Issue #21

Early Memories of Athens

By Anne Adams


The first school.  The first church and what happened when it burned down. Early city politics.  All of these and more were memories of an Athens resident born in 1856 and brought out in an interview by a young future teacher in a 1940 Athens Review article.  Memories that made real the development of a young and growing community.


In his April 1965 column called “From My Scrapbook,” R.T. Craig reprinted an article originally published in 1940 when his daughter Carolyn (later Carolyn Stover who taught at Athens High School) interviewed “Aunt Kate” Richardson. Called “the oldest living Athenian” at the time, Mrs. Richardson’s memories as related to Carolyn were “Sealed in the recesses of her alert mind was the true story of Athens 80 years ago...”


Kate’s 1862 memory was when her father left for the war and then died the next year, as did her mother, and her aunt took her in. When she attended school, Kate went to what was the first school in Athens, located in what was actually the Masonic Hall on what is now the Court House square. Classes were held on the first floor and the Masonic meetings on the second – an arrangement that was common in that area and at that time since the Masons sponsored classes in their buildings. Public education was not available at the time so parents paid for their children’s classes.


Yet Athens was not completely without culture for about this time there arrived from Palestine a music teacher named Miss Fannie Gooch who brought her own piano and boarded at a local hotel. Another music instructor from Rusk established herself and as Carolyn put it, “By this time the cultural tastes of Athenians were fairly well established.”


The first church in Athens was Baptist, built on south Prairieville Street, a small building used by various denominations and also the scene of revivals. “People considered them [revivals] sort of a festive occasion. They would come by the hundreds and spread their tents around the church building. The opportunity to camp out and gather in such large groups was considered a rare treat,” Aunt Kate recounted.


After the Civil War Athens attracted new residents. These included those “who were refugeeing [sic] from such hot-bed states as Georgia. They were fleeing from the wrath of such Yankee officials as the Carpetbaggers.” Mrs. Richardson related, and that subject brought out a deeply held opinion:  “’We had Yankees in Athens all right,’ snapped “Aunt” Kate, ‘and considering things, they treated us pretty well. They let us pretty much alone, and that’s what we wanted.’”


Occasionally there was a bit of excitement such as when the Baptist church burned and Aunt Kate was called to help. As Carolyn put it, “There was only the ‘bucket brigade’ which usually was made up of persons who happened to be nearest to the disaster when bedlam broke loose. And in such a capacity did ‘Aunt Kate’ Richardson serve.”


“’I practically became chief of that particular ‘fire brigade,’ exclaimed Aunt Kate laughingly. “It so happened that my water well was the nearest one to the scene of the fire, and therefore it was nearly dried up before the fire was put out. I stood over that well for how long, I don’t remember, maybe two hours, maybe longer, handing buckets of water to volunteer firemen as they came by.”


Occasionally Athenians traveled to Waco by train. Mrs. Richardson remembered: “If one wished to buy only the best…he immediately made a trip to Waco. The best way of getting there was the way of the Cotton Belt [railroad]…It was a real thrill then to be riding on a train. It was something to be looked forward to, even though coal cinders drifted back from the engine to nearly put one’s eyes out and a person could never be sure of looking very clean when he arrived in Waco.”


After the Civil War came differences in local politics. Athens, which “was according to the true southern tradition solidly democratic in its political beliefs was suddenly awakened by the clamorings of a small but powerful Republican faction in the affairs of city government.”  Mrs. Richardson remembered one incident. “‘The Republicans had somehow managed to put some of their candidates in office. This within itself was considered an insult by democratic Athenians. As if this weren’t enough, certain Republicans who considered it all a huge joke held a mock election and put an unlikely man named Jack McGrewder in office as “mayor.” Well, one of the political customs of the time was to “bury a person” who had run for office and been defeated. This was done by putting a casket on the Court House lawn with a dummy of the defeated candidate in it. The infuriated Democrats proceeded to do the same with a dummy of McGrewder.’” This had a superstitious innuendo to the ersatz mayor and he left town.


Mrs. Stover recounted how the interview came to a close. “I left her sitting in the swing where I found her,” Carolyn wrote, “I felt humbled before the memory of one who reached back seventy-five years with such effortless grace.”

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