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100 Years Remembered – Most of Them in East Atlanta

By Henry Bryant
As I write articles and give tours about the history of East
Atlanta, I get asked how I get the information. A lot comes from research in libraries, online, and in the deed records room at DeKalb County Courthouse. In my 30 years in the neighborhood I have also gotten a lot of information by talking to and listening to neighbors who have been here much longer than I. One of those people was Mr. W. L. Wagnon Sr, who passed recently at the age of 100. While he was here I spent many hours on his front porch hearing tales of the neighborhood and the people who lived and worked here.
Mr. Wagnon would know. He moved here from Crawfordville, Georgia at the age of 14 in 1925 and was a keen observer, possessing a sharp mind until his final day. Known by his family as Pop, on Metropolitan Avenue even the newcomers knew him as Mr. Wagnon. He knew the names of every original owner of every house in old East Atlanta. I should have taken notes.
Mr. Wagnon lived in the East Atlanta area from 1925 until 2003. His mother, Ms. J. S. Jones (Pearl), bought the big two-story house on Metropolitan when they moved here. The house that dates from the 1890’s sits back from the street, has a gracious wraparound porch, multiple fireplaces, and stained glass in every room. The family sold it when Mr. Wagnon had to move to a care facility after his grandson had lived in the house for a while.
Back in March of 1929 Mr. Wagnon married a pretty young woman from Huntsville, Alabama who lived in Reynoldstown, Florence Eva Mitchell. They started married life in Reynoldstown when Flat Shoals was uninterrupted by I-20 on its path into downtown and easily connected EAV and R-town. Later the couple moved to Woodland Avenue. in Ormewood Park, and a little later they moved to the big house on Metropolitan when Mr. Wagnon inherited the house with his sisters. The young family had two children: Charles who passed in 1997 and W.L. Jr. who lives in Stone Mountain now. Mr. and Mrs. Wagnon were married for 65 years.
Mr. Wagnon often talked about being the Manager of the old Madison Theatre, which still stands on Flat Shoals in the middle of East Atlanta Village. The theater was built in 1929 in Moorish Revival Style, at the same time as the Fox Theatre on Peachtree. Mr. Wagnon had befriended the theater’s original owner, George Gaston, and at various times did whatever needed doing at the movie palace from selling tickets to popping corn. His friendship and service were rewarded when Mr. Gaston gave him and his family lifetime free passes. This continued, as did his “management,” under the second owner, Mr. Hathcock. Meanwhile he gathered stories about the live shows – the yo-yo man and various musical acts – and the theater’s give-a-ways. He showed me the wooden nickels that they used to pass out to be redeemed as coupons at local stores. And he had the sacks from flour that were premiums for moviegoers during the depression.
However, the Madison was not Mr. Wagnon’s real job, though he spent a lot of time there. Earlier, he actually lied about his age to get hired at the General Motors Lakewood Plant in 1925. At the time, he was 15 and working for a roofing company that was putting the roof on the GM factory, which stood on McDonough  Boulevard. across from the Federal Penitentiary south of Grant Park. While working on the roof he thought that working on automobiles inside would be better than roofing, and so he applied. During the war the plant made war materials and Wagnon wen to work at Delta until the Lakewood Plant went back to making cars. He retired at age 62 after 46 years there. He could be seen driving around the neighborhood deep into old age, always in a General Motors product.  Even in his 90s, he tootled around in his little white Saturn.
For years Mr. Wagnon was a fixture at Brown’s Pharmacy (the little brick store behind the check cashing center across from Fluff and Em) along with a group of other old timers. They would meet daily to discuss the news of the day and greet customers picking up prescriptions. Through all of the changes in the neighborhood Mr. Wagnon was always a booster. He also was accepting of the racial changes and could recognize a fool or a saint no matter what color skin they had. He would invite his large family and group of friends to join him for dinner on Friday or Saturday nights at one of the “new” food emporiums in the Village. He would say, “I told everyone they shouldn’t have moved,” reveling in the revival of the diverse neighborhood.
While here, he patrolled the neighborhood in a friendly way looking for anything out of order, letting neighbors know if things were amiss. Longtime neighbor Becky Boyette remembers a time when she and her husband were having a sill replaced at their home and Mr. Wagnon went from sidewalk inspector to much more. He first offered his free consulting services to the contractor and then, even though he was nearly 80, he rolled up his sleeves and jumped in. The contractor hired him to help finish the job, saying that that old man could outwork his young employees. Mr. Wagon took joy in hearing about his old neighborhood even after his health forced him to move away.
That was Mr. W. L. Wagnon Sr.: a dedicated family man, a dedicated neighborhood man, a hardworking man, a friend, someone unafraid to send down roots in his community, knowing the place from whence he came, and standing firm in his convictions that history would turn out all right. Neighbors like that are missed.

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