Smith-Gilbert Garden: History, Mission, Evolution

By Leslie Germaine
Leslie is a professional marketer and volunteer writer for Smith-Gilbert Gardens

Conservation is a mainstay of Smith-Gilbert Garden’s (SGG) mission. And conserving SGG’s history is no less important than protecting its biodiversity. But history is a funny thing. For anyone who has raised a child (or knows somebody who has) then you know kids think the world only began once they entered it.

Familiar places or things can have a similar effect on all of us. The Statue of Liberty, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, and the Hiram Butler House have not always stood where they are now. Knowing what came before, and what has come since, can change your view, and give you that “AHA!” moment – the kind of moment when your teenager realizes that you were the cool kid in high school – maybe.

Visitors to SGG may not know what came before the garden as it is in its current form. But there’s a deep, rich history tied to the land and those who lived on it before Dr. Gilbert and Richard Smith, or even Hiram Butler, came around. This history adds richness to the garden’s story, and context for your next visit.


Let’s start in the very early times. Smith-Gilbert Gardens is nestled in Georgia’s Piedmont region and embraces the region’s defining characteristics through garden design, plant choice, and a mission to maintain the garden naturally – this means no pesticides or herbicides. It is the second largest geological region in Georgia, after the Coastal Plains to the south. The two are separated by the distinct feature that is the Fall Line. To the north are the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fun fact: “Piedmont” literally translated means “foot” “mountain,” locating where the region sits, right at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Approximately 500’ above sea level, the Piedmont’s rocky soil, red clay, and geological conditions offer up a range of minerals, including gold (which is important later in the story). The rocky, iron-rich, red-clay soil sits on a bedrock of gneiss, marble, and granite and, as topsoil erodes, rocky outcroppings are exposed, one notable example being Stone Mountain. This rocky soil is the bane of any gardener who puts spade to ground to dig holes for plants. Some of you may have removed bucketloads of rocks from your own gardens to make way for Tea Olive, Hydrangea, and Native Azaleas. These rocks have not gotten in the way of the abundant variety of native plants in the region or deterred the SGG gardeners.

The Piedmont’s rolling hills and shallow valleys are home to many of the native plants that you will find at SGG, including Mountain Laurel, Pine, Maple, Magnolia and Tulip Poplar trees, Dogwoods, and Azaleas. Along rivers you can find Beech and Birch trees, Elm and Sweet Gum. The region is also rich in water sources: lakes and rivers, including the Chattahoochee and the Flint rivers. Wildlife is also plentiful and diverse, and includes migratory birds, butterflies that you can learn about at Smith-Gilbert’s butterfly house, white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkey, raccoons, squirrels, birds of prey, eastern bluebirds, and opossums and the list could go on and on… plant or animal, this region is a beautiful place to live.


According to a report submitted in November 2001 to the Georgia Council for American Indian Concerns  (A Primer on Georgia’s American Indian Heritage (, John E. Worth writes that the earliest indigenous inhabitants in the region can be dated back as early as 11,500 years ago.  They were most likely “bands of Ice Age hunters” who put down roots in the area, began to form complex communities, and over time transitioned from being hunter-gatherers to early food cultivators. For centuries Indigenous tribes flourished and, “Documented chiefdoms include Capachequi, Apalachicola, Toa, Ichisi, Altamaha, Ocute, Guale, Itaba (Etowah), Ulibahali, and Coosa.” According to Worth’s report, the next most populous group was the Timucuan-speakers, and third and least populous were the “Iroquoian-speakers of the Cherokee language.” You may be surprised to learn that at this point, the Cherokee speakers lived mostly in the northern-most part of the state in the Blue Ridge Mountain valleys, not in the Piedmont region.


The first contact with European explorers came thousands of years later. Worth says between 50,000 to 100,000 Indigenous American people were living in Georgia, the largest group being the “Muskogean-speakers, who inhabited the entire Piedmont region…” and well beyond it. It was contact with Europeans in the early 1520s that marked a dramatic and less than positive turn in the Indigenous population’s fortunes.

Europeans introduced diseases that nearly wiped out the native people. In fact, during the Spanish Mission era, “Documented population losses due to epidemics . . . probably exceeded 95%” and was followed by English colonialists who, during the “English Commercial Period” between 1685-1732, drove slave raids and the Indian slave trade. Not surprising then, that the Indigenous population rapidly declined. The Creek and Cherokee migrated further south and west, including into the Piedmont Region, and onto land that would become the site of Smith-Gilbert Gardens and Hiram Butler’s home.

