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The Family Behind the Street Sign- Neely Farm, Part Two

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Neely Farm-the working Dairy Farm-in the Fall. Photo courtesy of Eve Hoffman.

The Neely Farm name provides a glimpse into its rich history. It was the country retreat and dairy farm from the 1930s to the early 1970s in what was then Norcross, where Frank Neely — a Southern-raised Renaissance man, Georgia Tech graduate, mechanical engineer and Rich’s Department store executive — delved into scientific agriculture in his spare time.

Neely purchased the land in the early 1930s from different owners, piecing it together into a 410-acre tract. “We don’t know whether they sold their land in order to feed their families in the Depression, which very well could’ve been the case,” Eve Hoffman speculated.

Eve Hoffman at Mercer University Press holding the first copy of her most recent book, Memory & Complicity.

Hoffman is a local poet and author, the daughter of Neely’s only child, the late Rachel Neely Parker. While Hoffman resides on property adjacent to the subdivision, deeded to her by her grandfather, her two brothers who also own land in the area live elsewhere.

“We know that he was extremely busy downtown. At some point, he thought about trying to find some land about 20 miles out, where he could go on the weekends. But he never did anything part way,” Hoffman said. “What my brothers and I have really come to appreciate in the last 10 years is how forward thinking he was.”

Hoffman has been learning more about her illustrious grandfather through her own research. “He was chairman of the bond commission that created the viaducts downtown. He was chairman of the commission that built the new city hall. He was Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board for the Southeast, where he instituted the notion of the kind of record keeping and statistics that has been picked up around the country. He was into computers when none of us had ever heard of them,” Hoffman said, rattling off some of her grandfather’s accomplishments.

He was talking about running nuclear power from Tech to Piedmont hospital for nuclear medicine, she noted. Georgia Tech even named their nuclear reactor after him; it was shut down in 1988.

“He wrote a book called “The Manager, a Human Engineer,” Hoffman said. “He created the phrase, ‘The customer is always right’ — and [Rich’s] instituted it. The stories are legendary. People would buy a set of dishes, have a dinner party and then bring all the dishes back. Rich’s never questioned it.”

She shared a story that during the Depression, schools in Atlanta didn’t have money to pay teachers. “They gave them scrip. Rich’s said, ‘Bring the scrip here and we’ll cash it. You don’t have to buy anything.’ The goodwill from that lasted well into the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Neely also helped found public radio in Atlanta. He worked on the design of I-285 and was instrumental in bringing Lockheed Martin to Atlanta.

“He was extraordinary in a lot of ways,” Hoffman said. His interest in scientific farming led to the genesis of the Neely farm, which would eventually become the idyllic, suburban neighborhood we enjoy today.

Neely barn and silo from when Neely Farm was a working dairy farm. Courtesy of Judy Sternad.

Memories of grandad

“We called him Mimi,” she remembered. “He taught us our first swear word. He was a passionate GA Tech alum.”

Hoffman recalled once accompanying her grandfather on a Jeep ride to check on Mr. Duncan’s “corn crop” in the Spalding Corners area. Neely picked up some corn whiskey that day — Duncan was reputed to have the best. He would smuggle his supply on the creek that went through his property, came down through Neely Farm, onto the Chattahoochee and got off in Fulton County. The revenuers were never able to catch him.

Farmworker getting hay from the barn on the old Neely Farm.

“I have one flat whiskey bottle. It would probably kill you if you drank it now, but I will not let it go,” she chuckled.

The stuff of legends

Hoffman grew up in the circa-1850 two-story, white clapboard house on the farm that had been spared by General Sherman’s troops during the Civil War. It’s the oldest home in Neely Farm. Scrawled above the door in her old bedroom is the message: “Eve slept here.”

A legend surrounds the reason this home was not burned down by Sherman’s men. “I heard it growing up from different families, so I think there’s a lot of truth to it,” Hoffman recounted. “The men had all gone off to war. Sherman’s men were camped across the river. They would come across, and this was how they fed themselves; they stole chickens and hams.”

Cows in the terraced pastures on The Neely Farm.

Tired of having their food sources stolen, the women fired a buckshot at the Union soldiers. A message was sent by the commanding officer, “Stop shooting my men!” The woman who lived there at the time — her last name was Nesbit — hooked her horse and buggy up, crossed the river at Holcomb Bridge and went to see the commanding officer.

“She went in his tent and visited for a long time. She was seen occasionally visiting again. No more chickens and hams were stolen,” Hoffman said. We both erupted into laughter and chalked it up to Nesbit’s courage, charm and diplomatic abilities.

