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Witnessing History: Spiller Field Magnolias

The historical “Spiller Field Magnolias” are located on the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum Eastside Trail near Ponce City Market. You see them as smaller trees in the outfield of a famous baseball field – indicated by the bold yellow arrows in the image below.

These two Southern Magnolias have witnessed over a hundred years of history in Atlanta, including a lot of baseball games and massive and transformational urban redevelopment of the area stimulated by the creation of the Atlanta BeltLine.

Modified image. Original photo credit: AJC

 

These grand dames still grow and keep watch over the rapid transformation of the city around them. The legacy of these trees will continue for several more centuries because Trees Atlanta propagated hundreds of new trees that were grown from cuttings taken from these magnolias

Photo credit: John Becker for Trees Atlanta Read more

 

Cloning the Original

In 2013, to ensure the preservation of these historic trees, Trees Atlanta took on a project to propagate new trees from two magnolia trees that grew North and South of one another along the newly built trail. The use of large cranes was donated by Sunbelt Equipment Rental, and we able to reach high where new growth branches were cut from the tops of each tree. The cuttings were cared for by trusted nursery partner, Bold Spring Nursery, until they rooted and grew large enough to be planted which took several years. 

Each new tree has the identical genetic makeup as the original and are officially named Southern magnolia ‘Spiller Field’ (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Spiller Field’) indicating it is a tree grown from rooted cuttings from these specific trees. The standing tree from which it was cut is approximately 75′ tall and is estimated to be around 125 years old.

These cloned duplicates are growing in many locations throughout metro Atlanta, including one at the Atlanta Brave’s new home at Truist Stadium in Cobb County and another in the southwest Atlanta neighborhood of Bush Mountain where the city’s Negro League baseball team, the Black Atlanta Crackers, practiced. Many others are planted in yards throughout metro Atlanta and in the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum.

“Taking cuttings from these magnolias is a beautiful way to keep them living for generations to come,” says Greg Levine, Trees Atlanta’s Co-Executive Director. “These trees are part of the history of the area. From Cracker Stadium to the old Sears Building – which will soon transform into the Ponce City Market – this area holds many stories that we want to keep alive.”

Photo credit: Saporta Report

 

The Good Seats

To truly view and properly appreciate these trees, one needs to be standing on the Atlanta BeltLine. From this higher vantage point, the viewer is standing closer to their grand canopy.

From below, the Spiller Field Magnolias are hardly noticed by countless thousands of people in cars whizzing by on Ponce de Leon Avenue. They’re mostly hidden on a slope behind a shopping center. Buildings and a large parking lot to the west side of the BeltLine replaced the baseball field that was known as Ponce de Leon Park, Spiller Park, and also casually called Old Poncey or Cracker Field – the game field for Atlanta’s early baseball teams, the Atlanta Crackers and the Black Atlanta Crackers. Before that, the area was once a recreation park with a large lake filled with the “restorative waters” from a natural spring which likely inspired its name, Ponce de Leon Springs. 

 

“In 1890, an artificial lake for boating and bathing was built … below tracks from the Atlanta Street Railway and near a magnolia tree that had been planted during the 1860s (as seen above).” Credit: MLB.com.

 

The land where the Spiller Field Magnolias now stand was acquired by the Atlanta Crackers baseball team in the early 20th century and the baseball stadium was built. 

As told by Major League Baseball, “As the area changed, still, the magnolia remained. Although it was 462 feet away from home plate, a couple Hall of Fame sluggers did reach it. Babe Ruth had two famous exhibition homers in Atlanta, one of which hit the tree while the other landed in a railroad car that then traveled 752 miles to Joplin, Mo.” 

If a baseball hit the magnolia tree and bounced back into the field, then the ball was in play because, per the rules, it had to pass through or remain in the tree to be a home run.  – Curbed.com

The trees stood in center field and remained “in play” 1947 when Earl Mann purchased the team and field and moved the outfield wall in about 50′. According to an article in Curbed Atlanta, “Two years later, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers played in a three-game expo against the Crackers, which was the first integrated professional sporting event in Atlanta.”

Trees Atlanta’s connection to the trees actually began at that time: Earl Mann’s son, Oreon Mann, would later become a dedicated Trees Atlanta supporter and volunteer, eventually becoming a certified volunteer TreeKeeper!

Adam Johnson, a resident of Midtown and the author of the Curbed article mentioned, “When former owner Mann passed away in 1990, his son Orean and widow Myra scattered his ashes at the base of the southernmost tree to honor ‘Mr. Atlanta Baseball.’ So the trees anchor into hallowed ground.”

 

(L-R) Images 1, 2, 3 Credit John Becker in the Virginia Highland Neighborhood Website which includes a detailed step by step images of the 2013 cutting process: (1) “Oreon Mann, son of Earl Mann who purchased the Atlanta Crackers and the stadium in 1947.” (2) “Kevin Redeker from Bold Spring Nursery explains what will happen to the cuttings to Trees Atlanta staff and volunteers.” and (3) “Cherry picker at about the full extent of its reach. The best cuttings come from new growth at the top of the tree.”; Image 4 Adam C. Johnson: The Spiller Magnolia Tree (southernmost tree) below the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail, near CVS and Whole Foods.

 

Ponce de Leon Ball Park (1908-1966)

Trees Atlanta has installed the current interpretive signage (seen below, left) on the BeltLine trail level. The marker at right was created in 2004 to signify the importance of these trees.

The plaque reads:

Here on these grounds at Ponce de Leon Ball Park, the Atlanta Crackers and the Atlanta Black Crackers began a tradition of baseball championship and athletic excellence which set the high standard for the baseball we enjoy in Atlanta now. 

The Atlanta Crackers, known as the “Yankees of the Minors” were led by Luke Appling, Eddie Mathews, Bob Montag, Ralph “Country” Brown and many others. For many years they were owned and operated by “Mr. Atlanta Baseball”, Earl Mann, who rose from peanut vendor to owner. Mann led Atlanta in becoming a Major League city and was instrumental in bringing the Braves to Atlanta. 

The Atlanta Black Crackers fielded many of Black baseball’s superstars, including Norman “Geronimo” Lumpkin, James “Red” Moore, James “Gabby” Kemp, and Vinicius “Nish” Williams, The Rev. John and Billie Harden owned the Atlanta Black Crackers for many years, and the team played on these grounds when the while Crackers went away. 

An Atlanta Moment in Time.
Preserved by:
The Native Atlantans Club, Inc. May 2004
With the cooperation of Whole Foods Market

 

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Posted: November 3, 2021