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Community Historian

Atlanta

When it was warm, the mosquitoes swarmed over it, and their high-pitched ring stung no human ears. It just echoed through steaming, water-heavy air with owl hoots and june bugs. No human nerves tingled at the sound of ground-level rattles slithering over it.

When it was cold, the vines died back and hung brown and gray from the canopy of trees. The creatures were quiet. The patting of rain would start and grow to a roar and the water flowed off of it in two distinctly different directions.

For untold thousands of years it went unseen by human eyes -- a granite rib in the wilderness, strangled by jungle. Later, people called Cherokee walked over it. The French crossed it, and finally, English was heard on it.

There was no reason for a town to be anywhere near it until coal burned in cast iron, steam breathed through cylinders, and heavy steel wheels rolled down twin tracks. Marietta and Decatur were fully-fledged towns when the steel rails finally connected them to Chattanooga. This granite ridge intersected with other ridge lines and forced the railroad tracks to intersect there, too, and in the middle of nowhere, the Western and Atlantic Railroad's mile marker number zero branded the spot. This intersection between the towns became important to each of the towns and finally became a town itself - first called Terminus and, later, Marthasville after the governor's daughter.

Marrietta Street and Decatur Street head northwest and east to their respective towns from Zero Mile Marker, and Edgewood Avenue and Whitehall Street meet there, too. The once lonely granite rib was affectionately named Peachtree Ridge, and the street atop it held some of the city's finest homes. When rain falls on the west side of Peachtree Street, gravity takes it to the Flint River where it eventually finds the Gulf of Mexico. When rain falls on the east side of Peachtree Street, it splashes into the Savanna River and disappears eastward into the city's namesake. Marthasville was too long a name for the railroad schedules, and the city took on a feminized version of the great ocean where the Savanna River disappears.

Atlanta, Georgia assumed its name in 1845, and it became official two years later. When the natives talk about the Center of the City, they're talking about Five Points where the railroad's Zero Mile Marker brought the five wagon roads together. This intersection was essential for the Conferderacy to protect and essential for the Union to destroy. The burning of Atlanta was a tragedy for both sides -- a gross but necessary, war-ending maneuver, the Hiroshima bomb of the Civil War's century.

Five Points bustled into the Guilded Age as a meeting place for business, politics, and friendship. The neighborhood had everything the Atlanta citizen needed, including a pharmacy called Jacobs where a suffering customer complained of a headache in 1887. The pharmacist recommended a dose of a pleasant nerve tonic invented by another Five Points local -- Dr. Pemberton. The tonic was a thick syrup, usually thinned with water, but the pharmacist was standing closer to the soda fountain than the water faucet, and he mixed Dr. Pemberton's tonic with soda water. The customer found it delicious and invigorating. Word got around, and by 1890, 9,000 gallons of Coca-Cola had been sold.

In 1869, a young Irishman named Smith began building wagons and carriages in Five Points -- carriages of the highest quality and engineering. As the decades passed, he never completely accepted that the ancient, permanent-seeming, carriage-building arts would ever go out of style, but they did, with blinding suddenness as the automobile took over. His descendants embraced the automobile, and the Smith family name would be connected to the Atlanta's automobile trade for nearly 100 years to come.

There was a down side to automobiles, as summed up by the proprietor of a former Five Points institution. Thomas Pitts' cigar store and soda fountain was a friendly meeting place for Atlanta socializing, and the words "Meet me at Pitts" initiated many social gatherings. Mr. Pitts closed his famous store in 1926. In his book "Atlanta and Its Environs," prominent Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett quoted Thomas Pitts lamenting that Five Points had ". . .become a thoroughfare instead of a center. . . Hundreds used to stop; now thousands pass. . . Now, instead of having one community center, Atlanta has many. . . In the old days, people used to go 'to town' in the evening, Now, they take their cars and ride away from town, and at night, Five Points is almost deserted. People used to stroll down on Sunday morning to buy the paper and a cigar, and perhaps get a drink before going to church, but they don't do that anymore."

The automobile also brought prosperity to Atlanta in other ways and self-determined transportation to its citizens. In the 1930s, William Holler was the dynamic force behind Chevrolet sales at the corporate level. Holler was famous in the automotive world for firing up the Chevrolet sales force to "Sell like hell!" Holler made nearly 100 speeches to Chevrolet dealers per year, and very often, he would hold up Coca-Cola as the world's best franchise. Smith Chevrolet was once hosted a meeting at its Five Points location for all the Chevrolet dealers in the Atlanta area where Holler gave his usual enthusiastic performance and forceful advice. As he held up his examples, did Holler know he was standing in the place where the "world's best franchise" had been invented?