Welcome to the farm

Neely and his wife, Rae, lived downtown and spent the weekends on the farm. “He would spend a good chunk of the weekend working with the farm people,” Hoffman said. “Every weekend, he covered every inch of this property. He was very scientific about it. He knew where every tree had gone down, where every fence needed to be painted and where every bull was. He knew it all.”

Neely was interested in agriculture as a means of rebuilding the impoverished South. His award-winning farm, a mixture of cultivated fields and open pastures, was one of the last two dairy farms in metro Atlanta.

“When the power went out due to storms, Neely Farm would be the first place in the county that Georgia Power would get back online — we had a 500-gallon tank of milk! Along Frank Neely Road, those trees would go down. They would come through with chainsaws, get that road cleared and those lines back up,” Hoffman said.

Neely aimed to preserve the land and make it better. “He worked with the agriculture people at the University of Georgia who told him to terrace the hills to cut down on runoff and erosion, and to get cattle, because cattle would naturally fertilize the fields,” she explained.

“The Neelys were never hungry, even during the Depression. But my grandmother had no fancy jewelry, no sign of wealth,” she added. “The wealth really went into buying a tractor or building a silo.”

The architect for the big house (now the clubhouse) was Henry Toombs. He designed part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s extra house in New York and the Little White House in Warm Springs. “Eleanor Roosevelt came here at one point to see what Neely was doing in agriculture. I have a page of her diary about coming out here, in a photograph,” Hoffman said.

The magnificent Mrs. Neely

Hoffman remembers that her grandmother, Rae, had magnificent gardens around the big house, and saw the farm as a way for her husband Frank to catch his breath. “She was an extraordinary woman. I always thought of my grandmother as protecting my grandfather. I didn’t realize how many other things she was doing,” Hoffman admitted.

Rae reworked the statistics office for the Superintendent of the Georgia Board of Education and was Secretary of the Georgia Women’s Suffrage movement. “She was president of a gazillion different things: garden clubs, community clubs and the Council of Jewish Women,” Hoffman said.

“I found articles she wrote about Women’s Suffrage, one published in the Atlanta paper. She said that women’s suffrage wasn’t just about women having the vote, it was about improving the lives of families, children, pregnant women and addressing hunger.”

Hoffman’s mother, Rachel, went to Smith College, which was the equivalent of an Ivy League school for women. “I went to Smith; my daughter went to Smith. It started with Rae Neely who read about Smith College in the paper,” Hoffman said.

Selling the farm

“Selling the farm was hard,” she confessed. “Frank Neely was gone by the time we sold the land. My mother ran it for a while; she was a massive stroke patient for 13 years. My brothers were in other cities. We were the only ones here, my husband and I, and our kids.”

Once the decision was made to sell it, Hoffman said there were all kinds of proposals. “When you have different people, their lawyers and accountants — I can tell you my husband [Howard Hoffman] was a genius.”

She continued to live here, so she experienced firsthand the conversion of her beloved family farm from a rural to a suburban setting. “It was hard to see the place go — really hard when the bulldozers started cutting in,” she said.

In her story, “Walking with Frank,” Hoffman suggests she felt her grandfather’s presence on her property. “I do believe there’s some kind of energy out there. I was walking down that hill and he was with me. He was there,” Hoffman affirmed.

To learn more about Eve Hoffman, find her latest book, “Memory & Complicity,” at amazon.com and mercerceruniversitypress.com.

What’s in a Name?

According to Eve Hoffman, the street names proposed by the developer were multi-syllabic, North American Indian names that bore little relationship to this part of the country. Instead, she and her family suggested they choose names that were meaningful to them. That’s why I personally live on Rachel Ridge — the street named after her mother — and not on Hiawassee Drive.

Patrizia hails from Toronto, Canada where she earned an Honors B.A. in French and Italian studies at York University, and a B.Ed. at the University of Toronto. This trilingual former French teacher has called Georgia home since 1998. She and her family have enjoyed living, working and playing in Peachtree Corners since 2013.

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Real Estate Stays Strong in Peachtree Corners

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4894 Fitzpatrick Way, Peachtree Corners Listed for $1,999,000 (Realtor.com)

The real estate market in Peachtree Corners continues to hum along in fifth gear through uncharted territory. While realtors said it’s not the hottest zip code in metro Atlanta, it stacks up quite well.

