Presbyterian Village Austell Campus Conservation

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say they save me, and daily.
Mary Oliver, From Thirst

The 60-acre campus of Presbyterian Village Austell is a wildlife refuge. It was named an Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary in 2010.

It is a place of woodland paths and open spaces. It features remarkable biodiversity. There are 17 different species of trees on Virgil’s Trail alone. It is a place filled with birdsong and blossoming plants all year long. It is a place that invites a canopied hike or a leisurely stroll; there are ample spots for quiet reflection, picnics, and a promontory sunset. It is a place that honors God’s creation in all of its natural beauty.

Throughout the history of this residential retirement community, there have been concerted and dedicated efforts to conserve the uniqueness of our campus setting.

We hope that you will be enticed to take a “virtual tour” of our campus and that it will enhance and enliven your appreciation of the timeless beauty this campus offers. Indeed, we hope that it will inspire you to help us glorify and sustain the legacy of wonder of Presbyterian Village.

A retired Naval chaplain with the rank of Commander and a former Methodist minister, Reverend Virgil Sexton and his wife, Katy, moved to Presbyterian Village in Austell, Georgia, a retirement community of 60 acres, in February of 1997. Their home at 1960 Overbrooke Way backs up to a thick second-growth forest. As an Eagle Scout and dedicated outdoorsman, Virgil must have been beckoned to the wooded hillside and to the creek below.

Sometime thereafter, Virgil and another resident, Bill Boyd, together with Dr. Frank McElroy, Jr., explored the possibility of a path through the woods with entrances off Overbrooke Way and, at the lower end, off Champion Drive. Approval was given and soon members of the Landscape Committee, under Virgil’s inspiration and active leadership, began to create a nature trail. In addition to Village residents, Boy Scouts seeking Eagle Rank helped with the creation of the trail. One Scout chose to design and build a bridge across South Creek. The bridge carried many across the creek from early 2007 until 2022 when it was replaced. Girl Scouts seeking the Silver Award carried out trail cleanup and planting projects. The 13-year-old grandnephew of Susan Daugherty, Forrest Daugherty, built a forge and created a rebar fishing boy to sit on a stump beside the creek. The fish at the end of his line has escaped more than once. The rebar boy was Virgil’s idea.

The lower trail was cut wide enough in places to walk side by side. There are a few small benches on which to rest, meditate, observe and listen to birds. Trees native to the area are marked. Virgil envisioned native azaleas, mountain laurel, galax and other plants natural to the woods. “No city plants,” he often said. The path from the bridge curves and starts up a rather steeply graded hill. Four-foot-wide steps were built into the hill to afford two people the chance to look around at the woods and to make the ascent more accessible. A strong hemp rope, strung between trees and 4×4 posts, is used to help hike up and down that portion of the trail.

At the top of the hill you see the backs of the houses on Overbrooke Way. At that site, Virgil planned a resting place in a small clearing with a wrought iron table and chairs. A brick bench dug into the bank of the hill was also constructed. The Village celebrated Virgil’s 90th birthday at this spot on May 31, 2008.

From the resting place the path levels and heads west. It goes past the upper entrance, an entrance that adjoins property that was formerly Virgil’s back yard. A narrower path leads across a bridge from which one can look down to the lower part of the trail and see the creek and the backs of homes which face South Creek Drive. Just a few feet further on you walk out of the forest and into an open area with a gazebo.

As the trail was nearing completion, Virgil, Bill and several others went to a “close out” Home Depot sale on South Cobb Drive and returned home with the wrought-iron table and chairs for the resting place and the gazebo. Arrangements were made for leveling the ground and setting the gazebo in place. This is a perfect spot from which to view the campus and may be the best place on this property to sit and watch the sunset.

The lower trail entrance at Champion Drive is marked by an arbor over which grows Carolina Jessamine. One walks through a small garden of native azaleas, oakleaf hydrangeas and drifts of Lenten roses. A bench is nearby. Within reach is a small wooden box with a map containing an illustrated outline of the trail together with identifying notes on particular trees. That box and two others like it were rebuilt by Dr. Gene Harley in 2022-23 for placement at each entrance to the trail.

Recently, an extension of Virgil’s Trail was envisioned and begun by Charlie and Mary Scott, who live at the top end of South Creek Drive. During COVID-19, they worked to build a bridge over South Creek together with several lovely spots to rest and read by the creek. The extension begins with a rather steep descent to the creek from their backyard, crosses the creek and ambles alongside the creek to just south of the original bridge, and connects there with Virgil’s Trail. That portion of the Trail was formally designated as the Scott Extension of Virgil’s Trail in December, 2022, by the Landscape Committee.

In December of 2021, Virgil’s nephew Peter Cobb and his wife, Carolyn, moved to Presbyterian Village. Peter recognized that Virgil’s Trail needed attention and worked with the Landscape Committee to lovingly improve and revitalize the work begun by his uncle and others. In 2022, the Landscape Committee authorized and financed new signage along the trail. This signage includes QR codes which can be accessed both by new maps of the trail and through plaques identifying 22 trees, 17 of which are different species. These plaques and maps, which allow “virtual tours” of Virgil’s Trail, were completed and installed in the spring of 2023.

Tree Guide

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