By Carol Carter
Would I rather have lived on a Georgia farm circa 1850 or in a grand old mansion built in 1928? I ponder this as I stroll the grounds of the Atlanta History Center, first touring the Smith Family Farm and its many outbuildings, then visiting the elegant Swan House and Gardens, just a short walk away from the farm.
Both have their charms. As difficult as life must have been in the 19th century, I imagine visiting, perhaps, my dad as he forged some necessary tool in the blacksmith shop or accompanying, maybe, a sibling on a trip to the chicken coop to retrieve fresh eggs for breakfast.
Inside the 16,600-square-foot Swan House, it occurs to me that my blue collar roots run deep because the room I most love and want to spend time in is the kitchen. I am more interested in the fascinating (to me) table specially designed for rolling out dough than I am with the custom-made china that was designed by Tiffany for the proprietress of the home.
If it’s been awhile since you visited the Atlanta History Center, this summer might be the perfect time to go. On the day I am here, the temperature reaches 90, but I am quite comfortable at both the farm and the Swan House.
With the exception of the blacksmith shop, all the buildings at the Smith Family Farm are authentic and were moved from elsewhere in Georgia to the Atlanta History Center. The main dwelling – the Robert H. Smith House – was built about 1845 on North Druid Hills Road and moved to the Atlanta History Center in 1969.
It is a simple house, utilitarian in nature: One room is occupied by a huge loom. Not only did the men have to make any tool they needed, the women had to make fabrics and clothes. There wasn’t a Home Depot or Wal-Mart anywhere to be found.
The most poignant display – reproductions of letters from Civil War soldiers – appears on the secretary in the back room. To wit: “Ah! This sad, this wicked war! How many hearts has it broken, how much suffering has it inflicted on our once happy land?” The date is 1862; the return address is Camp Georgia Legion, near Richmond.
It’s easy to imagine that this is just the sort of farm many soldiers left as they marched off to war.
Inside a cabin on the grounds are mini-histories of slavery, plantations and farming in Georgia. The cabin dates to 1850 and Campbell County (now Fulton County). The dairy, moved in 1978 from Hancock County, dates to 1830. And the kitchen, moved from DeKalb County, dates to 1845.
I walk across a bridge over a creek to get to the stunning Swan House. Inside I chat with two of the characters who help put the house in context. Upstairs, the architect, Philip Trammell Shutze, says hello. He tells me that he did all the work on the design of the house by himself, with input from Mr. and Mrs. Edward Inman, the owners. In other words, he didn’t do just the big-picture work then delegate the nitty-gritty. He was very hands-on.
Among the more spectacular spaces are the morning room (gee, I don’t have one of those in my house) and the enormous dining room. It’s no surprise that the interior design is quite traditional.
And, ah, now to that fabulous kitchen. First, there’s a huge butler’s pantry just outside the kitchen. This is where the servants prepared the plates before taking them out to the dining room. The Kelvinator refrigerator, dated 1932, was the first to have a freezer. The Kelvinator consists of two large refrigerator sections divided by a narrow freezer. The Magic Chef stove has three (3!) ovens and six burners. (Now THAT would simplify Thanksgiving dinner.)
And the very large sink is plated in silver. I kid you not. The reason, the butler tells me, is because silver is soft so that if a porcelain dish was dropped in the sink it would not have broken
Ever true to his circa 1930s character, when the butler shows me the method that a family member, say Mrs. Inman, would have used to call for a servant, I comment, “Oh, just like in ‘Downton Abbey.' ”
“What is Downton Abbey?” he wants to know.
“You’ll have to wait awhile,” I tell him.
Of course, the Smith Family Farm and the Swan House are but two of the reasons to visit the Atlanta History Center. You can browse to your curious mind’s content through permanent exhibits: “Turning Point: The American Civil War” and “Centennial Olympic Games Museum,” to name but two.
Traveling exhibits include “Native Lands: Indians and Georgia” and “Success & Segregation: Black Leadership Under Jim Crow.”
Two lectures coming up in August are, first, author Earl Hess discussing his book “Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston and the Atlanta Campaign;” and author James McBride discussing his book “The Good Lord Bird.”
Carol Carter, who writes for Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, once felt as if she lived at the Atlanta History Center while she researched a business history of Atlanta. Later, while working with a team to produce videos for classroom use, she used the diary (which resides at the Atlanta History Center) of a young girl who lived in Atlanta during the Civil War to juxtapose the experience of the Atlanta girl with a teenage refugee living in Atlanta after her family fled the Bosnian War.