John Thrasher had a big idea in 1869 – a railroad was under construction from Atlanta into Gwinnett County and beyond, and he wanted to establish a new town to take advantage of the economic opportunity that the railroad offered. And the centerpiece to his new town would be a resort hotel that he would build and operate. Well, Thrasher did establish the town, which he called Norcross, and he built the hotel, called The Brunswick. Norcross is now over 150 years old, and the hotel lasted almost a century - here is its story.
Thrasher was born in Morgan County in Georgia in 1818 and became a well-known citizen of the early days of Atlanta. He had arrived in that area in the late 1830s , when what would become Atlanta was mainly forested land, several miles west of the village of Decatur - and he took on a major construction project, committing to build a huge earthen embankment that would allow three railroads under construction to come together in the middle of those woods. A town grew up around the railroad junction in the following years, known at first as Terminus, then Marthasville and finally Atlanta. (But the neighborhood around his home, located several blocks west of today’s Five Points intersection, was known as “Thrasherville”, as is noted by a historical plaque standing in the area today, shown below.)
In the years after the end of the Civil War (1865) a group of investors organized to build another railroad out of Atlanta, this one headed through the “northeast Georgia wilderness” (as some called it in those days) to Greenville SC, Charlotte NC and points beyond. Early in 1869 they let a contract to Thrasher and several associates to build the first 20 miles of this new railroad, called the Piedmont Air-Line Railway at that point. This first section of the new line would run from central Atlanta to a point in the woods in then-lightly-populated Southwest Gwinnett County.
Thrasher thought that the end point of this 20 mile stretch, where a depot would be built, would be a good spot for a town, so he bought the land lot (250 acres) that surrounded the 20 mile point and got to work. He laid out streets and lots and built a hotel to hold the visitors he envisioned coming. He obtained a charter for the town from the state legislature in October, 1870, and named the new municipality after his good friend and fellow Atlanta pioneer Jonathan Norcross (who also happened to be one of the major proponents of the railroad into northeast Georgia). Thrasher is shown in the photo below.
The new town, and the hotel under construction there, were highlighted in a letter addressed to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, published in May 1870:
It is the first depot on the road from your city, and from the energy and perseverance of cousin John Thrasher is being rapidly built, in nice style. He is succeeding in improving this place beyond the most sanguine wishes of his many friends. His hotel, which will be completed soon, will be one of the finest wooden buildings in the State, it being almost built of oak and poplar. The style of the house, as well as the place of the town, does cousin John great credit. When it is completed it will be worth $16,000. He has been assisted in his labors by our friend, Capt. D. T. Williams, one of the best architects and civil engineers in the state.
Williams, a Georgia native, had a good background for this construction project – he was working as a surveyor at the time of the 1860 census, and he had served as a sergeant in the 2nd regiment of Engineers in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, where his role listed as an “Artificer”, indicating he was a skilled craftsman.
A drawing of the hotel, contained in a newspaper advertisement dating to the 1880s, is shown below:
In June 1870, once railcars were able to run regularly from Atlanta to the 20 mile point on the line, Thrasher announced an auction to sell lots in the new town, to be accompanied by festivities. On the big day several carloads of prospective investors came out the new railroad from Atlanta to take a look, and after the auction was complete (having resulted in the sale many of the available lots, with proceeds of several thousand dollars) Thrasher served a meal to the assembled crowd, described as follows in one of the Atlanta newspapers of the day:
After the sale the immense crowd present was invited by “Cousin John” to partake of the collation which was prepared for them. Men, women and children waded in to the good things that was set before them – such as lamb, kid, beef, chicken, potatoes, and everything that the most fastidious could wish for. “Cousin John,” fearing that some had not been served, gave a most excellent dinner at his hotel. The Fifth Avenue Hotel could not furnish a better bill of fare.
Thrasher contributed to the community in its early days in a number of ways – he was a donor to the Methodist Church’s Orphans Home located just outside town in the early 1870s, was one of the founders of a Baptist Church in town, and gave land for a city park (today’s Thrasher Park) and for homes for preachers.
