Oakland Resident Spotlight: The Houstons

by Larry Upthegrove

Historic Oakland Cemetery resident Oswald Houston and his wife Anna Shaw came to Atlanta in 1847 from South Carolina’s Abbeville district. The couple previously lived in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Savannah.

At age 49 Oswald, being of good business acumen, was elected city treasurer in Atlanta’s first “city” government of 1848.  He was re-elected and faithfully served the same position through 1854, before suffering a stroke in 1855, which rendered him an invalid.  During his active years, he was engaged in merchandising and was a leader in the Presbyterian church, becoming one of the organizers of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Downtown Atlanta’s Houston Street was named for him and remained so until 1994 when Mayor Maynard Jackson had it renamed John Wesley Dobbs Ave.

Accompanying his parents, 16-year-old Washington Houston also arrived in Atlanta in 1847, just in time to see it transform from the “town” of Atlanta to the “city” of Atlanta.

Prior to 1848, only Oakland Resident John Mims was doing “agency banking” for the Georgia Railroad, selling exchange on Augusta. Scott, Carhart & Company established a banking agency and hired now 17-year-old “Wash” Houston to be cashier.  He received the new city’s first banking deposit from J.B. Lofton, who walked into the office with two saddle bags of money for deposit.  He then spent several years employed by the Georgia, Atlanta and West Point and Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line railroads, in various capacities.

Washington Houston married Amanda Katherine Powell on July 23, 1854.  Amanda was the daughter of the first doctor in Dekalb County, Dr. Chapman Powell. Dr. Powell was dubbed the “white medicine man” by the early residents of the area, mostly Indians.  His daughter Amanda grew up with seven siblings in a one-room log cabin, known to the Indians as “the Medicine House,” although it is thought that Dr. Powell had a small out building for the actual medicine work.

the “Medicine House”

Wash Houston bought this home place in 1860, and the couple raised three sons and seven daughters in a newer, bigger house in front of the log cabin, which finally ended up as part of the plantation display at Stone Mountain Park.  Dr. Powell moved to Atlanta, where he had already accumulated much property.

When the Civil War came Houston became the transportation agent for the Confederate government.  His duties kept him in Atlanta mostly, while his family lived at the Chapman homeplace on what would become Clairmont Road near North Decatur Road.

When the Federal army under Gen. Sherman swarmed into the area in July 1864, Wash had to cross friendly and enemy lines to get to check on the family.  In Caroline Clarke’s The Story of Decatur, Houston’s granddaughter Susie Houston tells the following story:

Amanda Powell Houston

There was another war tale about Grandpa (Major Houston). He was staying in Atlanta since his duties as Transportation Agent of the Confederate States Government required him to keep the trains running in and out of the city. 

Grandma was staying in the cellar of her home while the house was being used by Sherman as a hospital.  Aunt Lula was a tiny baby and very ill, so Grandpa tried to get through the Yankee lines, which had encircled the city, so he could find out about his family.  He got as far as the Avary farm.  He stopped to rest at the Avary’s and, while there, he saw several Yankee soldiers drive up in the Avary yard. 

Mrs. Avary said to him, ‘Major Houston, run hide in the collard patch.  There never has been a Yankee who would get near collards.’ Sure enough, they did not see him as he lay between the collard rows; however, later, as he was going through the woods past the cemetery, he was captured as a spy.  They were going to actually shoot him, when he gave the Masonic distress signal.  The Yankee captain, who held him prisoner, not only listened to his story but escorted him out to his house to see his wife and children, and back through the lines in Atlanta. 

The Yankee Captain never found out that he was a Major and actually serving with the Confederacy, but thought he was a merchant in the, as yet, uncaptured city.”

After the war Houston continued to live in Decatur but kept his interests in Atlanta under close watch.  He was active in the Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and a deacon and elder in the Decatur church.  With Milton A. Candler and William G. Whidby, he issued a call for a statewide Sunday School association.

W.J. Houston house on Clairmont Road

In 1893 Washington Houston was appointed by U. S. Secretary of the Interior Hoke Smith (another Historic Oakland resident) as chairman of a commission to negotiate a treaty with the Yuma Indians of southern California and Arizona.  The following year, Houston and his wife traveled to Oklahoma to negotiate with the Osage Indians, also at the request of the Secretary.

The Houston Mill ruins

In 1876 Houston hired millwrights to construct a corn mill near the south fork of Peachtree Creek on his land.  In 1900 when public demand for electricity was strong, he had millwrights convert the corn mill into a hydroelectric facility, the first such in the area, and he formed the Decatur Light, Power and Water Company, bringing electric lighting to Decatur for the first time.  The dam still stands and evidence of structures, including the remains of the millrace are still visible within the Emory University campus on Houston Mill Rd.

Late in his life, Houston was content with light farming and raising Ayrshire cattle.  Amanda Powell Houston was laid to rest Historic Oakland Cemetery on December 29, 1908 just a few yards from Oswald and Anna Houston, her in-laws.  Washington joined her just over two years later on February 21, 1911.

WJ Houston lot at Oakland