DeKalb History Center Historic Complex

DeKalb History Center: The Swanton House

The DeKalb History Center maintains three antebellum structures on West Trinity Place: the Benjamin Swanton House, the Biffle Cabin, and the Thomas-Barber Cabin.

Benjamin Swanton House

The Swanton House, with a log cabin at its core, is one of the oldest remaining structures in Decatur. The two-room log cabin portion was probably constructed by early DeKalb settler Burwell Johnson and later sold to Ammi Williams. The exact construction date for what is sometimes referred to as “the oldest house in Decatur” cannot actually be determined, but it is estimated to be about 1825. In fact, it is hard to date many early structures in DeKalb County because of a fire in the courthouse in 1842, which destroyed nearly all of DeKalb’s earliest records.

The house was enlarged and updated periodically, each change reflecting the current popular trends. Over the course of about 100 years, the original pioneer cabin was transformed into a Georgian cottage, which is defined by its floor plan of a central hallway with two rooms on either side. Around 1890, the house was given an Eastlake style porch, which was updated in the Craftsman style in the 1930s.

Benjamin Franklin Swanton arrived in Georgia during the 1830s during the Dahlonega Gold Rush to sell mining machinery. He came to Decatur, the seat of government for DeKalb County, and purchased the house in 1852. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Swanton established himself as a successful industrialist who engaged in a variety of businesses, including a brickyard, tannery, and machine shop. During the Civil War, Swanton and some of his family fled temporarily to Maine. On July 19, 1864, the Swanton House became the headquarters for the Federal Army of the Tennessee, who were en route to Atlanta. The Swanton House was spared destruction and remained in the Swanton family until 1965.

The Biffle Cabin

Log Cabins once abounded in rural DeKalb County, and the DeKalb History Center maintains two log cabins at the Trinity Place Historic Complex. The Biffle Cabin, built between 1825 and 1840, was originally located on a knoll overlooking Barbashela Creek. This cabin was built by Revolutionary War veteran John Biffle, who was born in Germany in 1744. In 1822, Biffle, who had been living in North Carolina, arrived in DeKalb County with his wife and son. When he died in 1850 at the age of 106, he was the county’s oldest resident.

The Biffle Cabin was discovered in the mid 1970s by workers clearing land for the construction of the Hidden Hills Subdivision on Biffle Road in Stone Mountain. Although the workers believed the building was an abandoned house, after stripping multiple layers of exterior siding, a log cabin was uncovered. The cabin features a unique construction technique most commonly used in Eastern Pennsylvania and a large stone fireplace.

In 1976 the DeKalb Historical Society acquired the Biffle Cabin and in 1977 it was moved to its present location in Decatur’s Adair Park, adjacent to the Swanton House.

The Thomas-Barber Cabin

The Thomas-Barber Cabin, was built in the 1830s by George and Martha Thomas, who were among the early settlers in DeKalb County. Originally from South Carolina, the couple and their six children made their way to Georgia in a covered wagon. They built their home, a 20×30-foot long log cabin, on Decatur-McDonough Road (now called Browns Mill-Salem Road). George fired his rifle at the front wall, making a peep-hole which enabled the family to see who was coming down the road from Decatur. The cabin later served as a stage coach stop for wagons making the two-day trip between McDonough to Decatur.

In the early 1970s, the Barber Family donated the cabin to the DeKalb Historical Society. In 1983, the cabin was deconstructed log by log, and moved to the Adair Park Historic Complex. Soon after it was moved, the restoration process began, and several Appalachian craftsmen arrived in Decatur to assist with putting a wood shingle roof on the cabin.