He is remembered for ringing a hand bell when dinner was to be served at the hotel, to alert the guests that food was ready for them. One of the bells that was used at the hotel in its early days has been passed down in a local Norcross family, and is shown in the photo below.
But Cousin John’s financial situation hit hard times by 1877, resulting in him losing ownership of the hotel. In that year his father, David Thrasher, sued the son for repayment of an outstanding debt that had been secured by the hotel, and as a result Gwinnett Sheriff James Patterson sold the hotel property at public outcry on the courthouse steps in Lawrenceville to the highest bidder. Samuel B. Hoyt won the auction with a bid of $500.00, and he owned the hotel for several years. Thrasher moved to South Carolina around this time, and eventually settled in Florida, joining other family members there.
The census records in 1880 show that D U Sloan and his wife Julia were running the hotel– their occupations were listed as “landlord” and “landlady” in the census that year - and they had a large household – their son and Mr. Sloan’s sister lived with them, plus the property had 14 boarders (visitors) in residence at the time the census was taken, and 12 people who were evidently employees of the hotel, with occupations such as waiter, porter, seamstress, cook, laundress and hostler!
In the 1880s a newspaper advertisement for the hotel stated:
The Brunswick Hotel at Norcross GA is growing in favor with the public as a summer resort, being located on the Piedmont ridge and Air-Line railroad, only twenty miles from Atlanta. The town is 800 feet higher than Atlanta, water pure and unsurpassed, air bracing and healthy, climate fine for children. Parties seeking a quiet home for the heated summer months cannot find a better place. The table is supplied with the best the country affords, first class in every respect, attentive servants, etc.
The hotel is located in a four acre lot, within thirty feet of the passenger depot, several passenger trains passing daily to and from Atlanta, making it very convenient to parties wishing to visit the city. The lot is very shady, with trees in front of the house, which the cut does not show. A veranda of about 400 feet extends all around front of house. A large park on north side of hotel, a fine place for children. The rooms are large, and most of them 18 feet square, a suitable place for families. Terms very reasonable. Board per month, $25; per week, $7; per day, $1.50; single meals 35c. A first class livery stable is run in connection with the hotel.
W T Oliver wrote a retrospective article on the Brunswick Hotel in 1980, pointing back to the early days of the business, and noted another advertisement from that era:
A paragraph from an old paper advertising the hotel gives this description of the town:
“Norcross is a beautiful town of abundant commercial thrift and decided industrial hope. It has admirable climate and splendid health advantages. A ride of twenty miles from Atlanta in the palatial coaches of the Air Line Division of the Richmond and Danville Railroad brings the tourist to this thriving young city”
It appears that the building had two stories of rooms for guests in its early days, as well as large porches with rocking chairs, a dining room, and some rooms for events. The third story at that point was perhaps an attic, or quarters for employees or family. According to Oliver
The Brunswick had spacious “sample” rooms where “drummers” opened their large trunks and displayed their wares. The traveling salesmen used the hotel as headquarters and hired “rigs” from the local livery stable to canvass stores in Alpharetta, Buford, Cumming, Dahlonega, Dawsonville, Duluth, Gainesville, Roswell and Suwanee.
The photo below shows the rocker-strewn porch at the Brunswick in its early days.
The hotel was sold in 1887 to Atlanta businessman John M Holbrook for $1279.28, and the Holbrook family owned the property well into the 20 th century. J M Holbrook had had several businesses in Atlanta in the previous 20 years – he opened a “hat emporium” at 49 Whitehall Street in Atlanta in 1872, featuring men’s hats on the first floor and hats for ladies on the second floor. He advertised himself as the “King of Hatters” in those days. He was later active in the livery business in Atlanta, and built a cotton warehouse there.
He spent time in Norcross managing the hotel after purchasing it, concentrating on the summer resort trade, and in 1893 was elected mayor of the town. During the ownership of the Holbrook family the third story was expanded, as is shown in the photo below.
