The Secret History of Senoia and Peachtree City, Georgia

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Just after graduation, in the last years before CADD, Urban Design renderings were tedious projects that could easily require a half month’s work. One first had to hand draw ink renderings on mylar, which were converted into sepia prints, which were then colored with “Magic Markers” and colored pencils. Our new generation of architects and planners should remember that it was the rebel architects and urban planners, just before them, who pioneered CADD, newtowns, active solar, passive solar, earth berm design, historic districts, regional path systems, urban villages, energy conservation and building sustainability.

Creek Indian history was deeply intertwined with my early avant-garde planning work, but we were not terribly aware of its implications. I designed one of the first, if not the first citywide path system in North America at Peachtree City, Georgia, but preferred to go biking in the living museum of Senoia, a town named after a Creek Indian princess.  The story is primarily about the city of Senoia, but first, an explanation.

Long, long ago in a socio-economic world far away, Richard P. Browne Associates, an AEP firm in Columbia, MD,  hired me shortly after I got back home from working in Sweden.  The planners on the staff were mostly Ivy Leaguers, so they needed someone, who was reasonably competent, but also spoke Southern, to represent the architecture and planning staff at the firm’s new Peachtree City, GA office. Initially, everyone else was engineers in the PTC office.  The Peachtree City Newtown had been in existence for 14 years, but didn’t have a master plan!  Can you believe that?

Part of the contract with Peachtree City’s developer was to develop alternative routes for Peachtree City’s residents to ride their golf carts to the embryonic newtown’s first golf course.  Our planning team had become famous for the design of walkways and paths in Columbia, MD, but they really didn’t go anywhere . . . mainly connected the ends of cul-de-sacs with sidewalks.  I was assigned the task of designing a citywide path system because the architect-planners from MIT, Harvard and Yale assumed that it would never be built, since Peachtree City was in the South. 

They also assigned me the task of designing a real downtown for PTC on a planned reservoir named after Creek Indian chief William McIntosh. The logic there was that a Creek Indian should design a downtown on a Creek-named lake that wouldn’t ever be built.  Turns out that the developer had forgotten to buy all the land for the lake and the actual property owners were rather upset when massive machinery showed up on their land to clear trees, grade a reservoir and start work on a downtown.

Peachtree City built an amphitheater to house an outdoor drama on the Creek Indians of West Georgia and Brigadier General William McIntosh.

During that era, PTC constructed a large amphitheater and contracted with Kermit Hunter, the creator of “Unto These Hills” to write an outdoor musical drama about the history of the Creek Indians in Georgia.  Named “The McIntosh Trail,” it was quite accurate and professionally produced.  Over the long run, though, the region still lacked the population density or tourists to insure adequate attendance.

The now-famous Peachtree City multi-modal path system WAS built and is now over 100 miles long.  However, while I was living there, it consisted of a 6-8 feet wide asphalt ribbon from where I lived in the Twiggs Corner condos, over a bridge then to a small shopping center and the Flat Creek Golf Course.  If I wanted to ride my bike or go on a Saturday afternoon picnic-bike date, I went to Senoia. Then, going to Senoia was like going through a Star Gate.

Why did I leave PTC?  There was only one single female in PTC, not on Social Security.  She was a very hot air traffic controller, who liked to have several men in her life. It was the free love era.  I was one of them, for awhile, but wanted a significant other, who was available on a regular basis. 

This was my concept for a multi-use complex at the Atlantic Steel property, south of Georgia Tech, which accompanied an article I wrote for Real Estate Atlanta Magazine in 1974. It is supposedly was the first use of the term “Urban Village.” Old fogie architects had proposed high-rise glass tombstones to be built over all the MARTA rapid transit stations. A similar project with simpler architecture was built on the site in the late 1990s.

I moved to an apartment on Ninth Street in Midtown Atlanta, a few houses down from my Georgia Tech faculty advisor, Ike Saporta. While living there, I started a joint urban/transportation planning-urban design program at Georgia State and Georgia Tech and went to work for the Atlanta Planning Department as its token white, straight male.  At the time, I didn’t even realize that being Native American made you a minority.  While there I prepared the first comprehensive plan for the Midtown Residential Neighborhood, plus the architectural drawings for the Arts Center & Tenth Street MARTA station area plans, the Urban Design Plan for the Midtown Atlanta and the conceptual design for the Atlantic Station PUD . . . yes, really.   Georgia State University taught me how to sleuth out hidden historic facts and then analyze them with statistics on computers.  That was preparing me for much of what I do now in the 21st century.

Senoia today is unrecognizable from the Senoia I biked in long ago.

Everything that you wanted to know about Senoia, but were afraid to ask

Senoia in nearby Coweta County, was also was a planned community (of sorts) but its pioneers had very bad timing. Ground was broken in 1860, a year before the firing on Fort Sumter.  The town boomed after Reconstruction, however, and continued to thrive until the appearance of the boll weevil in 1920.  For the next 70 years, it was frozen in time.  There was even one fieldstone and clay mortar structure in its downtown that dated from the Creek occupation of the era. It apparently was a trading post.

