The “Forrest” memorialized in Lake Forrest Drive may have been a noted real estate developer and children’s hospital co-founder, not a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, according to a researcher. But if there is a KKK connection, it would reveal bad motives for such notable figures as the namesake of Chastain Park, he said.

In the wake of protests about racism and police brutality, the city of Sandy Springs is pushing to rename the street — which runs four miles through its jurisdiction and Buckhead — based on a local rumor that it honors Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Civil War and KKK figure. The city has no solid evidence for the rumor and a 2017 Atlanta city staff investigation of Confederate-tribute streets could not establish a connection.

A Lake Forrest Drive street sign at the intersection with Northwood Drive in Sandy Springs. (Google Maps)

Bill Hardin, a professional real estate researcher in Midtown, says an investigation he did about the area 15 years ago suggests it might have been named for a developer or a development — possibly Forrest Adair, who partnered in the creation of such Atlanta neighborhoods as Adair Park and Druid Hills, served as a Fulton County commissioner, and co-founded what is now the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite hospital in Sandy Springs.

Adair once maintained a summer home in the historic Powers family cottage whose surviving chimney is now a prominent archaeological feature in Sandy Springs’ Morgan Falls Overlook Park, and in 2010 he was honored in the renaming of part of the city’s Brandon Mill Road to Adair Lane.

But Hardin acknowledges he has no solid evidence for his naming theory, either, beyond cryptic notes he made during his investigation. Hardin says more digging would be needed to clarify the 82-year-old street name — something difficult to do with libraries shuttered for the coronavirus pandemic.

Hardin said that if the Confederate/KKK inspiration proved true, it would reflect poorly on some notable families and figures who petitioned Fulton County for the name — including Troy Chastain, a former Fulton County commissioner and the namesake of Buckhead’s Chastain Park, who led the effort.

“I didn’t find the smoking gun,” said Hardin, who discussed the topic in emails and a phone interview. “…If it was [named for Nathan Bedford Forrest], I won’t be surprised, but I will be disappointed. … What I don’t want to do is find out six months afterward that it was named for [Chastain’s] partner who was named Forrest.. and that’s where I think it’s headed.”

While the specifics of the “Lake Forrest” name remain unclear, Hardin said he has documents that clarify other mysteries, including the date of the naming. He said the road was originally called West Peachtree Drive and was renamed in 1938 via a petition to Fulton County prompted by Chastain’s plan to build a subdivision in the area of what is now the Sandy Springs/Atlanta border.

The “lake” of the name and the adjacent Forrest Lake Drive is the three unnamed ponds that currently sit behind dams on the cities’ border, said Hardin. He said an earlier pond called Pine Lake sat on the site before Chastain bought 164 acres in the area, drained it, and created the current three ponds in 1940.

Hardin said he came by his knowledge through a mix of unique personal and professional experience. He said he grew up on Carlton Drive in Buckhead in the 1960s and explored the ponds of the then-rural area for fishing expeditions. In 1961, he began fishing at the middle of the three unnamed ponds on Lake Forrest, and to this day is allowed by residents to keep a canoe there.

Years later, Hardin got involved with the ponds as a real estate researcher. Around 2005, he said, he was hired by homeowners there to research the history of the dams due to their concern that the then-new city of Sandy Springs might attempt to get them involved in paying for repairs or reconstruction. That has indeed happened, with a state-ordered reconstruction of the dam first prompting a three-way ownership dispute among the homeowners and the cities of Atlanta and Sandy Springs. Today, a Sandy Springs-led reconstruction plan is moving ahead while some residents sue over its impacts.

Hardin said that his research included the development activities of Chastain and Adair in the area. As a byproduct, he learned about the renaming of the street, but did not focus on it at the time. He said Chastain developed the houses around the ponds and created the streets Forrest Lake Drive, Merlendale Drive and Pine Lake Drive.

The documents seeking and approving the renaming of West Peachtree do not give any reason for the Lake Forrest name, Hardin said. He said his assumption was that the renaming related to the development, not the Confederate general.

“I never heard that as a rumor in my life and I grew up around Lake Forrest,” Hardin said of the Nathan Bedford Forrest origin tale.

Hardin said his speculation about Forrest Adair is based on two notes he made during his research that refer to a “‘Chastain-Forrest’ as if they were a corporation name.” He said he does not recall what those references meant and that is what more investigation would be needed to check. His guess is based on Chastain and Adair being friends, neighbors and possible cousins who worked in the area around the same time. Adair died two years before the renaming.

If the street was named for Forrest Adair, that could open other questions about the origin of his name. Adair’s father George published a pro-secession newspaper called the Southern Confederacy and served as an aide to Nathan Bedford Forrest during the war.

Hardin emphasized that his alternative theory of the Lake Forrest name is not an attempt to protect any Confederate tribute that might be the real origin.

“I have no loyalty to anything Confederate whatsoever. I’m against all that stuff. The politics of the South when I was growing up was the most evil thing I’ve seen in my life,” he said, adding that there was no question about the purpose of the era’s Confederate monuments: “They were put up specifically to put Black people in their place. They had bad motives back then.”

Likewise, he said, he’s hesitant to name other people who signed the 1938 street renaming petition until he can double-check his theory. Even though they are long dead, some of their descendants are still here, he said, and a Nathan Bedford Forrest tribute from their ancestors might be unwelcome family news. “I would love to hear something not Confederate,” he said.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.