The Other Buckhead
The Town of Buckhead is open for official business once a week. On Tuesdays, Cheryl Saffold mans the phones at town hall; most calls she fields are about business licenses. One of the first questions Saffold asks, politely, is whether callers are sure they have the right number.
“They can be very insistent,” Saffold told me. So she humors them, asking what kind of business they are opening—restaurants, boutiques, bars, she’s told—and where they will be located. “Nine time out of ten, the address is Peachtree Street,” she said. Over the years, she’s become familiar with the lesser-known streets, too. How would she fare if she drove 65 miles east to Buckhead, the affluent Atlanta neighborhood? “I might could get around pretty good,” she mused.
Navigating the town of Buckhead, which occupies less than a square mile, is somewhat simpler than driving on Peachtree Street, and not only for natives like Saffold. Recently, on the way back from Augusta, I turned off I-20 onto Seven Islands Road, followed a sign for the historic district, and soon reached a cluster of brick commercial buildings fronting the railroad. The buildings were empty and an old gas pump out front was rusted solid.
Buckhead was settled in the early 1800s, and, like its counterpart in Atlanta, was named because a proud pioneer displayed a hunting trophy. The town was incorporated in 1908, but its heyday came in the 1930s, when the Georgia Railroad designated it as a layover; trains were not allowed to run on Sundays. An enterprising hotelier and several restaurateurs catered to the travelers and rail crews taking the mandatory Sabbath break. But between the Great Depression and the boll weevil and loosening blue laws, business slowed and has never really recovered since the depot closed in the 1950s.
“It’s only me and the post office now,” said Janet Willis, who runs Buckhead Grocery, which sits catty-corner from the railroad crossing and does brisk business in lottery tickets and bait (Buckhead is on the way to Lake Oconee and surrounded by smaller lakes and ponds). She serves breakfast and lunch daily (the $5.49 cheeseburger platter is popular) and, in addition to basic groceries, stocks everything from contact lens solution and Johnson’s Baby Powder to envelops and Elmer’s Glue. I spotted a stack of chess sets next to a box overflowing with bags of cotton balls.
Willis moved to Buckhead from Covington in the mid 1980s. She and her husband bought the store, but sold it after his cancer diagnosis. After his death, she worked installing cable but missed the store, so took over as manager. “I’m open eight days a week—or that’s what it feels like sometimes,” she said. Willis also gardens, and sells her produce to supplement the store’s canned and packaged goods. I left Buckhead Grocery with a sack of homegrown corn and tomatoes and a tub of Willis’s homemade banana pudding.
“We’re country here. It’s a real sense of community,” said Willis. “We know each other’s names—and the names of all the children.” Saffold, whose roots in Covington are deep (there’s a Saffold Road that parallels Seven Islands Road and runs through the family’s former cotton plantation), said that she can’t imagine settling anywhere else. Her children live in Buckhead, now. “This is home,” she said. The town celebrates its history every April with the Buckhead Days Festival and “The Real Buckhead 5K.” This year’s race set a record, with 124 runners.
On the day I visited, the post office already had closed. I called later to speak with postmaster Kathy Allen. Over the years confusion arose as letters intended for residents and businesses in Atlanta arrived in Buckhead—30625. Back in the 1990s, Sam Massell, who runs the Buckhead Coalition business group, helped smooth out an arrangement that allows mislabeled mail to be forwarded to Atlanta rather than returned to sender.
“We don’t get too much of that now,” Allen said of the mid-directed mail. “If they write Buckhead, instead of Atlanta, but they have the right ZIP code, we just send it on through.”
The occasional mid-directed tourist still arrives in Buckhead. One woman stopped in town hall and asked for directions to Lenox Square, recalled Saffold.
“When I tell them they are not in Atlanta, they look at me like I’m crazy,” she said. “But when you get off the interstate and you see cows, it’s quite evident that you are not in Atlanta.”