The livery stable noted above was part of the hotel for many years, but in 1903 Holbrook decided it was no longer the best use of the available space, with the Constitution reporting:
J. M. Holbrook has torn down his old livery stable and will erect a handsome cottage on the same lot, which will add very much to the looks of that part of town.
On its website Nanami Paper, a Japanese company that sells hand-crafted writing papers, describes the late 1800s and early 1900s as the “Golden Age of Penmanship”. The letter displayed below, from the collection of Norcross historian Geoff Hammett, was hand written by J M Holbrook. It exhibits his skill in penmanship. Dated 1903, the letter is written on the Brunswick Hotel letterhead.
J M Holbrook passed away in Atlanta in 1905. He is shown in the photo below, which was found on the Find a Grave website.
Holbrook’s son, William T Holbrook (known as “Billy” or “Billy Norcross”) took over management of the hotel after his father’s death, and operated it until his sudden death in 1910 at the age of 38.
After W T Holbrook’s death, the hotel became the property of his sister, Lula Holbrook. A Lawrenceville newspaper that December reported that:
Mr. S. Cain has rented the Brunswick Hotel from Miss Lula Holbrook, the owner, and will live there and conduct an up to date hotel.
Sylvester Cain’s management lasted two years, and at that point Mrs. J. B. Kimball, who had run the hotel for a time when it was owned by J T Holbrook, took over management once again.
A steady stream of Atlantans came to the Brunswick in the summers in the early 1900s, likely seeking to escape the heat, and perhaps poor sanitation, found in the capital city. In those days newspapers would often print listings of out of town visitors staying in local hotels, in mid July of 1908 the Atlanta Constitution listed by name seven Atlanta families staying at the Brunswick, plus several other individuals from the city, a lady from Americus GA and a man from New York City
In November 1908 one of the Lawrenceville newspapers reported that:
The Clemson “Tigers” spent several hours at the Hotel Brunswick en route to Atlanta
Research of newspaper reports from that November indicate that Clemson was playing Georgia in football that weekend, in a game held in Augusta, and evidently this article from Lawrenceville refers to a stop the team made in Norcross on their way to the game. (The Bulldogs won the game that year by a score of 8 – 0, in what was described as a “punting duel” in the Atlanta Constitution.)
In November 1909 the Constitution reported that a contingent had traveled from Atlanta to Norcross for a festive occasion at the hotel:
The Rough Riders of the Atlanta Horse Show are entertained at Halloween each year by W T Holbrook of the Brunswick hotel, so they came up last Saturday on horseback for their annual Halloween visit and Mr. Holbrook met them in the edge of town and gave them a welcome by trumpet. They were escorted to the hotel, where a country dance and sports of “ye olden time” were indulged in. Another pleasant feature was a visit to “Aunt Caroline”, the old fortune-teller, who has foretold the future for four generations.
“Aunt Caroline” is shown in the photo below:
With the rise of the automobile in the early 1900s, and the transportation flexibility that it offered, travel tastes changed, and the Brunswick Hotel faded from prominence. W H Meadows purchased the hotel in 1920 for $7,000.00, and owned it for the next 30 years. Early in his ownership he showed movies in the hotel to entertain the local population and guests – these may have been the first movies shown in Norcross. And before long he made changes to the building as well. W T Oliver wrote:
The two top floors were removed sometime in the early twenties. The remaining portion was used as residential units prior to October 1957, when all but one small section was torn down to make room for the construction of the new brick post office building, which has been occupied since April, 1958. Now all is gone.
Jean Beall, who grew up in Norcross in the last years of the Brunswick, recalled some of the residents who lived in the Brunswick in those days, including widow Edna Mitcham and her son Roy, and Miss Flonnie Clement, who made her living as a milliner.
Today the old well that provided water for the hotel in its early days is the only remaining physical remnant on the site of the Brunswick – it stands on Thrasher Street, next to the brick building that took the hotel’s place – see the photo below.
But in 2020 a new Brunswick appeared in downtown Norcross – it is an apartment complex of nearly 200 units, on Buford Highway adjacent to Lillian Webb Park, called The Brunswick, in honor of the old hotel.