Smith-Gilbert Gardens occupies land originally inhabited by the Kusa Creek Indians. In 1793 the Federal Government gave the land to the Cherokee Indians, Cabinet Opinion on the Creek Indians and Georgia, 29 May 1793 (  The Creek and Cherokee were systematically pushed off tribal lands, restricted to reservations, and pressured to assimilate. The U.S. Government actively engaged in efforts to convert native peoples to Christianity and to adopt ways of living that included farming and property ownership. Cherokee Relations with US Government Before Removal – Fort Smith National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service) (  Some native Americans, including Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee people, did assimilate and adopt new ways of life, but many others did not, which posed a problem for the U.S. Government.


Georgia passed a law in 1828 making the Cherokee Nation’s laws null and void and Georgia no longer recognized the rights of the Cherokees. And remember that ability for the Piedmont Region to produce minerals? Well, someone realized “There’s gold in them thar hills . . .” Another fun fact: That phrase, in reality is not a direct quote but an interpretation of something the Georgia Assayer (someone who tests metals to determine make-up and quality) said about gold in Georgia according to Wild West Historian Jim Medlan (What’s the story behind the phrase “There’s gold in them thar hills?” – True West Magazine ). The Georgia Assayer, Dr. Matthew Fleming Stephenson, was pushing local gold to keep people from leaving Georgia for the California Gold Rush. He said, “there’s millions in it,” which doesn’t sound much like “them thar hills” but let’s not split hairs. Gold was discovered in north Georgia in 1828 which, surely and not coincidentally fueled the state’s – and Andrew Jackson’s – desire to move native people off the land.

Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, triggering an aggressive movement to take over Cherokee land titles and force out the Indian population. Then, on December 26, 1831, the Georgia State Assembly declared through an official Act that a large tract of land in the Piedmont Region become – ironically – Cherokee County. Cherokee County was a vast tract of land that was later divided into the 10 counties we know now as Cherokee, Cobb, Floyd, Forsyth, Lumpkin, Gilmer, Murray, Paulding, and Union. The counties were further divided into 160-acre land lots. The Federal Government began distributing the land through a land lottery system in 1832.  Understandably, the Cherokee and Creek Indians who remained resisted. Their resistance was answered by the Trail of Tears forced relocation in 1838. Trail of Tears: Indian Removal Act, Facts & Significance – HISTORY


Land Lot No. 178 extended south to what is now Barrett Parkway. This parcel had five different owners before Hiram Butler bought it, and five owners came after him before the lot was purchased by its sixth owners, Dr. Gilbert and Richard Smith, and became the garden we know today. David Kellum was the Land Lottery’s original winner of Lot No. 178, but never claimed his prize. The state of Georgia auctioned off the land in 1847 to Matthew Whitfield, a land speculator who, as speculators do, looked to make a quick profit from his investment; he sold the land to the Roberts family roughly one year later.

Census documents and other historical records show the Roberts were a prominent family with their wealth in 1851 mostly in land and slaves – a nearly 4000-acre plantation that extended from Pine Mountain to Kennesaw Mountain and 93 slaves. They owned the land for 22 years until they sold it to Augustus Howell who, on that same day, sold the property to Clark C. Sorrells. Sorrells held onto the land for four years before selling to J.W. Bennett in 1874. In 1880 Hiram Butler, who owned the adjacent Lot No. 165, bought Lot No. 178 from Bennett, a deal that doubled the size of Butler’s property holdings.


Butler was a Western and Atlantic Railroad employee responsible for the tracks between Kennesaw and Chattanooga. He started with the railroad at the age of 16 as a grader, worked his way up to Roadmaster and retired at the age of 74. During his tenure, he was called upon to chase down and thwart Union raiders who had captured a Confederate train called “The General” during an event called The Great Locomotive Chase. Although the Union raiders abandoned the train before reaching Butler, it is said he helped capture one of the Union soldiers as they tried to escape. Great Locomotive Chase – Wikipedia

The Butler family owned a home in Acworth that was destroyed by an 1876 fire, leaving only the structure’s foundations. Hiram Anderson Butler needed to build a new home, and sometime between 1876-1882 he built the Hiram Butler house, which was designed in the style of a Georgian Cottage that also includes architectural details that are a combination of Greek Revival and Victorian Italianate, a more formal, elegant style than was commonly found in the area at the time.

The construction and architecture of the Hiram Butler house, which now serves as SGG’s administrative offices and giftshop, was unique for the times. The roughly foot-thick brick walls are predominant throughout. Although not documented as fact, historians guess this choice was a direct result of Butler losing his former home to fire. Most homes built in the 1880s were wood frame construction; Butler chose brick that was likely made at a nearby brick factory in Acworth. He built an attached kitchen, also unusual for the times. The single-story, five-bedroom home remained in the Butler family for 33 years. According to records, both Hiram Butler and his wife Mary Ann Simms died in 1913, he sold the house and property shortly before his death that year to Robert Moon.


