Editor’s note: The author, Adam C. Johnson, is the Midtown Neighbors’ Association’s History Committee Chairman. He previously chronicled how a civic sore spot decried as the “Pit of Peachtree” became a popular green space on a prominent Midtown corner.
Along the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail stand two grand magnolia trees that have witnessed the rise and transformation of the Midtown, Virginia-Highland, and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods.
They’re among the oldest landmarks in the area, and a single marker once testified to the significance of the ground beneath them.
But as a Curbed Atlanta article noted six years ago, the marker went missing around 2014, and its whereabout have remained a mystery—until a recent rediscovery.
Ponce de Leon Springs
In the late 1860s, a work crew discovered springs while laying railroad track a few miles from what is now downtown Atlanta. The physician Henry L. Wilson later claimed the waters had medicinal purposes and named the area Ponce de Leon Springs after the Spanish explorer who searched for the fabled Fountain of Youth.
The name stuck, and today both Ponce de Leon Avenue and Ponce City Market share its moniker.
Around 1890, the land next to the springs was converted into a four-acre lake, where Atlanta socialites basked in the sun and drank the mineral water that filled it. And as Atlantans reconstructed and rebuilt from the aftermath of the Civil War, a love of baseball swept through the city.
Baseball fans enjoyed several teams in the early days to include the Atlantas, Firecrackers, Windjammers, and the beloved Crackers and Black Crackers.
Old Poncey’s rise
In 1907, Ponce de Leon Ballpark rose where the present-day Midtown Place Shopping Center stands. Dubbed “Old Poncey,” the stadium fielded the Crackers and Black Crackers until the Braves came to town, and Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, and Norman Lumpkin were among the greats who played there.
Although R.J. Spiller bought the team and attempted to rename the stadium “Spiller Field,” which didn’t catch on, he did rebuild the stadium in 1923. A magnolia tree that stood in the fence-less centerfield—a deep 462 feet from home plate—was the stadium’s most unique feature.
If a baseball hit the magnolia tree and bounced back into the field, then the ball was in play because, per the rules, it had to pass through or remain in the tree to be a home run. To this day, the Spiller Magnolia Tree is the only tree in baseball that has been in play, and Ruth and Eddie Matthews are the only confirmed players to have hit home runs into it.
The Coca-Cola Company owned the Crackers in the mid-1930s until Earl Mann bought the team in 1947. Two years later, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers played in a three-game expo against the Crackers, which was the first integrated professional sporting event in Atlanta.
A few years later, Bob Montag hit the longest home run in history, smacking the baseball out of Old Poncey and into a train tender that shipped the ball to Nashville. Poncey and the Crackers became the talk of the town in the 1950s, especially after the team won the 1954 Southern Association pennant.
From baseball field to shopping center
Mann sold what remained of the team and the stadium in 1965, and Old Poncey was demolished to make way for a shopping mecca.
The Great Mall of China (circa 1987) and the Midtown Shopping Place (c. 1999) are among the shopping centers that have filled the lot. With the arrival of the Atlanta Braves in 1966, and new shopping venues in the area, memories of the Crackers faded.
Estimated at 125 years old, the Spiller Magnolia Tree (actually a pair of trees) still overlooks the shopping center on a kudzu-covered bank that parallels the Beltline’s Eastside Trail. It’s a living reminder of the bygone teams and ballpark.
When former owner Mann passed away in 1990, his son Orean and widow Myra scattered his ashes at the base of the southernmost tree to honor “Mr. Atlanta Baseball.” So the trees anchor into hallowed ground.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cracker’s 1954 Southern Association championship, the Native Atlantans Club Inc. and Whole Foods Market, a nearby tenant, further consecrated the ground by placing a marker at the base of the Spiller Tree to commemorate the Atlanta Crackers, Atlanta Black Crackers, and the ballpark in which both teams played.
That same year the Atlanta Braves also dedicated a magnolia tree in the Turner Field Monument Grove as a tribute to the team.
A decade later, Trees Atlanta harvested cuttings from both trees to use for future plantings along the Beltline, preserving their legacy.
Since then, Trees Atlanta now has hundreds of “Cracker Stadium-variety” seedlings and has planted some along the Beltline and is growing others at the Bold Springs Nursery.
Missing marker, found
After the 2013 tree harvest, a public-private partnership funded a retaining wall near the magnolias to prevent soil erosion.
During construction, a contractor knocked over the historic marker, and Trees Atlanta took possession of the metallic plaque for safekeeping—and they still retain it today, as Greg Levine, Trees Atlanta co-executive director and chief program officer, relayed in January.
Thus, the mystery of the missing magnolias marker is solved.
Plans for protecting the trees during construction of the first leg of eventual Beltline transit are under discussion and may be the subject of community meetings.
Trees Atlanta, the Atlanta Beltline Inc., and the Midtown Neighbors’ Association have all expressed strong interest in preserving the Champion Trees that are now part of the Magnolia Collection in the Beltline Arboretum.
Beltline history-seekers, meanwhile, can find an interim marker near the magnolias that encourages them to look out from the trail and back into history, when gleeful fans gathered at the ballpark, cheered for their championship teams, and united for love of the game.
Adam C. Johnson is writing about various aspects of Midtown’s metamorphosis as a historical Atlanta neighborhood in a series of articles. You can find him strolling through Piedmont Park or on Twitter @adamcharlesj.