Propagating the Spiller Magnolias

Trees Atlanta and Partners Work to Preserve a Piece of Atlanta History

By: John Becker

Photo courtesy deadballbaseball.com
Aerial view of Ponce de Leon Park. The Sears Building – now Ponce City Market – can be seen across PDL Ave. from the park, as can the Ford Factory – now lofts and retail – directly across the diagonally-running railroad tracks. That railbed is now the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail. Photo courtesy deadballbaseball.com.

From 1907 until Fulton County Stadium opened in 1965, Spiller Field – also known as Ponce de Leon Park or Atlanta Crackers Field – was Mecca for baseball fans in Atlanta. Both the Atlanta Crackers and the Atlanta Black Crackers played there and the diamond was graced by the likes of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Luke Appling, Eddie Matthews, Pete Richert, Tim McCarver, and Chuck Tanner.

In 1940 the park hosted an exhibition boxing match between a 45-year old Jack Dempsey and wrestler Clarence “Cowboy” Luttrell (Dempsey won), and it was also where the Tech High Smithies and Boys’ High Purple Hurricanes played their Friday night football games during the 1940’s (these games often outdrew college games at the time).

The northernmost magnolia can be seen in the foreground, with the other tree in the background. Ponce City Market is in the background on the right.
The northernmost magnolia can be seen in the foreground, with the other tree in the background. Ponce City Market is in the background on the right.

The park was especially known for a pair of magnolia trees that stood in center field and were actually part of the field of play until Earl Mann purchased the team and field in 1947 and moved the outfield wall in about 50′.

The field occupied the space on Ponce de Leon Avenue where the Midtown Place retail development is today, directly across from Ponce City Market. The trees – surprisingly still healthy and thriving – stand in between what is today a Whole Foods store and the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail. Despite their apparent good health, the trees are threatened by their proximity to the large retail development to their immediate west, so the environmental non-profit Trees Atlanta took action.

Oreon Mann, son of Earl Mann, who purchased the Atlanta Crackers and the stadium in 1947.
Oreon Mann, son of Earl Mann, who purchased the Atlanta Crackers and the stadium in 1947.

A team met Wednesday August 14 to take cuttings from both trees. These cuttings will be nurtured over the next two years, then replanted along the BeltLine’s arboretum. Some may be made available for purchase. These new plantings will be direct genetic descendants of the magnificent magnolias you’ll see in the photos that accompany this article. Kudos to Trees Atlanta and their partners Bold Spring Nursery (they’ll be cultivating the cuttings) and Sunbelt Equipment Rental (they supplied the cherry picker) for taking action to preserve an important part of Atlanta history.

Mann’s son Oreon was on hand for the cutting event and brought along a bag of photos and other memorabilia from the days when he was a batboy and his father the owner of the premier baseball team in Atlanta. We were all surprised – and touched – when Mann walked over to one of the trees and pointed to where he and his stepmother had buried his father’s ashes when he died in 1990.

Scroll down to see a few more photos from Wednesday’s event. Click here to view a full online album of photos.

Editor’s Note: You can learn more about Trees Atlanta and the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum by taking a free walking tour of the Eastside Trail with an expertly trained docent. You’ll hear all about the Spiller Magnolias and much more. For more information or to register for a tour, click here.

Oreon Mann points out where he and his stepmother buried his father's ashes when he died in 1990.
Oreon Mann points out where he and his stepmother buried his father’s ashes when he died in 1990.
Kevin Redeker from Bold Spring Nursery explains what will happen to the cuttings to Trees Atlanta staff and volunteers.
Kevin Redeker from Bold Spring Nursery explains what will happen to the cuttings to Trees Atlanta staff and volunteers.
Redeker and Trees Atlanta co-executive director Greg Levine look for the ideal cuttings.
Redeker and Trees Atlanta co-executive director Greg Levine look for the ideal cuttings.
Levine tosses the cuttings down to volunteers who collect them.
Levine tosses the cuttings down to volunteers who collect them.
Volunteers dipped the cuttings in water, then placed them in a dry storage cooler - one cooler for each trees cuttings.
Volunteers dipped the cuttings in water, then placed them in a dry storage cooler – one cooler for each tree’s cuttings.
Oreon Mann chats with VHCA board VP and history/preservation committee chair Lola Carlisle.
Oreon Mann chats with VHCA board VP and history/preservation committee chair Lola Carlisle.
Trees Atlanta's Bethany Clark and Mann share a pleasant moment.
Trees Atlanta’s Bethany Clark and Mann share a chuckle.
Cherry picker at about the full extent of its reach. The best cuttings come from new growth at the top of the tree.
Cherry picker at about the full extent of its reach. The best cuttings come from new growth at the top of the tree.
Redeker and Levine wave to the crowd.
Redeker and Levine wave to the crowd from the basket.
Redeker inspects a cutting.
Redeker inspects a cutting.
The cherry picker was donated for the event by Sunbelt Equipment Rental.
The cherry picker was donated for the event by Sunbelt Equipment Rental.
Levine inspects a cutting before dropping it for volunteers.
Levine inspects a cutting before dropping it for volunteers.
It was a bountiful harvest.
It was a bountiful harvest.
This is a picture inside the canopy of one of the trees from the cherry picker bucket. Lots of healthy growth...
This is a picture inside the canopy of one of the trees from the cherry picker bucket. Lots of healthy growth…
View of the northernmost magnolia from the bucket with leaves of the other tree in the foreground.
View of the northernmost magnolia from the bucket with leaves of the other tree in the foreground to the right.
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This seed pod’s full of future wannabe magnolias…
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Mr. Kevin in the bucket with magnolia tree to the left.
Shot of the Trees Atlanta gang from the cherry picker. Thanks for inviting me, guys...I had fun!
Shot of the Trees Atlanta gang from the cherry picker. Thanks for inviting me, guys…I had fun!
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