David Sumner has written a short book about John J. Thrasher, Sumner’s great-great grandfather and the founder of Norcross. (Special Photo)
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John J. Thrasher is known through history for a lot of things. A railroad builder, he started the settlement that would eventually become Atlanta. Later in life, after disagreement over whether to incorporate what is now Georgia’s capitol city, he moved northward and founded the city of Norcross.
A gregarious sort, he was known as “Cousin John” by both friends and strangers because of his generosity and affable nature. But it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that he became known by David Sumner as great-great grandfather.
After making the family connection, Sumner, now a journalism professor at Ball State University, became enthralled with his ancestor’s history. Two years ago he published a short book titled “Railroad Man” — which the city of Norcross now distributes at its welcome center.
Sumner said he wrote and self-published the book to share with nieces and nephews and other family members. But the professor is happy to be able to re-tell the stories of his great-great grandfather for others as well.
“Being a writer, I got very interested in him,” Sumner said. “He seems to be a very colorful personality, an intriguing person.
“I had never even heard of him until 20 years ago. My dad never talked about him. He never said anything about our genealogy.”
Sumner was content with writing the short book for himself and his relatives, but that changed during a visit to Atlanta last year. The professor visited a friend in Decatur, and mentioned the book. The friend — Tony Callaway — said he knew Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson from Oak Grove United Methodist Church. After an introduction, 100 books were ordered for the visitor center in Norcross. But there was one problem.
“I only had about 10 copies left,” Sumner said.
A second publishing was ordered and some updates made and now Thrasher’s story is being shared with more people interested in Norcross and Atlanta and the connection between the two cities. Those with basic knowledge of the man recognize that Norcross’ Thrasher Park is named in honor of the city’s first mayor. But even for someone as knowledgeable about Norcross as Johnson, the book is enlightening.
“I had never gotten all the connections between Thrasher and starting Atlanta,” Johnson said. “(Sumner’s book is) a short read, but it’s fascinating information. The depth of that (book) was amazing. I grew up in this area and didn’t know a lot of that stuff.”
Despite his easy going nature, Thrasher left Atlanta after objecting to its incorporation. That led to him purchasing property about 20 miles northeast of Atlanta. There he built the first commuter train — named the “Airline Belle” — that ran from Atlanta to Norcross — named for his friend, fellow merchant and one-time Atlanta mayor Jonathan Norcross.
Thrasher also built the Brunswick Hotel (later torn down to make room for the post office) and wealthy Atlantans rode the train and stayed at the hotel for weekend getaways to the country.
“We were basically a summer retreat for Atlantans,” Johnson said of the early days of Norcross. “Things have changed a lot since those days.”
According to Sumner, Thrasher “made a whole lot of money and lost a whole lot of money” but what never changed was his love of the railroad. It was the railroad that led to the formation of both Atlanta and Norcross and it’s near a railroad where “Cousin John” now rests.
His tombstone in Dade City, Fla., sits no more than 40 feet from a railroad track. It’s a fitting resting spot for Thrasher, a “railroad man” to the end.
Email Todd Cline at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Wednesdays.