On Halloween day 1995 Milt Thomas closed on his very first home, a DIY project in a sketchy neighborhood tucked under the armpit of Interstate 20. This wasn’t a strategic investment on his part but rather the property connected with him on an emotional level with its clapboard siding and complete lack of right angles, evoking the nostalgia of his Mamaw’s country place in Alabama. In fact this ramshackle abode was a farmhouse circa 1920, the first house on that street in fact when the area was nothing but forest and farms. Plus $50k seemed reasonable for a duplex whose rental income covered the entire mortgage payment (not to mention that was his loan limit). Other pioneers followed suit and the growth in equity over the following years was phenomena. Everyone north of I-20 came to refer to the area as “that ridiculously trendy East Atlanta Village.”
While living in East Atlanta, Thomas worked in the bartending and food service industry to support his independent filmmaking habit. It was during this period that he achieved the almost “Almost Famous” status as writer/director in the independent film world with a solid review in Variety magazine etc. But with a modicum of success came a plethora of problems and his mind wandered to more peaceful locales. In 2014 he moved was to Porterdale, Georgia - a 100 year- old mill village 45 minutes East of Atlanta - where there were several hundred vintage clapboard homes that were going for $20-$30,000 at that time.
Generations ago, these modest bungalows congregated around a large hydroelectric textile mill on the Yellow River, a community deliberately designed by Bibb Manufacturing to keep its employees close under the paternal eye of the boss. Though the picturesque mill had already been converted to trendy loft apartments by the time Milt arrived, it was obvious that its renters were not from Porterdale - beyond its thick brick walls was a deteriorating landscape where the 1910s homes were sometimes neglected by slumlords so extensively that they had to be razed. There were no local regulations to stem the abuse of these historic properties which meant that this snapshot of a long-past historic American industrial era could be lost forever.
After the mill’s closure in the early 70s most of the employees left the region to seek jobs elsewhere, and druggies and convicts took their place, attracted by dirt cheap rent and a lack of law-enforcement. This stigmatized Porterdale for years and was the beginning of the end for many of the mill houses as the acceleration of disrepair snowballed.
In 2015 Thomas’ concern for the fate of the village prompted him to get his real estate license. He and a few other “trail blazers” in the area teamed up with Porterdale’s visionary mayor and an historic preservation commission was formed to implement damage control. Thomas played a significant role in communicating to a wide audience the great deals to be had in Porterdale home ownership. He finds it ironic that today he probably couldn’t afford to buy a home there, now a quaint shabby chic bedroom community.
His work done in Porterdale, he went even further East to relocate out in Sparta, Georgia, founding an artist workshop bed and breakfast called “Frognolia,” a somewhat spooky 6-bedroom 5000 sq ft 1900s manor where guests could take weekend classes conducted by professionals in creative writing, photography, and so forth. All the while he maintained his affiliation with ERA Foster and Bond, serving clients in the Lake Sinclair area and the historic property market of Sparta. He takes credit for saving at least one abandoned 19th century home that was on the cusp of irrevocable ruin. Thomas tenaciously tracked down the absentee owner living in another city and eventually paired him with a buyer willing to renovate the two-story decrepit belle within local historic guidelines.
Thomas recalls, “I told the owner if he’d have the jungle surrounding the property bush hogged and have somebody make a plywood ramp to bridge the concrete steps to the front door since the wraparound porch had completely collapsed a couple of years previous, I’d take care of everything else. All he would have to do is show up at the closing. There was no good reason for that community to lose another historic property when these homes one might say were Sparta’s main, if not only, asset.”
The extent of the work needed on the property was the main obstacle in finding a new owner. “Twice my leg went through the rotten dining room floor where my foot hit the dirt of the crawlspace. After that anyone entering the property had to sign a waiver holding us harmless for any injuries inflicted by the home. Only a fraction of a fraction of potential homebuyers would take on a project of that scope plus live in an area of Georgia that’s pretty isolated, so I cast a very wide net with my marketing which turned out to be pretty effective. Literally people from all over the country came to view the property.
An appropriate buyer appeared, the house was saved, and everyone was happy, particularly the seller who received a little surprise cash bonus that year after Milt called him up out of the blue. The commission on selling a decaying house in an isolated town is peanuts, so why did Thomas create this work for himself and spend so much time on the transaction? “I love it, it’s a creative challenge. But most importantly you can’t put a price on what widely-practiced historic preservation brings to a small town. It attracts outsiders who will put down roots and invest in the community. When one of these houses disappears, it’s gone forever and another Dollar General Store is not going to attract someone from Oregon that wants to start an organic farm and employ a sizable number of locals.”
Frognolia pulled its shutters closed for good after Covid killed the workshops and guest rentals that sustained it. After those two years were up, Milt came back to Atlanta where he immediately earned a Top Producer of 2021 award. He’s settled into Benteen Park - an area just below the Southside Beltline intersecting Boulevard at Grant Park - where he once again makes community a priority by joining the PTO of Benteen Elementary across the street (Go Bulldogs!) while also serving on its Atlanta Public Schools’ GO TEAM advisory board. Meanwhile he’s spearheading a campaign for the correction of his street name in honor of the Cuban woman who never spelled “Casanova” with two “S’s,” and is on the formative committee for the inaugural Benteen Park Fall Festival.
“There is no such thing as ‘spare time,’” Thomas states. “There is only ‘time’ and we all have the same amount per day.” He has no idea what TV shows are en vogue because he invariably spends his waking hours “actually doing something.” That usually includes DIY home improvement on his little 1954 brick ranch, or writing a screenplay.
651 Cassanova Street