5368 Broadwood Avenue, Peachtree Corners Listed $879,900 (Zillow)

Despite the COVID pandemic — and quite possibly because of it, in part — sales, figures, prices and time-on-market statistics are amazing even veteran realtors. And what is described as a “100% a sellers’ market” shows no immediate signs of a slowdown.

6210 Neely Meadows Drive, Peachtree Corners Listed $788,800 (Zillow)

Truth in numbers

In assessing the whys and wherefores, it’s good to start by looking at some numbers. A report from Rocket Homes puts the median price of a Gwinnett County home at $290,956 in February of 2021. That’s up 8% from the same month one year before.

Tightening the focus, Meredith Blinder, a realtor with Maria Licata and Associates, pulled figures in the 30092 zip code showing the median home sales price there is up 47% and the average sales price increasing 28% for the first two months of this year, compared to 2020. The days an average home is on the market is down 74%.

Meredith Blinder

Secondly, consider Peachtree Corners itself. “Our strong schools, parks and a variety of restaurants make it a very desirable place to live,” said Blinder. In addition, she and others said, consider its relative proximity to Atlanta while being far enough out to provide more house for the money and good access to transit routes.

The final layer of icing on the cake: the city has no property tax.

That the city is pretty much built out on single-family homes and has only a modest supply of condos also stokes demand, said professionals. Blinder noted that a new development on East Jones Bridge Road will supply hundreds of units of needed inventory.

Housing stays hot

With a scant housing supply, said realtors, bidding wars have broken out locally, driving homes as much as 10% over the asking prices.

Alan Kaplan of Atlanta Fine Homes | Sotheby’s International Realty said sometimes desirable homes can show 40 times in a weekend and generate as many as 20 offers.

Alan Kaplan

Further solidifying demand have been the outgrowths of COVID. At the outset of the pandemic, many potential sellers were deterred from putting their homes on the market fearing strangers traipsing through their living rooms and, in some cases, deciding to stay put and invest instead. Building activity took a couple of months hiatus as well during the overall downtown. Overall transactions fell steeply.

“People are just wanting to have something settled in their lives in the midst of COVID,” is how Kaplan explained it. “To just be at home,” he said, as opposed to listing their home then worrying about what they themselves will find.

Now, said realtors, some residents are finding that with their lives having changed during the pandemic, they need housing with more usable office space or other adjustments.

In the mix as well are in-town residents looking for more elbow room and better value, millennials aging into homeownership as they establish families, and out-of-towners as Atlanta’s growth support seemingly continues unabated.

Then there are the historically low-interest rates, enabling prospective homeowners to stretch their money farther.

House buying strategies

Real estate professionals said with so many factors driving a lopsided market, buyers can have a number of strategies to choose from, bettering their chances in a competitive bidding market.

More and more buyers are showing up fully equipped with cash, no loan process needed.

“The first 15 years in this business, I never saw a cash purchaser,” said Nancy Minor, who along with partner Laurie Rogers helms the Nancy Minor Team. “Now, it would not be uncommon to have two or three cash buyers a month.” They’re more attractive to sellers because it eliminates the uncertainty of a loan application falling through.

But Blinder notes that those who can’t wave a fistful of dollars can employ tried-and-true strategies helping to level the playing field.

3564 Corners Way Peachtree Corners Listed $340,000 (Zillow)

“Part of it is being willing to pay over the appraised value,” she said. “And a lot of the time they are not only getting pre-qualified, but pre-approved for loans, again mitigating uncertainty for the seller.”

“We have to make our terms seem almost like an all-cash offer with a shorter due diligence period and a shorter transaction time,” said realtor Theresa Hunsucker of Engel & Völkers. “It also helps if you go in saying you’re not going to ask for nitpicky things on an inspection report.”

Theresa Hunsucker

Buyer flexibility also counters for something, she said.

For example: Buyer A isn’t willing to wait on moving in while the seller’s youngsters finish school. Buyer B says, no problem. Score one for Buyer B.

And some are even skipping the appraisal and inspection processes.

Advice for sellers

For Peachtree Corners residents listing their homes, some simple attention to the basics can go a long way, even with their sitting in the catbird seat.

Said Minor, “Sellers’ ability to get the most money from their home will still depend on doing staging, although it’s not as important as it was two or three years ago.

Nancy Minor

“And you have to get a buyer to your home in the first place, so you still need professional photos,” she added. And, she said, something as simple as an odiferous home can turn off a prospective purchaser.

That’s where having a solid real estate advisor comes in on both sides of a transaction, said professionals, in helping buyers gain a competitive edge and sellers derive maximum profit.