Moon owned the property for six years then sold the home and property to C.J. Beach. It was during this sale that the property’s acreage was reduced from its original 160 to 90 acres. Charles Dameron bought the 90-acre property from Beach in 1926. During the early to mid-1900s the house saw significant changes. The Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to the home, and in 1940 indoor plumbing was installed for the kitchen and bathroom, which included a lavatory, tub, and toilet. As a working farm, the property included barns, a smoke house, and a tanning pit. There was also a blacksmith shop, a chicken house, and a root cellar.

In 1937 the Dameron family divided the property even more, transferring comparatively small parcels to family members. In 1952 they sold the property to Bill and Helen Thorton, who made changes to the structure including adding bathrooms, enclosing the Brick Room, and building a more formal classical portico at the front porch and a screened porch on the back of the house. They also combined two separate bedrooms to create a large main bedroom with an ensuite bathroom and dressing room. Although the home underwent many changes, the land use remained relatively constant in service to raising animals and growing food.

The Thortons sold the house and 13 surrounding acres in 1968 to Steve Frey, who had a cotton gin and warehouse in Kennesaw. Today that warehouse is home to the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History. Frey, however, only held the property for two years during which time it fell into disrepair and was a target of vandalism.

Despite the modifications to the home by owners who came after the Butlers, and the deterioration under Frey’s ownership, the house had enough of its original features, including the hardwood floors, ceilings in the front part of the home, and the front and middle hallway doors, to be officially included in the National Registry of Historic places in 1995.


By the time Dr. Robert Gilbert and Richard Smith bought the house in 1970, it was not habitable. They chose it for the beauty of the natural surroundings.

When they first visited the house nearly 100 years after Hiram Butler built it circa 1880, it was unoccupied and run down. The grounds were overgrown and unruly. Inside, plaster walls had deteriorated, glass was broken, and scavengers and thieves had picked the house clean of its hardware. During their search for a home, they often returned to the Butler house, which was usually unlocked, to explore inside to get a feel for the place. It needed extensive restoration but was structurally sound. The appeal of the grounds was undeniable, and the Brick Room tipped the scales for them. They took a leap of faith and bought the house and 13 surrounding acres in 1970.

The house featured the original high ceilings and a large fireplace that was built during a 1950s renovation. Dr. Gilbert said in his 2016 self-published book, The Story of Smith-Gilbert Gardens, “We had no idea where we were headed with this purchase . . . in reality, curiosity and our sense of adventure were our only guides.”  Before they could move in, they had to make it habitable. Six months of weekend work resulted in a functional kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. From that point, the restoration of the house and grounds was an ongoing 35-year labor of love. Anyone who has lived in an old home or through a renovation understands the work is never really finished. As for the grounds, as gardeners, Smith and Gilbert learned by doing through trial and error. Their results were better than most. What they created during their time in the Hiram Butler House has left all of us a beautiful living legacy.


The gardens have been through many changes since Dr. Robert Gilbert and Richard Smith planted their first specimens, and they continue to evolve. With a focus on native plants and gardening without the application of herbicides and pesticides, plant selections today are made with different considerations than those that influenced Smith’s and Gilbert’s early choices. One constant is integrating sculpture throughout the garden. Smith and Gilbert were committed to the arts and during their ownership installed dozens of sculptures throughout the gardens. The integration of art and nature was a passion of theirs, and SGG’s leadership and Board of Directors continue to support that passion by collaborating with local artists, including through a partnership with Kennesaw State University. As part of the Art Blooms program, which is held during two months in the spring, Kennesaw State University art students create sculptural art commissions that are installed in the Garden. Along with other arts-focused activities, Art Blooms is worth your time.


Richard Smith passed away in 2002. Two years later, Dr. Gilbert sold the garden and its approximately 3,000 species of plants, 30 pieces of art, and the Hiram Butler House to the city of Kennesaw through a 2004 bond referendum, and the sale was final in January 2005. After the house was sold, Dr. Gilbert continued to live there until 2009. The city of Kennesaw’s mission is to preserve the history and create a public destination garden that is a cultural asset for the city and its visitors.  Originally named the Smith-Gilbert Arboretum, it was only open to the public on a limited basis.

The city annexed three acres of adjacent property to support expanding educational and environmental programs and, in 2008, approved the Garden’s Master Plan, established a Foundation, and officially changed the name to Smith-Gilbert Gardens.

The Garden continues to evolve. Executive Director Ann Parsons and the SGG staff continue to develop new programs and grow existing ones, all of which strike a balance between preserving the history and creating new experiences. When the time comes that a child realizes you were young once too, that you had a life before them, and that you have your own deep and multi-faceted personal histories, you might be seen in a whole new – maybe cooler and more interesting – light. Knowing the history of the land, something of the people who have lived on it, and the make-up of the natural surroundings, can make your next visit to Smith-Gilbert Gardens a more enriching, “cooler” experience, allowing you to see it in a whole new light.  


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