history, but it is not her only foray into publishing. Inspired by her experience raising one of her three sons who has developmental disabilities, in 2017 Barnard published a book called Dreams Die Hard: Family Histories of Adults with Developmental Disabilities as Told by Families and Caregivers. This book, similar to her Buckhead research, relies heavily on personal accounts of those closest to individuals who love and care for developmentally-challenged adults.

Given the excellent writing, thoughtful research, and impassioned drive exhibited by Barnard, it may surprise you to know that she actually struggled quite a bit with reading and writing when she was in school. She was an adult before she heard a commercial about adults with dyslexia and realized that she did, in fact, suffer from the same condition. Barnard did not let this affliction dissuade her, and she went on to work as a surgical assistant for 25 years, later worked in the research department at the Atlanta History Center, and eventually discovered a passion for historical writing, all of which led to the publication of Buckhead : A Place for All Time.

If you’ve ever wondered how our community has grown from the humblest beginnings to the busting, burgeoning metropolitan hub that it is today, it’s well worth picking up a copy of Buckhead : A Place for All Time. Inside, you’ll learn about the origins of industries, the reasons for naming our streets, get a unique insight into what life was like in days gone by, and perhaps even make some connections of your own to the history of this place we call home.

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