A story passed down through the decades recounts the legacy of a visit by Bishop Warren Candler to St. Simons Island with his wife, Antoinette, sometime during his chancellorship of the university. (He was chancellor from 1915 until his retirement from the job in 1920.)
Both John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, had ministered to Native Americans and English colonists around Savannah and on St. Simons in 1736, shortly after the founding of the colony of Georgia. The Wesleys often preached outdoors, and tradition held that one particular large and impressive live oak tree on St. Simons had shaded the young Charles Wesley during a service of prayer and preaching. Some claim that John later preached there also. The tree came to be known as the Wesley Oak, and a photo of it appears in Lucian Lamar Knight’s Georgia Landmarks, Memorials, and Legends (1913–14, Vol. 1, p. 66).
Knight described the tree as rising “to a height of some two hundred feet, while, over an area of several acres, its cool shade rests like a benediction.” Knight held out the suspicion that the tree may not have been the identical one that shaded the Wesleys, but he acknowledged that the tree’s size suggested that it no doubt harked back to the early colonial era.
A historical marker pointing to the former location of the tree can be seen on the web here. The tree suffered its demise sometime in the 1920s, and the historical marker reports that a cross made from its wood hangs near the pulpit in Christ Church Frederica on St. Simons (the cross is just visible behind the American flag in the photo below).
In a pilgrimage the Candlers made to that live oak, Nettie, as the bishop called her, spotted a small holly bush growing out of a crook of the tree—probably from a seed left by a bird in its droppings onto the shallow soil accumulated there. According to lore, Nettie uprooted the little holly and brought it back to Atlanta for transplanting on the Emory campus near the Old Theology Building.
Years later, that holly had grown huge, sinking deep roots, and it had to be removed to make way for new steam pipes under the Quadrangle. Groundskeepers took cuttings from it first, then rooted them and planted them around the campus. Here and there (in front of the Psychology and Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, for example, and at the corners of Bowden Hall and Candler Library, and around Glenn Memorial), descendants of that original East Palatka holly bush, the “Wesley Holly,” still flourish. They are offspring of the holly that grew from the bole of a live oak under which, according to tradition, the Wesleys once had preached.
Nettie herself was something of a landscape gardener, by all accounts—the first in a long line of stewards of the campus who have dedicated themselves to keeping it green and beautiful. Under her guidance the ravine behind the old law school building (now Michael C. Carlos Hall) was turned into a garden with an amphitheater spacious enough to serve as the site for Commencement in the 1920s. Called Antoinette Gardens to honor its chief overseer, the area reverted to wildness after the Commencement activities moved elsewhere in 1926. Now called Baker Woodlands, the ravine honors another early steward of the landscape, the late biology professor Woolford B. Baker.
Gary S. Hauk