Most of Senoia’s streets were un-paved when I lived near there.

Ironically, Senoia was almost a ghost town while I lived in Peachtree City. Those ghosts would eventually make the cash registers ring. The population was about 900 people, but one could not tell where they were.  Who would have thought that such an attribute would eventually propel the State of Georgia into being one of the principal movie and television production centers in the world.  However, back then most of the streets were unpaved.  Most of the buildings downtown were empty . . . several were collapsed ruins. Most of the multi-story “historic” buildings that you see today in Senoia are modern reproductions.  I don’t recall any traffic lights or more than two cars being visible at any one time.  If there was a municipal government, it was not visible.

Only one wall remains of the ancient fieldstone warehouse in Senoia.

During that era, people the village were not even sure who Senoia was named after.  Some said it was a Cherokee chief.  Some said it was a Creek chief.  Some said it was a daughter of a Creek chief.  Then playwright Kermit Hunter came along and explained in his outdoor drama in Peachtree City that Senoia was the mother of Creek mikko (chief) William McIntosh.  I noticed on the city’s website and Wikipedia article that there is confusion again about Senoia.  We will get back to her in a jiffy.

Senoia only slightly changed during the 1970s and 1980s, mainly because an increasing number of home buyers found that they could get a historic house cheap, but be convenient to the commercial services and stores in booming Peachtree City.   The success of the 1971 movie, Deliverance, began attracting more and more TV and movie productions to Georgia.  Most of them were major box office successes and even today are consider some of the best films of the 20th century . . . aka Forrest Gump, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, etc. 

In the mid-1980s, Riverwood Studio constructed a modest prefabricated steel building near Senoia for producing TV ads and support work for movie producers, because the land was cheap and Senoia was an interesting filming locale.  By the late 1980s and 1990s many top TV shows were being filmed in Georgia, but few people outside of the state knew.   The first major movie production in Senoia was a portion of “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989.   In 1992, all of the filming of “Pet Sematary II” was at Riverwood Studios. For the next 20 years, Senoia was an increasingly popular location for producing Southern Gothic and horror movies.  In 2008, the State of Georgia adopted much more generous tax incentives to attract TV and movie production companies.  Immediately, there was a flood of new movies, TV shows and production studios coming to the state.

Then in 2010, the AMC TV production, “The Walking Dead” came to Senoia.  It has become a proverbial fire hose gushing gold into the community.  Downtown Senoia had been radically revitalized.  More TV and movie production companies have come to the city.  The city has become an international tourism mecca.  Then last year, Pinewood Studios of the UK announced construction of a 700 acre TV and film complex, northeast of Peachtree City.  The film and TV industry is so deeply entrenched in Georgia, it is obviously going to stay.  Coweta County’s citizens have learned that is it good karma to honor the Creek People.  There is now talk of re-starting the McIntosh Trail outdoor drama in Senoia, to entertain their new tourists.

The real Senoia

Senoia Heneha McIntosh was the wife of Captain William McIntosh, a Tory officer during the American Revolution.  She was the mother of Creek mikko (chief) and US Army Brig. General, William McIntosh. Her son was the first Native American to be appointed a general in the United States Army. One of her sisters married George Troup, whose son became a governor of Georgia.

Senoia’s father was a Jewish trader, who operated a trading post near the Chattahoochee River in the vicinity of present-day communities of Sargent and Whitesburg, GA.  Senoia was a member of the Wind Clan, which traditionally furnished the leadership of Creek Confederacy. The Wind Clan originated as Itza Maya priests of the God of the Wind, Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl).

Since the Creeks were a matriarchal society, even though her son was at most 1/4th Creek, he was eligible to be elected a leader of the Coweta branch of the Creeks.  He was never a principal chief of the Creek Confederacy, although he pretended to be so in his dealings with the federal government.

Senoia’s maiden family name was Bemarin, which is a French Sephardic Jewish name, derived from a Spanish family name.  Senoia’s husband was Jewish and her father, High King Malachi, had a Jewish name.  It is obvious that there was more Jewish heritage from the 1600s in the McIntosh family. Thus, left out of the history books is the profound exposure to Jewish cultural heritage that Mikko/General McIntosh had as a child.

In Jewish tradition, Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelofit were three angels, associated with medical doctors and healing.  In particular, Senoy was the protector of little children.  During the Middle Ages and on into the 1700s, it was the custom of Jewish families to carve the name of Senoy on the head boards of wooden cradles.  Undoubtedly, Senoia’s name is the feminine form of Senoy.

Contemporary academicians are contemptuous of the tradition that Senoia was a Creek princess.  Actually, she was a princess!  Heneha (Hene Ahaw) is an Itza Maya word, meaning “Sun Lord,” which was absorbed into the Creek languages.   The sisters and brothers of a Henemako (Sun King) were given the title of Hene Ahaw.  They served as traveling judges and as spokespeople for the High King.  They were considered the nobility of a Creek province or kingdom.

Now if we could only find a movie producer in Senoia to create an accurate, adequately funded, movie about the indigenous civilizations in Georgia, which preceded Senoia, the Zombie Capital of the World.

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