The first was Aunt Fanny’s Cabin in Smyrna.
According to the website www.tomitronics.com, from 1941 to 1992, Aunt Fanny’s, which started as a country store, was the embodiment of Southern cooking and culture in Atlanta: World-famous fried chicken with all the fixings and a hefty slice of muted racism. Located on Campbell Road, the theme restaurant was beloved by many Northsiders for the food alone. As for the racism, I won’t go into the details here, only say that it was another time.
The “cabin” itself harkened back to the first suburban developments in metro Atlanta. Vinings and Smyrna were home to summer retreats for the city’s affluent business and civic leaders in the late 1800s. Accessible by train, the area was a respite from the heat, dirt and dust of the city center.
One such businessman was Richard Orme Campbell, the founder of the Campbell Coal Co. For a few hundred dollars in 1890 he purchased 80 acres in what is now Smyrna, transforming the land into a working farm he called Argyle.
There was a main house and several outlying buildings where tenant farmers lived. One of those buildings became Aunt Fanny’s Cabin.
As the automobile become more popular during the early part of the 20th century, summer retreats like Argyle Farm became year-round homes. That was the case for Campbell’s daughter, Isoline, who started the famous eatery.
Isoline Campbell McKenna Howell was born and raised in Atlanta, attended school in Athens and New York, and while on a tour of Europe in 1914 — specifically Belgium in August of that year — she witnessed the beginning of World War I. The experience profoundly affected the young woman. When she returned to Atlanta, she helped establish the Junior League of Atlanta and served as the charity organization’s first president.
For the affluent Howell, going to parties and making a debut was not enough. Women needed to be involved in improving their communities. She would later return to Europe to help with the war effort. She married and divorced, living for a time in Boston before returning to Atlanta. She started selling antiques and unique farm knick-knacks out of one of the cabins on her now deceased father’s farm. Among the items that were sold was the home cooking of the Campbell family’s cook, Fanny Williams: preserves, goulash, biscuits.
Legend had it that Williams was a former slave who had lived in the cabin with her family. Because the farm was purchased in 1890, that doesn’t quite hold. Regardless, people started coming to the cabin more for “Aunt” Fanny Williams’ food — which was affordable as the country entered the second world war — than the antiques. The entrepreneurial Howell put the focus on dining, and Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was born.
Williams often sat out on the front porch, regaling visitors from New York, London and Paris with stories. She was equally a force in the community, helping raise funds for causes including an African-American hospital in Marietta. Williams died in 1949, according to www.tomitronics.com.
Howell, who married again, this time to Don Maxwell Howell, sold Aunt Fanny’s to another restaurateur in 1954, and Aunt Fanny’s continued to thrive until the 1980s, its walls covered with old photographs of all the visiting celebrities. In 1992 it closed for good. The original cabin, which had been added onto time and again to accommodate the growing crowds, is now on Atlanta Road and operated as a hospitality venue by the city of Smyrna.
Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at email@example.com.