It began as kind of a dark joke, all told, but the Doll’s Head Trail—a name that doesn’t quite sum up the 2.5-mile whimsical (and sometimes creepy) trail-turned-art exhibit tucked away in DeKalb, County’s Constitution Lakes Park in Atlanta, Georgia—has evolved into a regional and national attraction since its inception a decade ago.
We chatted with the trail’s creator, Joel Slaton, who discussed the unique trail’s origins and its evolution into an asset that’s inspiring local preservation efforts.
“I have a desire to build,” said Slaton, a self-employed carpenter, who first began to create the trail in February 2011. “The recession hit in 2008, and in 2010 it really started to settle in; my son was 20 and was building his own life …. I was barely making it by when I read about Constitution Lakes Park in the paper.”
Slaton hadn’t been aware of the park’s existence despite having grown up just a few miles away. With little else to do, he started exploring the space, eventually making his way to the far eastern end of the park, which at that time was used only by a few locals and birdwatchers there to get a glimpse of the dozens of bird species that nest in the 125-acre natural area.
It was in that remote section that he started finding doll parts—“mostly heads, arms and legs, no torsos”—he affirmed, as well as other items such as discarded parts of appliances, old bicycle parts, bottles and clay tiles from the site’s industrial days. More on that below.
“Initially, I just had an urge to build something and keep my hands busy,” said Slaton, whose first vignette was built from an old electric stove and pieces of a washing machine.
He kept building, with dismembered doll parts and other items around the park, including the old brickwork that remained from a quarry that hadn’t been active for a century. “I said, ‘if DeKalb County doesn’t approve, I’ll just take it down.’ But the leader of the park system, Dave Butler, fell in love with it and gave his tacit approval, knighting it formally in 2012. I started meeting with people, and people started building their own vignettes.”
And so the trail grew, in popularity and local support.
A Brief History of the South River Brickworks
The Doll’s Head Trail is located on the former site of the South River Brick Company, which was created in the late 1800s, and went under in 1907. According to a 2014 story on the trail by WABE—Atlanta’s local NPR affiliate—the brickworks served as a major quarry operation, making bricks for Atlanta’s sewers, the Candler Building, and buildings and sidewalks throughout the Southeast. “The chug and wail of the CSX train that echoes through the trees as it rolls past every half-hour is an eerie reminder of the rail line that was once essential to South River Brick’s operation.”
“Brickmaking was a wasteful process at the time,” said Slaton, adding that in a kiln, roughly half of any load of bricks might be either overcooked or undercooked, forcing them to be dumped. Other companies in Atlanta began paying the South River Brick Company money to dump their excess brick as well.
The clay pits were eventually filled in by water, creating lakes, and after the quarry closed, a homestead was built, which—in the absence of available garbage service—also used a portion of the property as a dumping ground.
That’s where Slaton found the doll parts.
Flooding from the adjacent South River further serves to regularly bring trash and debris into the area.
Whimsical Art Encourages Visitors to Help Clean Up the Open Space
When looking at images of the folk art that lines the trail, one might consider many of the exhibits both whimsical or spooky, depending on the mood. But, as Slaton confirmed, while there are six or seven intact doll vignettes, most of the estimated 100 pieces you’ll find in the 1-acre space aren’t dolls, but creations made with other things around the property.
And if Slaton’s adage—that the “perfect park is history, nature and art” is true, then the Doll’s Head Trail fits the bill, as a unique attraction that is not just bringing people into the park, but encouraging them—within a larger beautiful natural setting—to leave it better than they found it.
While the county collects trash along the boardwalk and the main park parking lot, Slaton and volunteers are responsible for collecting and hauling trash out of the Doll’s Head Trail area. But Slaton says people who visit the trail are heeding their own call—not only by repurposing discarded items and litter into art, but by helping to clean up and maintain the surrounding area.
“For every piece that’s on the trail—we’ve taken 100 pieces of garbage out,” said Slaton. “People are helping to maintain the trail and collect trash. The South River comes out of Atlanta; every time there’s a big rain all this plastic debris is lodged into the undergrowth. People pick it up. People have pulled tires out of the river and stacked them out [on their own]. People see what needs to be done out there, and they do it.”
As Slaton looks to his eventual retirement from his role as the trail’s curator, he is hoping to engage a new fresh generation of volunteers for years to come.
But he’s quick to give credit to those who have supported the trail and its evolution thus far: friend Hunter Franklin, who he met when Franklin was creating his “bottles with faces,” and who maintains the Doll’s Head Trail Facebook Page; and local artists Joe Peery, Kyle Brooks and Dee Claiborne, for their time and contributions to the trail.
And while the trail sees occasional individuals who attempt to bring extra items into the park to create a vignette (that’s a no-no; all vignettes must be created by discarded items or trash found inside the park property) … volunteers who are monitoring the site say that for the most part, the trail has served to invoke a sense of curiosity and stewardship among visitors.
In the meantime, Slaton appreciates the evolution of the trail—from something meant to be fun, and occupy his extra time, to something inspiring to others.
“It’s encouraging people to get outside and see the park [who may not otherwise]—and see that regardless of the Doll’s Head Trail, it’s a beautiful park,” he said. “It’s inspiring people to be outdoors.”
How to Visit the Doll’s Head Trail:
The Doll’s Head Trail is located in the 125-acre Constitution Lake Park in Atlanta, Georgia.
Note: Please do not attempt to locate the trail using GPS coordinates.
The trail is accessible via the official parking lot for Constitution Lakes Park—located at 1305 South River Industrial Blvd., Atlanta, GA 30316 (at Moreland Ave./Highway 2342). You’ll take a 10-minute paved trail/concrete sidewalk to a boardwalk and large pond, which leads to the Doll’s Head Trail.
When creating vignettes, you are only permitted to use discarded trash or items found within the park. All exhibits must be family friendly!
The park closes at dusk.
For a map, check out the Atlanta Trails website.