William Melton McElroy was known as “Will” or “Mr. Mac” by friends around town, and as “Papa Billy” or “Uncle Will” to relatives. He lived most of his 95 years in Norcross, and for the latter part of his life he was the last surviving citizen who was here when Norcross was founded in 1870. This article tells the story of his life and family.
Will’s grandfather, also named William McElroy, lived in DeKalb County near the intersection of today’s I-285 and Buford Highway in the mid 1800s, and in 1864, shortly before his death, he bought several hundred acres of largely undeveloped land that is part of Norcross today. This land included the building that is today’s Flint Hill event center, though it was a more modest farmhouse at that time – it was remodeled with a Mount Vernon type façade in the 1930s.The land stretched south and east from there.
Will’s father Stephen Tilly McElroy (known as “Tilly”) fought in the Confederate Army in the Civil War (1861-1865). He was wounded in 1863 in Mississippi, and part of his left leg was amputated as a result. After the war ended Tilly taught school at Oak Grove, in DeKalb County, and in 1866 married Laura Lively. They remained married until her death in 1883, and Will was the first of their four children, born in August, 1869.
In 1870 an opportunity came their way. At that point construction was underway on a new railroad through northeast Georgia - the Piedmont Airline railroad, connecting Atlanta to Charlotte (it is today’s Norfolk Southern that runs through Norcross) - and the McElroys moved to the land that his father had purchased in Gwinnett. There Tilly McElroy worked with his father in law, Milton C Lively, to operate a sawmill that provided construction materials for the railroad.
Will attended school in Norcross in his early years, studying under N F Cooledge in the community schoolhouse, which stood on Sunset Drive near its intersection with Barton Street in the late 1800s. A photo of the school staff and students from the late 1800s is shown below.
After several years of education in Norcross Will attended high school in Atlanta, at the Means School for Boys, run by Thompson A E Means, a well-respected educator active in Atlanta for many years. A photo of Means is shown below, along with an ad for the school dating from 1881.
Will married Alma Knox of Duluth in her brother’s home there on 23 July 1890, and they remained married until her death in 1962. Anna was very active in the Norcross Woman’s Club – she was a founding member when it was formed in 1905, and took various leadership roles in the organization over many years.
Anna and Will had one child, a son, named Eugene Woodfin McElroy. He was known by his middle name, Woodfin. The photo below shows a McElroy family reunion held in 1903 in honor of the 88th birthday of Will’s grandmother. Alma and Will are shown in the middle of the back row, and Woodfin is towards the front on the left.
Woodfin went to school at North Georgia Agricultural College in Dahlonega as a young man, then lived in Atlanta with his aunt, working as a salesman for a barber supply company. Woodfin married Ethel Willingham in 1912, and the event rated a story in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper at the time it occurred. It seems that they had been courting for a time, and decided one evening that it was time to marry – a preacher was awakened in the middle of the night to perform the ceremony, and they left by train for a wedding trip to Florida immediately after the ceremony, at 1:45 in the morning.
Woodfin and Ethel had one daughter, named Alice Elizabeth.
Will had a number of jobs over the course of his long life –
- he worked with his uncle, M L Lively, in developing a railroad in south Georgia
- he was secretary and treasurer for the Winder Cotton Manufacturing Company in Winder GA
- together with two partners he established an insurance agency in Atlanta
- he did administrative work in the furniture manufacturing business that his father and cousin ran, The McElroy and Nesbit Furniture Company, and then later worked as a traveling salesman for that business
- he served as Norcross postmaster from 1914 to 1933
- he ran a coal yard in Norcross for over 40 years
In the early 1900s the post office was located in the building that contains the 45 South coffee shop today. It is shown in its post office days in the photo below.
