Cabbagetown: A Mountain Village in the heart of Atlanta
By Niki King
The HillVille spent an afternoon roaming the streets of Atlanta’s Cabbagetown, a historically Appalachian community, talking to old-timers and newcomers alike about the mountain ways that have manifested here. What emerged was the story of a people and a place in transition and a musical tradition that will not die.
It’s midday when Joyce Brookshire settles into Homegrown, a hip, downhome diner near Cabbagetown, a historic Appalachian mill village in the heart of Atlanta, where she grew up.
Brookshire, 70, spoke of how the neighborhood has informed and inspired her lifelong music career over organic eggs, scratch biscuits and coffee.
It was here, among migrants from the North Georgia hills who first came to work at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in the 1880s, that she learned to play mountain music. In songs such as “Dahlonega,” “Cabbagetown Ballad” and “Urban Pioneer,” she reflects on the century of changes that has transformed Cabbagetown from a once tight-knit, working-class Appalachian enclave to an upscale, urbanists’ dream of cozy, artfully restored homes, walkable streets, pocket-sized parks and trendy businesses.
Not that Brookshire is a fan of that change. For her, and a handful of original families who are left, the revitalization over the last few decades has pushed housing prices up, and many of their former neighbors out, leaving them with a sense of homeplace lost.
The newcomers, on the other hand, who invested their time, money and energy into neglected, dilapidated buildings, are proud of bringing the community back from the brink of urban blight that settled in after the mill shuttered in the late 1970s.
These and other feelings mix here, sometimes uneasily, and mostly along class lines.
But with all the transformation, Cabbagetown’s history lingers. Those who are looking can find glimpses of its mountain past in photos, festivals, architecture and stories. But it may be best memorialized in music. It was, after all, once dubbed the cradle of country.
How History Sounded
Jacob Elsas, a German Jewish immigrant, built the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in Atlanta’s east end during a post-Reconstruction boom. He also built a small community of one- and two-story shotgun and cottage houses for the 2,500 workers, who were largely poor, rural whites from North Georgia.
Residents brought with them traditions that flavored life in the village, like hill-country cookin.’ Legend has it the area got its name because so many grew cabbage in their front yards and the odor of them simmering on stove tops wafted through the air.
Pickin’ and fiddlin’ were heard from front porches, sometimes led by famed Fiddlin’ John Carson. Carson is accredited as being the first old-time country musician to have played on the radio. Atlanta’s WSB was the South’s first radio station ad launched country stars until the 1950s, when city leaders led a successful bid to focus on higher arts and orchestra music, leaving Atlanta’s rival, Nashville, to claim itself the capital of country music.
Brookshire’s mother, Lila Mae Brookshire, worked at the mill for 45 years and raised her children in two rooms of a four-room house. Brookshire remembers her coming home from long shifts covered in cotton fuzz.
One of Brookshire’s neighbors was a first in Cabbagetown to get a record player and when she played country legends like Kitty Wells and Webb Pierce, Brookshire would run to the porch and yell, ‘turn it up, Grace!’
“Someone once said I came out of the womb a-singin,’” Brookshire said. “I just love country music.”
In the 1970s, Brookshire went to work at The Patch, a drop-in center for Cabbagetown kids in crisis. The director, Esther Lefever, a folk singer and social justice activist, encouraged her to play.
“If it wasn’t for her I probably would never have made it out of Cabbagetown,” she said. “She made me get out in front of people. She loved my music.”
She toured with folk musician and civil rights activist Guy Carawan and was in a band with Phyllis Boyens, who played the role of Loretta Lynn’s mother in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter. While they were filming, Brookshire got to know the recently deceased Levon Helm.
“It was just amazing, this little girl from Cabbagetown, who never thought she’d get out of there, was singin’ with Levon Helm,” she said.
She since has come home and plays as frequently as her health permits with close friends, folk singers and keepers of mountain music, like Barbara Kanter, 62, a fiddler who grew up in nearby East Atlanta, also from mountain migrants.
“It’s like ‘ahhhhhh,’” Kanter said, sighing pleasantly, of the connection, sense of kinship and cultural ties that bind the two women.
Kanter said her grandfather moved to Atlanta from Copperhill, Tn., swearing no son of his would work the mines there like he had.
When Kanter was 8 years old, he gave her his fiddle.
