Athens, seat of Clarke County, is located along the north Oconee River in the Piedmont area of northeast Georgia. Athens' prominent role in the state of Georgia can be attributed primarily to the University of Georgia, for which Athens was originally established.
The Georgia legislature decided in 1785 decided to found a state-supported university, the first such in the United States. The man who drafted the university's charter, Abraham Baldwin, was selected as its first president. However, no actual steps were taken to bring the idea to fruition for sixteen years.
In 1801, the legislature sent a committee of five to find a site for the university. Daniel Easley, who owned and operated a mill on the banks of the Oconee River at Cedar Shoals, proposed some land on a hill above the shoals. The committee agreed. One of its members was John Milledge, a friend of Thomas Jefferson and later a governor of Georgia. Milledge purchased 633 acres, which he donated for the campus.
The university trustees named the place Athens after the center of learning in ancient Greece. The town was incorporated in 1806, and rechartered in 1872. At first, the land for its growth came from lots sold by the university, which thereby generated money for campus buildings. The first building on the campus was named for Benjamin Franklin and is now known as Old College.
By the 1820s, Athens had developed a textile industry, drawing power from the Oconee River and using cotton from nearby plantations. In addition to the mill owners and college staff who earned their livings in Athens, others were attracted by the cultured society that grew up around the
university. The first railroad arrived in 1841.
Athens was fortunate not to experience any major battles during the Civil War. The closest that the war came were some skirmishes south of town in 1864 with some of Stoneman's Raiders, a Union cavalry force from East Tennessee. During the war, Cook and Brother Armory supplied the
Confederacy with cannon and rifles. The famous double-barreled cannon stands today on the grounds of city hall. Athens textile industries
produced Confederate uniforms, many put together by the Ladies Aid Society. Enrollment at the university declined until in 1863, it closed
altogether. Campus buildings were used to house soldiers and refugees.
Confederate Brigadier General T.R.R. Cobb, who wrote the Confederate constitution, was the most distinguished citizen of Athens to perish in
the war. Cobb's brother Howell was president of the provisional Confederate Congress and rose to major general in the Confederate Army. Prior to the war, he had been Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary of the Treasury.
After the surrender at Appomattox, Union troops occupied Athens until early 1866. Athens became Clarke's county seat in 1872. Black education flourished in Athens for more than fifty years following the war and a considerable black middle class developed. The Knox School (later the Knox Institute) opened in 1868, the Methodist School in 1876, and Jeruel Academy in 1881. Lucius Holsey, a native of Athens, founded Paine College in Augusta.
The University of Georgia reopened in 1866 and by 1868 enrollment had risen to a new high of 299. It became a land-grant institution in 1872, leading to the creation of the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
Passenger streetcars, introduced in Athens in the 1880s, led to the development of suburbs, and the city's population grew from six thousand in 1880 to ten thousand in 1900. Segregated public schools, one for white students and one for black, opened in 1887. "Old Rock College," the Georgia Normal School for Women, opened in Athens in 1891. Beginning on the campus of the university, the school moved later to its own
facilities in an area that became known as Normaltown. In 1954, the US Navy moved its Supply Corps School from Bayonne, New Jersey, to the former campus of the Normal School. One of only 11 US Navy museums in America is located in the historic Carnegie library building.
Monroe B. "Pink" Morton served as the second black postmaster of Athens in 1897. Today the historic Morton Theatre, which he built in 1910 as a cultural center for the black community, is one of only four black vaudeville theaters remaining in the country. Morton is buried in Athens' historic Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, along with quilter Harriet Powers, educators Annie Smith Derricotte and Samuel F. Harris, and state
legislator Madison Davis.
Telephone service was introduced into Athens in 1882. Growth continued after the turn of the century, with the population doubling between 1900 and 1940. The Beaux-Arts city hall was completed in 1904. James Knox Taylor, architect of the federal treasury building in Washington, D.C., designed Athens' Federal Building, completed in 1905. Three tall buildings, one reaching nine stories, appeared between 1908 and 1913. A new county courthouse was completed in 1914.
In 1907 Ben Epps became the first Southern aviator when he built his first plane, a few years after his friends Wilbur and Orville Wright had achieved the first successful heavier-than-air flight in 1903. AthensBen Epps Airport is named in his honor.
The Athens area grew throughout the 20th century. The University of Georgia became integrated in 1961. By 1980 the population of Athens and its suburbs was almost 63,000. During the 1996 Olympics, Athens hosted women's soccer, rhythmic gymnastics, and volleyball competitions.
Georgia's Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax has provided funding for various public purposes. The Georgia Museum of Art houses nine galleries. The University of Georgia Performing Arts Center complements the Classic Center. The 313-acre State Botanical Garden of Georgia serves as headquarters for the Garden Club of Georgia and offers nature trails, gardens, a conservatory, and a chapel. On campus, the Georgia Museum of Natural History has collections in archaeology as well as biological and earth sciences.
Many antebellum houses still survive. The Church-Waddel-Brumby House Museum, built in the Federalist style, is thought to be the oldest
remaining building in Athens. The mansion of Ross Crane, who built the university's 1832 Greek Revival chapel, is just west of the downtown area. Also on the west side of town, Robert Taylor built the Taylor-Grady House, a Greek Revival house with thirteen columns, one for each of the original colonies. This was the boyhood home of "New South" spokesman Henry W. Grady. John Addison Cobb, a wealthy plantation owner who moved to Athens in 1824, developed Cobham, Athens' first suburb, in 1834. Twelve Athens women founded America's first garden club in 1891 in the Cobbham home of Mrs. E. K. Lumpkin. Today the Founders' Memorial Garden on the university campus commemorates these women.
The Taylor-Grady House, now a fraternity house, and the entire Cobham neighborhood are on the National Register of Historic Places. Piedmont College, a small, liberal-arts college founded in 1897 in Demarest, has offered a program in Athens since 1996. The city also has the Athens Technical College. In 1921, the Athens Regional Hospital opened as a 100-bed facility. St. Mary's Hospital, now the cornerstone of St. Mary's Health Care System, was opened in 1938.
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