Athens, Ga. Family Land Offers Sanctuary for Childhood Dreams and Boundless Exploration
In 1910, Charles and Effie Rowland bought 400 acres of untouched land in Athens, Ga. for less than $2,000. A burbling creek meandered through the property into the Oconee River, and a verdant meadow stretched across its lower quadrant.
They named the tract “Beech Haven” in honor of its dense population of beech trees, and made plans to build a large summerhouse on a hill overlooking the creek. Effie chose a location that would allow cool breezes to blow through, and drew up the architectural plans to include high ceilings and expansive porches. It was, after all, a summerhouse.
I never knew the Rowlands, but owe my existence to them. They were my maternal great-great-grandparents, and five generations of their descendants have enjoyed the land they nurtured and protected.
Beech Haven Summerhouse (1993)
A Return to My Roots
I was born in Lincolnton, Ga., in 1972, and my parents divorced in 1974. I don’t recall the initial separation from my father, but am told I missed him terribly. He moved to Columbia, S.C. My mother, sister and I moved to St. Albans, W.Va., to live with my grandparents, until my grandfather retired in 1977, when we all returned to Georgia.
We settled into Brookside, a former counseling center-turned-home my great-grandfather operated on Beech Haven’s property. My mother eventually rented an apartment, but I spent enough time at Brookside throughout my childhood years to call it home.
I retained bits of Beech Haven’s history orated over the years by my great-grandparents, who lived just up the hill. My great-grandmother explained that her father’s discovery of large, flat boulders resting along the creek bottom inspired him to construct stone benches, tables, lantern holders, an outdoor stove and a camelback bridge on the property. He modeled the bridge after one he saw in Japan during a visit there with my great-grandmother. At the age of 16, she had been diagnosed with a terminal “weak heart,” so my great-great-grandfather wanted to show her the world before she died. She lived to be 101.
“Great Gram” loved to tell the story of how a family servant discovered a heart-shaped quartz crystal in the creek. He gave it to her father, who used it as the centerpiece for a magnificent stone fireplace he built inside the summerhouse. Perhaps, to him, it symbolized his daughter’s mended heart. Years later, the Athens Banner Herald published a photo of the fireplace accompanying a story about Beech Haven.
Barefoot and Carefree
The years unfolded and my uncles built homes on the land. As a child, I darted from one house to the next, feeding my great-grandparents’ goldfish, picking flowers for my mother or running errands for my grandmother. The freedom to explore Beech Haven’s endless woodlands provided refuge from school, and healing from the pain of missing my father after our annual summer visit with him ended. It was good therapy.
The children of Beech Haven didn’t need toys. We had dams to build and trees to climb. I scaled the towering magnolia tree next to the goldfish pond at least once a week—all the way to the top.
By the time I was 8 years old, my calloused feet might have passed for a hobbit’s, thanks to frequent barefoot explorations across the grounds. My sister and I knew exactly which trees to grab onto as we raced down the path from our grandparents’ house to the creek and waded toward our favorite sections: the Cinderella Steps, the Foot Washer and the Water Slide. We made frog houses in the sandbars, used a strainer to catch minnows, and explored the dried-up pond in which my mother once saved her younger sister from a water moccasin.
My cousins, sister and I spent many summer nights camped out on the summerhouse’s sleeping porch. The crickets and cicadas lulled our creek-worn bodies to rest, and we awoke to the scent of bacon and coffee, rejuvenated for another day of swimming and exploring.
Each year we anticipated Beech Haven’s seasonal delights: blackberries in June, figs in September, and a full range of vegetables from my great-grandparents’ garden each summer and fall. Gardenias perfumed the courtyard in front of my great-grandparents’ house in August. Inside, my great-grandmother lined her pantry with jars of jams and sweet pickles she canned herself.
The family added one modern addition to the property in the 1970s—a paved road. I learned how to ride a bike on that road when I was 6, and when I was 9, an especially deep groove in the pavement’s weathered surface confronted my roller skate wheels. I have a scar on my right knee to remind me.
The Cycle Completes
Beech Haven once blended into its surroundings. Today, half the property remains undeveloped. After the Atlanta Highway divided Beech Haven, urban sprawl set in. Clusters of restaurants, hotels and car lots now flank the pristine woods. Commercial developers are eager to get their hands on the acreage, which commands an imposing real estate price—and tax rate.
I pray our family never sells Beech Haven. After the boundless childhood I experienced, I feel cramped living on a one-third-acre lot and long for a place where my children can roam freely, like I did. Beech Haven remains the foundation upon which my appreciation for family heritage, homegrown food and environmental preservation developed. So much of it still flows through my veins. I hear it when the cicadas sing. I smell it when the magnolias bloom. I taste it when I bite into a fig or sweet pickle. I feel it when I wade through a cool creek.
My great-grandparents and grandfather have passed away. My grandmother still owns her share of the property, but recently moved into an independent living facility. My uncles remain at Beech Haven and are good stewards of the land.
Over the years I’ve returned for family dinners, weddings, baby showers and reunions. The moment I turn off the Atlanta Highway into Beech Haven’s calming tunnel of trees, a sense of peace and childhood delight washes over me, as though I’ve gone back in time. Many nights, its beauty resurfaces in my dreams, as my subconscious longs for the sanctuary I called home during the period of uncertainty that followed my parents’ divorce.
Before Charles and Effie Rowland died, they parceled Beech Haven out to their five children. My grandmother inherited most of my great-grandmother’s share, but recently deeded the meadow to the City of Athens for use as part of a greenway. She has no control over what will happen to Beech Haven’s remaining parcels.
I often wonder what will become of the land as we descendents branch further away. Still cloaked in early 20th Century beech trees, mosses, jonquil patches and magnolia groves, it would be a shame for future generations of Rowland descendents to miss out on experiencing these timeless treasures.
Today, my feet are soft and sheltered from the elements, but my mind still races down the path toward the creek as though it was yesterday. I see the curved beech tree and hook my small fingers around it, then leap forward and land with a splash into the cool water. Every detail, from the angle of the rocks I used to hop across, to the glint of mica floating downstream, remains vivid in my memory.
Two years ago, I took my children down to the creek. I watched my daughter twist through the branches on the same path I once tread, and felt as though a cycle had completed. She stopped to take off her shoes, then leapt across the sandy banks and landed with a splash—into the cool, fresh memory of my childhood. I can only hope her daughter will someday experience this same joy.
The cycle repeats, as my children enjoy the creek I once played in. (2008)