“He said, ‘this is my favorite thing and I want you to have it. Before we had lights, we had corn shuckin’ and barn raisings and square dances and I played fiddle.’”
Kanter, surprised to hear of it, asked him to play for her.
“He did, and his voice sounded just like a fiddle and I just laughed in delight. If he told me he could fly I wouldn’t have been more surprised,” she said.
Apparently, he had stopped playing when he moved to Atlanta, she said, in an effort to assimilate.
“He said, ‘they’ve made fun of my hillbilly ways and now we’re in the big city I’ll play no more.’”
She kept her promise to learn to play and has done so ever since.
Through the years, Cabbagetown has hosted festivals annually featuring bluegrass music to honor its traditions, with the most recent iteration called “Chomp and Stomp,” a chili-cook off, 5-k run and bluegrass festival held in November.
But folks like Kanter and Brookshire who love the old ways best celebrate in their own way. They gather ‘round Fiddlin’ John Carson’s grave each year to turn a tune together and remember what’s passed on.
The neighborhood Brookshire remembers of her youth, where everyone worked and lived together, and the mill kept everything tidy, turned down hard in her adulthood.
After limping along for years, the mill closed for good in 1977, and sold off the homes to families who could afford them. Investors picked up the rest, many becoming absentee landlords.
Decay, drugs and violence crept in.
“I was afraid to come over here,” Kanter said of those years.
“We liked it that way,” quipped Brookshire, half-joking.
Lynne Splinter, a Realtor and longtime Cabbagetown resident, first took notice of the area in the early 8o’s. There was something about it even then that drew you in, she said. It was physically intact, had a history and an aesthetic about it.
“I thought, one day this little village is going to be something to contend with,” she said.
Young and artistic people began funneling in during the 1990s, riding the national new urbanism wave that revived Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods. In 1996, the mill was renovated into residential lofts.
A tight sense of community formed as the newcomers organized to build parks and host social events like the Cabbagetown crawl, Splinter said.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Cabbagetown. It’s very European,” said Lynda Cox, an associate of Splinter’s, speaking of the small homes, narrow streets and neighborhood stores. “It’s almost like a little foreign country sitting in the middle of the city.”
As housing prices ballooned, more of the original families sold out, some of them for much less money than they could’ve gotten. Cox said she bought her first home in Cabbagetown in 1997 for $68,000. Two years later, she couldn’t have found one in the same condition for under $100,000, she said. This fall, it was on the market for $275,000.
Splinter said there are now about two homes on each street with original families.
“We’ve always tried to bring them into the loop but it always felt awkward,” Splinter said. “It’s a completely different culture. Try as you might it’s hard to overcome that.”
For Brookshire, it’s an uneasy settling. Driving through the neighborhood, her eyes fall on the mill with scorn.
“People live where my mother shed blood, sweat and tears for nothing: For $40 a week to feed her children on. They even have… What do you call it? … valet parking. I just laugh an angry laugh.”
Kanter gently reminds her that before it was redeveloped, its windows were broken out.
“At least it’s not just demolished,” Kanter said. “There’s always two sides.”
When Brookshire arrives on her old street, she runs into friends she grew up with who are here to visit a cousin. She asks them what they think of the neighborhood’s change.
Vickie Long, who moved 12 years ago to Henry County, said it’s completely different now that the houses are bought up and The Patch has become Agave, a fancy restaurant.
“Just about everyone is gone,” she said, shaking her head.
Teresa Carter, also of Henry County, agreed. “It’s been a very pitiful thing. They talked about us like we were dogs.”
Old Meets New
Leon Little was born next to the grocery store his parents opened in 1929. They sold hamburgers, hot dogs and lime sours to the mill and rail road workers. Rhubarb Jones, a longstanding local radio personality, once called Little’s the best kept secret in Atlanta.
Little said the neighborhood’s changes come with mixed emotions. He and his family no longer live there and no longer run the grocery store. But, the neighborhood does look better than it used to, he said. And he likes the new grocer, Brad Cunard.
Cunard has kept the Little’s brand and still grills small, inexpensive burgers.
And the store is still a happy gathering place for locals.
Little likes that the legacy carries on.
“I just hope they enjoy being here as much as we did,” Little said.
To hear Cunard tell it, that hope has been fulfilled.
“This is most community-oriented neighborhood,” he said. “There’s just so much personality.”