By Kimberly Brigance and Clark E Otten
Some metro Atlanta communities were created to hold courthouses. Others, including Atlanta itself, grew up along railroad lines.
Sandy Springs was different. It grew up around summer church services. The evolution of the community’s name reflects the importance of churches in the history of metro Atlanta.
As a result of the 1820 and 1821 land lotteries, several hundred families moved into what would much later become Sandy Springs. They joined a few hardy settlers who had actually arrived before the land lotteries — while this was still Native American land.
A disproportionately large portion of these settlers came from South Carolina in search of new lands and new opportunities. A dozen or so of the early families who had decided to make this area a permanent home felt the need to form a church where they could worship, give thanks for their new lands, and pray for a secure future.
By this time the area had become known as Oak Grove. During the mid-1840s, this group worshiped in a brush arbor where church meetings were held monthly, led by itinerant circuit ministers of the Methodist faith. By 1851 the future of the church was secured by the donation of five acres of land from the Spruill family to be used for a church and school house. Although the building has been replaced several times, the church remains on the same lot on Mount Vernon Highway.
One facet of the Methodist faith was the practice of holding annual interdenominational church camp meetings in the latter part of the summer known as the laying-by time, a time when all the crops have been planted and yet the harvests were still several weeks away.
Tents — actually semi-permanent, wooden structures — were established by returning families who attended the camp meetings annually. With the donation of the land and an easement to a nearby spring, these early settlers built not only a church and a school, but also founded what would become one of the most widely-attended church campgrounds in this part of the state.
They named the place in the middle of Oak Grove the “Sandy Springs Camp Ground.”
While many would think the name grew out of the description of the spring which served the campground, it may well have been named after a village that over three-quarters of the church founders came from in Anderson County in South Carolina. That community also was called Sandy Springs.
And while the Georgia community officially was known as Oak Grove, many Civil War-era maps omit that name, but instead pinpoint the site of the Sandy Springs Campground.
As Oak Grove struggled to recover from the Civil War, the annual camp meetings offered a high point in the year when families could put their work aside and join together with friends and family, many of whom they had not seen since the last camp meeting of the previous year.
These camp meetings were not only a place to worship and give thanks, but also served to create social connections between widespread families throughout Oak Grove and far beyond. By the 1870s, the camp meetings had grown so popular that attendance was often well into the thousands. This annual camp meeting put the name “Sandy Springs” on the lips of many families across north Georgia.
As the area grew, the name “Oak Grove” fell aside. The community was known as Hammond in 1882, yet for most people the area was simply known as the site of the Sandy Springs Campground. Eventually the name Hammond fell out of use to be replaced by the name Sandy Springs in the minds of most local residents.
But it was not until March 1, 1941, that the city was officially known as Sandy Springs. That’s when the United States post office gave way to the popular sentiment of the local residents.
By the 1960s, the arbor and tents of the old camp ground had burned and were not replaced. Rural life in Sandy Springs had already given way to automobile-based suburban living. Although the church still stands and the spring still flows, the ritual of camp meetings has ebbed into history.
Kimberly Brigance is the curator of the Heritage Sandy Springs Museum, 6075 Sandy Springs Circle. This article is based, in part, on materials from the museum’s collection. To contact her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarke Otten, a resident of Sandy Springs since 1953, is writing a book on the history of Sandy Springs. He is president of the Sandy Springs Historic Preservation Society.