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Rock of ages
Stone Mountain Park celebrates 50th birthday

STONE MOUNTAIN - Charlotte Kelley's life has revolved around Stone Mountain.

It's where she played as a child, growing up in nearby Tucker. It's where she started her career, met and married her husband, where she took her own daughter to play as she grew up.

That mountain, built 400 million years ago by nature, is much more than a tourist attraction to Kelley.

But for five decades, it has been the centerpiece of Georgia tourism.

The carving of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson - the largest on Earth - attracts 4 million visitors a year from all over the world.

The park, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, is also a local favorite, where families spend time together and, in the Kelleys' case, families are created.

"I always wanted to work here, no where else," said Charlotte Kelley, who started her career at the park in 1965 at the age of 19.

Years later, she agreed to go on a date with the man who guarded her and co-workers as they counted the park's cash.

That man, Chuck Kelley, is now the park's police chief. So for the couple, Stone Mountain isn't just a landmark. It's a timeline of their lives.

"We've seen changes after changes after changes," Charlotte Kelley said, remembering the construction of attractions like the Evergreen and the Crossroads village.

Chuck's brother used to work at the park, as did three of Charlotte's sisters. Her youngest sister also met her husband at the park. The couple's daughter Michele Smith even worked for her mother for a time before beginning her career as a nurse.

"You can call this a family affair," Charlotte Kelley said.

The Lilburn couple is just one example, though of the lives intertwined with Stone Mountain's history.

Picnickers have rested in the shadow of the mountain since 1840, and its history as a meeting place dates back to 1790, when then-President Georgia Washington sent a colonel to meet with the Creek Indians at the granite dome.

"It always has been a meeting place, a picnic place," said Curtis Branscome, director of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the state agency created 50 years ago to turn the mountain and 1,500 acres of land into a park. The park has since been expanded to 3,200 acres - five square miles.

"It's an unusual feature. People always like high places. You can see forever up there," Branscome said.

While the idea for the mountain's famous carving dates back to 1909 and work began in 1923, sculptor Gutzon Borglum left the state in 1925 after only completing the head of Gen. Lee - topped with a hat. (Borglum went on to construct Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.)

While another sculptor, Augustus Lukeman, was hired the same year, financial straits stopped work in 1928, and it didn't resume again until 1964.

The carving was completed in 1972, and in 1983 it became the star in the park's annual summer laser shows.

For 15 years, Spencer Clarke has ended his annual Atlanta mission trip for students at Marantha Academy in Shawnee, Kan., at Stone Mountain.

"The city is go, go, go, clang, clang, clang," he said of bustling Atlanta. "Out here it's quieter. ... It's a time of respite and devotion. It gives us a chance to get closer to God and let him get close to us."

The call of the mountain also draws Gwinnett woman Timi Higgins to the park. She often brings her kids to the laser show and enjoys "geo-caching," which is an outdoor treasure-hunt game.

Recently, Higgins, a fifth-grade teacher at Hebron Christian Academy, took her class to the top of the mountain, where they could see Atlanta's skyline.

"They were so excited," Higgins said of the annual field trip, where teachers try to slide in lessons about history, geography and even math. "It's more fun than anything. If they can pick up a little knowledge along the way, it's a good day."

Donald Allen, who traveled to Georgia from Binghamton, N.Y., to visit a friend, was fascinated by the mountains 400 million year history.

"Stone Mountain's famous," he said with a laugh. "It's not quite Disney World, but it is famous."

SideBar: Fun facts

· Stone Mountain Park consists of 3,200 acres.

· The carving on the North face of the mountain remains the world's largest relief sculpture and covers more than three acres of the mountain's face.

· It's the world's largest mass of exposed granite. It stands 825 feet and covers 583 acres or 25 million square feet.

· By calculated "guesstimate," Stone Mountain weighs 1,614,748,884,505 pounds

Granite quarried from Stone Mountain has been used in construction projects throughout the world, including the locks of the Panama Canal, the U.S. Capitol Building and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan.

· Locks of Panama Canal

· Tunnel under Lake Saint Clair between

Detroit and Canada

· Vaults of the Treasury Building, D.C.

· Steps in the U.S. Capitol, D.C.

· Depository at Fort Knox

· Imperial Hotel, Tokyo

· Capital Building, Havana, Cuba

· Barracks at Ft. Benning

· Monuments, Chickamauga National

Battlefield

· Federal Reserve Bank, Atlanta

· Buildings at U.S. Naval Base, Norfolk,

Virginia