It’s more than 300 acres of greenspace, with two multi-acre lakes, a river, lush vegetation, deer, historic ruins and a cemetery that’s at least a decade older that the well-known Oakland Cemetery.
And it’s in southwest DeKalb County.
“It’s beautiful. There are places that are absolutely gorgeous,” said Joe Peery, an illustrator and activist working to protect and enhance the site. “It’s huge. It’s this huge greenspace.
“When I would go walking out there, I would take pictures and post them on Facebook, and people would [say], ‘Where is this place?’” Peery said. “And I’d say, ‘It’s three miles south of east Atlanta and it’s inside I-285.’ And they’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
It’s called the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, and a growing group of activists want to save it.
The site, owned by the city of Atlanta, but not in the city’s boundaries or jurisdiction, was “originally set up back in the beginning of the last century…as one of the four or five federal prison farms,” said Scott Petersen, a longtime community activist.
According to AtlantaPrisonFarm.com, a website set up as an information hub for the movement to save the site, the 700-bed minimum security “honor” prison opened in 1920. The prison farm allowed handpicked, trustworthy inmates to tend crops and livestock to feed themselves and fellow inmates at the main prison.”
“Before the corrective facility was closed in 1983, inmates had built a sawmill, quarry, barracks, dairy barns, retaining walls, wells and other structures still (barely) standing today,” the website states.
It was “set up originally as an experiment in rehabilitation of a lot of low-level offenders for federal crimes like being off the reservation at dusk, or being a drunk Indian in town,” Petersen said.
“It didn’t really work that well,” he said. “By the [1920s], they tried to put bootleggers in there, because there were so many people making illegal stills and selling whiskey, but those people were too good at wandering off the farm, so to speak.”
Before it was closed in 1983, the institution extended all the way to Panthersville Road to the east and totaled 1,248 acres.
The remaining 40 percent of the acreage extends from its “highlands parts off of Key Road down to the Entrenchment Creek flood plains in Entrenchment Creek Valley,” Petersen said.
Dozens of large, carved marble stones of the old Carnegie Library in Atlanta are strewn unceremoniously around the property. Reminiscent of ancient ruins, some marble sections are inscribed with the names of famous writers such as Poe and Virgil.
Some of the historic library remnants are being used by the city of Atlanta as barricades to keep out the vehicles of trespassers.
Illegal dumping of trash is a problem at the site, which contains large piles of used tires, broken concrete and construction debris. Additionally, some of the old building remnants on the site—an old boiler, for example—appear to contain asbestos.
“You will see piles of garbage; you will see them all over the place,” Peterson said. “And buildings that are so highly dilapidated that…if we walked in there, it could fall down and hurt somebody.
“If Clorox or GE or Ford owned these buildings, you know we would have had them long cleaned up,” Peterson said. “Why does the city of Atlanta get a pass on being a slum landlord? Why does the city of Atlanta essentially put the dump—the hot mess—in DeKalb County when we could have such a beautiful multi-acre ecopark.”
Peterson dreams of a park with soccer and cricket fields, open green areas, community gardens, hiking and biking trails, an amphitheater, and the like.
The activists said saving the old prison farm could lead to revitalization of the southwest DeKalb area similar to what’s been happening around the Atlanta Beltline project, a redevelopment project that is providing a network of public parks, trails and transit along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown.
“There is tremendous potential…to rehabilitate an area that’s known for landfills, to rehabilitate an area that has sort of been the low end of DeKalb County—the ghetto end of DeKalb County—and turn this into a wonderful, vibrant neighborhood,” Peterson said.
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