Jim De Bree: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

About twenty-five years ago, my wife accompanied me on a business trip to Atlanta. We stayed a couple of days to go sightseeing.

One of the attractions in Stone Mountain Park was a reconstructed cabin called “Dr. Powell’s Cabin” which was a reconstructed version of a cabin built in 1826 by Dr. Chapmon Powell.

Since my wife’s maiden name is Powell, I joked and told her this cabin must have been where her long lost cousins lived. My wife told me that she had extended family who lived in Georgia.

Later, we were amazed to find that Dr. Chapmon Powell was my wife’s great-great grandfather.

Every family seems to have its share of heroes and scoundrels. I’ll let you decide whether Dr. Powell was a hero or not.

Chapmon was born in 1796 in rural North Carolina. Around 1820, he moved to Decatur, Georgia.

The Powell family were coopers and farmers. Coopers are barrel makers who frequently produced moonshine.

Chapmon befriended a local doctor who taught him how to make herbal remedies. Chapmon mixed the herbs grown on his farm with whiskey and sold the “medicine” to the local Indians. They called him Dr. Powell—a name he readily accepted even though he had no formal medical training.

Soon, Dr. Powell rose to prominence after he mediated several disputes between settlers and Indians. He was elected Sheriff and then served in the Georgia legislature.

While in the legislature in the 1830’s he became aware that the Western & Atlantic Railroad was going to build a railroad from Chattanooga to Atlanta. Atlanta was a bustling metropolis of about 2,500 people, but it was not certain where the railroad’s terminus would be located.

The legislature determined that the railroad would terminate in the town of Peachtree, near Atlanta. Before this became public knowledge, Chapmon purchased several large farms in Peachtree at bargain prices.

In the 1840’s Chapmon began to develop those properties and built a large house for himself on one of the main streets.

Chapmon was the wealthiest person in Peachtree. He was a prominent church member and a leader in the local Masonic lodge.

Every Sunday after church, he would invite parishioners to social gatherings at his house where he served some of his best alcoholic beverages. Southern ladies who were active church members often criticized Chapmon for his habit of freely dispensing alcohol to his friends. (His stills have been preserved and are on display in a local museum.)

He was widowed in 1850 and raised his eight children with the help of two slaves.

In 1855 Chapmon was elected to the Atlanta City Council where he championed the installation of a city wide gas lamp lighting system.

One of Chapmon’s daughters married W.J. Houston, a railroad executive. During the Civil War, Mr. Houston was a Major in the Confederate Army where he coordinated the Confederacy’s railroad movements in its defense of Atlanta.

When Sherman’s army approached Atlanta, the Powell and Houston families fled to their cabins in Decatur. When the Union Army captured Decatur, General Sherman used the cabins on Chapmon’s property as his headquarters. Houston’s house was converted into a military hospital.

Unaware that his home had been seized, Houston returned home only to be imprisoned by the Union troops. Since Houston was a military officer with knowledge of railroad movements, the Union soldiers treated him as a spy. After a brief trial, Houston was sentenced to be executed.

Both Chapmon and Houston were prominent Freemasons. When Chapmon went to visit his son-in-law the night before the scheduled execution, Chapmon noticed that the Union commanding officer wore a Masonic ring.

Chapmon convinced the Union officer to extend Masonic privileges to Houston who was allowed to escape in the middle of the night.

The Union soldiers destroyed all of the crops in Decatur and elsewhere, so the Powell family, like most other residents, starved through the winter months of 1865.

Several months later, Chapmon returned to his home in Peachtree. Its contents were stolen and a cannonball had landed in the kitchen destroying the meat locker. Most of his other properties were severely damaged.

His extended family and emancipated slaves all lived in the house under what had to be cramped conditions.

After the war, Chapmon did the best he could to rebuild his real estate empire, but was largely unsuccessful. In 1970 he died of dysentery.

Most of his land was donated to the local municipality. Today the Fulton County Fairgrounds are part of his legacy.

Now you know the story of Dr. Chapmon Powell- a man who never was a doctor and who exploited insider information to build a real estate empire. The actions that created his wealth are illegal today. Yet, he also was a philanthropist and a father who raised a fine family.

So, I ask, was he a hero or a scoundrel?

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident who has embarked on a family genealogy endeavor in retirement.

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