The other day, I asked Brad Cunard, the proprietor of Little's Food Store in Cabbagetown, which version of the Cabbagetown name story he preferred. I didn't have to explain more than that before he told me that he liked the one about the smell more than the one about the truck. He said the one about the truck wasn't unbelievable, but it did seem silly. Then he gave me the number to reach Leon Little, whose family started that small grocery store in 1927.
You see, for the past few years living in Atlanta, I've been hearing stories about how Cabbagetown got its name. Depending on who is telling it and the number of drinks imbibed, the story can shift from something short and plain to something distinctly cinematic. The short version is that poor Appalachian folk working at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill would leave cabbage cooking all day long in the adjacent mill town houses, which produced that recognizable cabbage funk. The long version starts with a truck carrying an open load of cabbage through the neighborhood, taking a sharp turn, flipping over, and spilling the load of cabbages all over the street. In some versions of the story, a man watching the accident yells out, "Free cabbages!" In other versions, the truck driver decides to give away the spoiled load. In either case, the entire neighborhood splits up the truckload of cabbages and cooks them on the same night. Again, the stink of cooking cabbage lingers for days and the neighborhood forever goes by that name.
In some ways, the one about the truck checks out. The streets in Cabbagetown are so comically narrow that it is easy to imagine an old, Depression-era truck piled high with cabbage turning over in a sharp turn. You can picture the resourceful neighbors raiding the pile. But Cunard is right. It sounds silly, almost too perfect. The details that accompany it, like the guy yelling out "free cabbages," sound purely apocryphal.
Yet, when I called Leon Little, who was born in 1941 on Carroll Street next door to his family's grocer, that's the first story he told me. "Well, that's the one we heard growing up," he said. He couldn't say when the truck might have turned over, just that he'd heard the one about the truck all of his life.
I called the researchers down at the Atlanta History Center, and they pointed me to the two thick files of newspaper clippings and original documents related to Cabbagetown. A report by the National Register of Historic Places references the story about the truck but doesn't cite any documentation. According to the register, the neighborhood was known as Factory Town or Fulton Mill Village before it became Cabbagetown. There are lots and lots of clippings about Esther LeFevre, who worked tirelessly as a neighborhood advocate and community organizer in the '70s. I couldn't find a single newspaper clipping older than 1969 that actually prints the word "Cabbagetown." A couple clippings mentioned an oral history titled Cabbagetown Families, Cabbagetown Food, so I took a note about it and then didn't think much else of it.
Later that day I called Lance Ledbetter, the guy who runs Dust-to-Digital records and who knows more about old-timers from the South than any person I've ever met, and told him that I'd hit a wall, that I couldn't find anything to back up this story about the truck or the smell or a date around when the name came into use or anything else really. He picked a reference book off his shelf and came across an entry about a musician who had lived in Cabbagetown. The entry also mentioned the story about the truck and cites Cabbagetown Families, Cabbagetown Food as the source. "Says here that the first four pages are all about the name," Ledbetter said.
I tracked down a copy of the book (it's long out of print) and turned to the first chapter, "Naming the Neighborhood." Here were interviews with women who had lived their whole lives in the neighborhood, who mostly were all born or moved to the neighborhood before the Depression. I was excited, certain this would be the book to clarify things. Beatrice Dalton, born 1903, says, "Somebody spilt a carload of cabbage and the people around here was so short of food they gathered it all up and ate cabbage for awhile." But then Effie Dodd Gray, born 1910, says, "It's not called Cabbagetown" and "I know there ain't any truth to that story about the truck turning over." Then Azilee Edwards says, "It was called Cabbagetown when I moved here in 1919." Then Levie Bratcher says, "I been here since 19 and 19. First time I heard that name called was after the Savannah Street Mission started up here about 1940." Then there are the variations — the truck doesn't turn over, it just breaks down; the truck isn't a truck but a trainload of cabbage instead; the whole neighborhood used to grow cabbage; and no one ever grew cabbage in the neighborhood.
That's when I realized what I was looking at wasn't a story as much as a song. If you're vaguely familiar with Appalachian folk music, you know better than to go looking for the person who wrote "Cumberland Gap" or "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground." They're just tunes that have been passed around; one person will add a verse or get rid of one, change a word or two here and there. Looking at the stories in Cabbagetown Families, Cabbagetown Food, you can see how one person keeps the tune and changes the words, adds their own verse, and gets rid of one they didn't like. Apparently, the song is still being sung.