Athens in 1884
by Anne Adams
If you could travel back in time to Athens in 1884 what would it look like?
That was the idea that Dr. Will Matthews used in the article in the 1924 anniversary issue of the Athens Weekly Review where he described his earlier memories of Athens. Described as the Henderson County representative for the Dallas News, Dr. Matthews in his article identified various locations in Athens in 1884 and then designated what occupied that spot in 1924.
“When I reached Athens May 24, 1884,” he wrote, “I found upon the spot that is covered by our magnificent courthouse, in the midst of a number of large oaks trees …a small two-story frame courthouse about sixty feet square, a room in each corner of the lower floor with only a passage between.”
These rooms were the offices of the county judge, county attorney, and the tax office, while another two-room building nearby housed other county offices. Also, at the time, “the entire [courthouse] square was in a deep sand bed that worried both man and beast to get through it.”
Further on he described what was located on one corner of the courthouse square. In 1884 that lot was occupied by a livery stable and later in 1924 by the Methodist church. Now, of course, it is the location of the Taco Bell restaurant.
The stable was owned by J.M. Deen who also owned the Deen Hotel on the opposite corner and next to the hotel was a blacksmith shop, then another livery stable. After that “…a small house in which [was] the Athenian, a newspaper owned and published by W.D. Bell and was afterward bought by J.H. Walford and its name changed to the Athens Review.”
On an adjacent corner was a frame house where the county treasurer had his office. Dr. Matthews added more information about this structure: “..here it was that the wealth of Henderson county was housed in a small iron safe inside this building and the armory guarding it was a double-barrel shotgun.” He added that the shotgun was placed in a rack over the door.
He designated then other buildings and added some more information: “All of these buildings were common box houses, unpainted and looked more like some country barn than the places that housed the wealth and brains of the town.”
Also located near the courthouse was the Cotton Belt Railroad, and he wasn’t complimentary about that setup. “This was a narrow-gauge road and the depot, the same that is standing now, has been standing a disgrace to the town and to the railroad which has forced it upon the people of Athens for 44 years, a people who have shipped over the line hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of produce every year.”
Local lawbreakers were housed in “the Athens Jail [was] made of hewn logs with long spike nails driven in the logs as thick as they could be driven.”
Dr. Matthews then continued his memory journey down East Tyler Street to describe the homes of prominent Athenians at the time, interspersed with stretches of woods or empty fields. Apparently parts of Athens were somewhat rural. He adds that in one section that aside from several cabins on the Murchison farm “there were no houses, the entire east end of Athens was cultivated in corn and cotton at this time.”
Then he described the Presbyterian Church on East Corsicana Street, which he identified as one of the two churches in town. One of these was on Prairieville where was located the Baptist congregation.
The population of Athens in 1884, he notes, was 600 persons.
Then as he finalized his article he became philosophical. “And while drawing from memory’s casket for description, I only wish that I had the power to throw upon a screen with a camera the picture of the town as I see it through memory’s channel. You could then realize fully the progress and growth of our splendid little city and stand with awe and amazement as you beheld the difference of now and 40 years ago…. “