In a healthy market, the hottest areas in Peachtree Corners right now appear to be Peachtree Station and the Amberfield, Linfield and Riverfield neighborhoods, plus other Jim Cowart developments.

That hasn’t changed much recently, as a 2013 article named the “fields” subdivisions as being a hotbed of activity.

Realtors do say the same high-octane atmosphere does apply citywide, which can be an advantage for homeowners who might have trouble moving their property otherwise, say those with synthetic stucco.

Local real estate experts think the market will stay in good shape for this year — if interest rates or unemployment don’t rise markedly.

“I can’t stress strongly enough for people considering selling their homes to do it now while the demand is high,” remarked Kaplan. He’s suggesting that those looking to make a chance sell now, live in rental housing for a time and take time to study and assess.

Even if a downturn occurs, Kaplan said he’s much more confident that homes in the Corners will maintain value or remain less impacted in the event of a weakening economy.

Putting the current situation into perspective, he said, “It’s incredible sellers’ market, but I wouldn’t call it a good overall market because of the lack of inventory for buyers. People need to find homes and not overpay.”

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A Look Inside the UPCCA: United Peachtree Corners Civic Association

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upcca
The UPCCA team. Photos courtesy of UPCCA.

You may have wondered what it was like to work for the United Peachtree Corners
Civic Association (UPCCA)
. We’ve spoken with Gay Shook and Debbie Mason to find out about how the organization works, what they do and what they’re looking forward to for the future of Peachtree Corners.

Longtime UPCCA member Gay Shook started out in the newspaper business. Her husband Ron worked for the New York Times for more than 30 years and retired as VP of his regional group.

From editor to chairman

When they moved to Peachtree Corners over 35 years ago, he noticed that Gwinnett County did not have its own newspaper. He saw a niche in the market and took a chance, starting the “The Weekly.” He even pulled some strings with contacts at the New York Times, who helped design “The Weekly’s” masthead. He then asked his wife, Gay, to be the editor, and they worked at the newspaper together.

The paper covered from Norcross to Duluth, turning out great news and talented journalists. Politicians even began to pay attention, Gay said. “We wrecked a few careers. Let’s just say, if your moral compass spins, I am going to know about it.”

When her husband fell ill in 1997, they had no choice but to consolidate to an online version. By this point, Gay had her pick of organizations to join, and she chose the UPCCA. She became the Chairman of the Peachtree Corners Improvement Project.

“Peachtree Parkway looks as good as it does now because of us,” she beamed. They should be proud. The parkway is clean and green with manicured roadsides and tree-lined streets. It doesn’t have any of the usual eyesores you would see on a major highway.

“Developers knew that if they wanted anything, they had to go through us,” Gay said. She remembers their reputation preceding them with community leaders.

UPCCA Cleanup

What you may not know is that the UPCCA actually got the help of Tech Park for the major cleanup project. They conducted a study and took aerial shots of the parkway to help calculate how much money it would take for mowing and garbage pickup. In the end, they came up with $1.41 per square foot as a goal for the cleanup project. The organization used that number to estimate how much money they would need to raise every year.

UPCCA decided to go with Piedmont Landscaping Company for the project because the President, Drew Watkins, was willing to go the extra mile. “There was an ugly pit next to the access road behind what is now Chicago Hot Dog,” Gay said. I asked him if there was anything he could do to make it nicer, and he made it happen.”

Securing the sign

But the greatest uphill battle that she remembers from her days in the UPCCA was the talisman to this beautiful city, the Peachtree Corners entrance sign. Originally, it was supposed to be positioned off the exit near what is now the Target shopping center. Gay had bigger plans, but that involved seeking special permission from the Georgia Highway Association.

The commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Russel McMurry — who you may know as the person in charge of fixing the infamous burned overpass in Atlanta — was working as a district engineer at the time when he gave them the go ahead for the sign.

Then it was just a matter of finding a way to secure funds for the sign, and it was Representative Tom Rice who handed Gay the answer. He notified the UPCCA about a special grant that the city could apply for, and the county would match the funds to reach their goal.

The city got the grant, but even with that, the funds for the sign fell short. It was Paul Duke himself who provided his last gift to the City of Peachtree Corners. The UPCCA decided to get creative and change the sign — including the words “Entering Paul Duke Parkway” — and the Duke family made up the difference for the iconic entranceway we see today.

“When you enter, you know you’re in Peachtree Corners, because it looks different than any other suburb of Atlanta,” Gay said, noting that all the group’s efforts were definitely worth it. “It just goes to show, you can make anything happen, all you need is the right person to help.”

