The Old Atlanta Prison Farm, also know as the Honor Farm, has a fascinating history. In the midst of the Civil War in 1863, records show that Atlanta’s Council proposed buying 150 acres of what is now partially the prison property. The Council passed this resolution and intended to use the tract as a cemetery, though never did. The land played a key beginning role in a famous Civil War battle, the Battle of Atlanta. What became the prison farm was along the route of Hardee’s March on July 21, 1864 (historic marker). In later years, the portion of the farm on Key Road passed back to the private ownership of two men, James Moore, who owned the land north of Key Road, and the namesake, George Key, who owned the southern part.
The Honor Farm began as an experiment. In 1917, the federal government originally bought expansive land in DeKalb County to be used as a prisoner-of-war camp. It never was put to this use and for $160,000, in 1918, the Bureau of Prisons and United States Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta took possession of the 1,248 acres. The tract, located about eight miles from the main penitentiary, was organized into a farm the next year.
The first warden, a man named Pet Fry, transformed the new farm from unkempt property to its use as an Honor Farm for felons convicted of minor crimes. It is unclear whether Fry’s own philosophy influenced the adoption of the honor system governing the operations of the Prison Farm. Nonetheless, the “Honor Farm” was so named because there were no guards with firearms or bars or fences to keep prisoners from fleeing. Officials in charge of the farm were the warden and foremen in the fields, who were agricultural experts rather than prison guards. The original staff also included a veterinarian and a physician.
Over the years the farm became more and more productive. By 1930, the Honor Farm was working to make the most of its acreage. In that year, a crew of men embarked on an extensive dredging project of former marshland, especially that land near the section of the South River which flowed through the property. The crew completed the project with technical assistance from the road commissioner for DeKalb County. In 1935 there were 150 prisoners working on the farm. They had cultivated 799 units of the acreage and provided vegetables and milk for themselves and for those in the main penitentiary.
The Honor Farm saw its heyday during the 1950’s, after which time its history becomes murky. The City of Atlanta acquired the property and, subsequently, the General Services Administration closed the farm in 1965. By 1966 the expanse of the old Honor Farm was divided and designated for different uses.