In the book Norcross John Adams wrote a description of downtown Norcross in the years when he was growing up (1920s – 1930s), and as part of that he wrote about Will McElroy’s coal business:
Mr. Will McElroy was another native with a dual business. He was for many years the Postmaster of Norcross, but during this period he also operated a business selling coal the year round. This business was very active in the winter months when the weather was cold. Many people used coal burning fireplaces or pot bellied heaters. He had a full time employee, George Bursey, who made coal deliveries in a one horse wagon throughout town. The coal would come into Norcross on a coal freight car and George would unload it on the ground beside the railroad. It would remain in this spot until its later delivery to the using customers.
The coal was stored on the ground across South Peachtree Street from the area where Antique Traditions and other businesses are located today. The minutes of the Norcross city council meeting on May 2, 1919 note that Will McElroy asked for permission to employ drays to deliver coal from the storage area to customers in town as needed. The council agreed to his request, but required that he pay a license fee of $5.00.
Will and Alma joined the Norcross Methodist Church shortly after their marriage, and were members for the remainder of their lives.
Will grew up in the house that is now the Flint Hill event space – the photo below shows the home in the 1890s. (It was given a new façade, reminiscent of Mount Vernon, in the 1930s.)
Will and Alma lived in a home next to Flint Hill in the early years of their marriage. This home was on a tour of homes in the early 1980s, and the paragraph below, printed at that time, tells of its history at that point.
The William McElroy House was built in 1889 as a wedding gift for his son by Stephen Tilly McElroy Jr. The founding president of the Norcross Community Association, Fraser Duke, bought the house in 1979 and in 1981 he moved it from Norcross Tucker Road to its present location on a hilltop off South Peachtree. Since then Duke and his friends have spent many hard hours refinishing the woodwork within the large blue house.
This home is shown in the photo below.
Will and Alma bought a lot on Thrasher Street and built the house that is now denoted as 258 Thrasher Street in 1921. In the May 19 1921 edition of Lawrenceville’s Gwinnett Journal newspaper Eb McElroy wrote about his nephew building the new house, and gave some history of the immediate area on Thrasher Street:
Land Mark Gives Way to Modern Improvements
Norcross, May 18 (Special) – A half century land mark has given place to an up-to-date bungalo being erected by Postmaster McElroy on a subdivision of Dr. Parks, Mills, Jones, Mrs. McNabb – Homer Jones block. Your correspondent was informed by the Postmaster’s father (Capt. S. T. McElroy) that he sawed the lumber in 1871 with which this old Parks house was built right on the hill. Considerable of this fifty-year-old lumber was found to be perfectly sound, better than can be had today and was worked into the new residence.
In this connection the writer is reminded that just before the war between the states closed his father traded a family of slaves for the Flint Hill Spring Camp Ground. Lots of land where half the city of Norcross are builded then [was] almost completely covered by in original growth forest so we suspect that the timbers of this house were sawn from thousand year old heart pine and high-to-the-first-limb oak tree – even inside the corporate limit of the then year old village of Norcross. But back to the subject – the only unimproved lot in this Homer Jones subdivision block has lately been purchased by D. B. Wall who intended to build a neat cottage thereon in the near future.
They lived there for the rest of their lives. It is shown in the photo below.
Alma developed health issues in the 1920s, and as a result Will and Alma bought their first automobile in 1930, when he was 60 years old. He had never driven up to that point, so the salesman at the auto dealer taught him the basics when he purchased the machine and then Will drove it home. He said in an interview some years later that when he purchased cars over the years afterwards he would always have Alma go to the dealership and pick out one that she liked, and then he would go pay for it.
Will was very active into his 90s. He would drive himself down to his granddaughter’s home in Atlanta for Sunday dinner every week until a few months before he died. He loved to garden, being particularly proud of the tomatoes that he grew at his home. Billy Weathers, who lived next door to Will in the 1950s, remembers coming out one day to find that Will was up on the roof of his home raking off the leaves, something that Billy had not expected to find a man in his 80s doing!
Alma Knox McElroy died in 1962, a few months after she and her husband had celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary. Will followed her to their final resting place, Westview cemetery in Atlanta, in 1965, passing due to complications that developed after he suffered a fall.