The first lady gets involved

Gay said she believes that the community members of Peachtree Corners are what make this city so special. Members like Peachtree Corners developer and innovator Jim Cowart. “I saw him do things for people that nobody knew about. If someone had a baby, they would find a baby basket full of supplies on their doorstep a few days later,” Gay shared. “And I knew so many people like that, who were always doing things for other people silently.”

Other important people in UPCCA’s success story include the first lady of Peachtree Corners, Debbie Mason. Mason joined the UPCCA in 2007. Her husband, Mayor Mike Mason, was one of the founding members of the organization and eventually went on to be the president.

Mayor Mike Mason gives a safety speech.

When Debbie’s oldest son graduated college, Mike asked her to become a member. She took over as chairman of the Peachtree Parkway improvement project from Gay. “I was like Gay 2.0,” Debbie joked, “I treated the project with just as much love as her.”

The city eventually took over the highway improvement project and the UPCCA donated any leftover funds to the city. “I was glad to be rid of it,” Debbie remarked about the more than $25,000 worth of funds they procured over the years. “It definitely was a labor of love.”

UPCCA keeps it all together

So what have the members of the UPCCA been up to since achieving cityhood in 2010? “People always ask: what do we still need the UPCCA for, now that we’re a city?” Debbie said. She explained that, even though they don’t have any real pull in government office, the UPCCA acts as the liaison representing the people of Peachtree Corners to the county. In matters where the city and the county don’t always agree, Debbie knows the UPCCA will always side with the citizens. “We keep the community connected at a time when people are as disconnected as they’ve ever been,” she said.

And connected we are. The UPCCA now coordinates tons of city-wide meetings which are open to anyone. “We maintain a level of transparency with the city,” Debbie said. Those meetings include their annual C.O.P.S. meeting, which allows residents to keep an open line of communication with the Gwinnett Police Department and stay informed about what is going on in their community. It always has a huge turnout.

There is also the “Great American Cleanup” where Peachtree Corners compete for the award in “most pounds of trash picked up.” Not to mention the annual $1,000 scholarship the association gives to two resident students of the community. Despite the pandemic, Debbie is still planning the Peachtree Corners Festival, but it will likely be moved to later in the year than June.

This year, the UPCCA will also be bringing back the “Star Award Program” to recognize the unsung heroes of Peachtree Corners. Speaking of unsung heroes, Debbie was recently diagnosed with uterine cancer; even though she recognizes that it could be potentially problematic, she still plans on being involved in the UPCCA as much as possible.

“This will be the biggest challenge I have ever had to overcome. But I just have to try and listen to my body, and say no when I don’t have the energy,” Debbie said.

From the pandemic to the tumultuous election, Gay and Debbie are looking forward to seeing how the events of the last year will affect the future of Peachtree Corners. But one thing will always stay the same — UPCCA’s dedication to serving its community.

To stay up to date on all the UPCCA events or nominate your hero, visit UPCCA.gov and subscribe to their newsletter.

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Rich’s Christmas Tree Lighting- Neely Farm History

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Book by Celestine Sibley, a renowned southern author, journalist, and syndicated columnist, who reported for the Atlanta Constitution from 1941 to 1999.

Rich’s had one store downtown. When it took over a second building across the street, it was Rich’s Home store (furniture, appliances). Neely was responsible for the building of the Crystal Bridge, a four-story, glass bridge connecting the two buildings.

It’s one of the great Atlanta stories. Every year, different choirs would perform on each level of the bridge — starting from church choirs to very accomplished performers at the top. A renowned opera singer would sing, “O Holy Night.” Each story would light up as they were singing, from the bottom to the top. At the high note of the song, a real Christmas tree on top of the bridge would light up. It could be seen from miles away.

The Great Tree Lighting Over the Years (for a gallery of
images and more information visit www.ajc.com and search the title)

“Because we were his grandchildren, we got to stand on a parking garage roof to see that. This was in the ‘50s, and the audience was totally integrated. It was what you did on Thanksgiving evening, everybody came out to see this. It gives me chills just to think about it. Even a Jewish girl like me was in love with it. It was very powerful, incredible,” shared Eve Hoffman. “As I’ve gotten older and look at these pictures, I see these faces — of all races, sizes and ages — everybody bundled up with a coat on. Neely envisioned that kind of thing. He got the architect, and they did it.”

From visit wdanielanderson.wordpress.com for history and photos

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