The Watkins Home and the Man Behind It
By Anne Adams
East Tyler Street has long been the location of many fine homes of prominent Athens residents, which is probably natural when you consider that it was just a few blocks from the courthouse and the business sector of town. However, if an early 20th century Athenian somehow came back and tried to locate their family home they would probably find either a commercial site or even a vacant lot. This practice of demolishing a large home on a commercially viable street is of course nothing new in Athens, and even today we find wide swaths of empty lots where great homes once stood.
One of these early homes was the Watkins house which was located at the corner of East Tyler and Wofford Streets, where the Citizens National Bank is now placed. The owner was A.B. Watkins, a man one newspaper called “a noted Texas lawyer, leading and interesting figure in the State” and though the home is now long gone it still has a story to tell as part of Athens's history.
The Watkins home, as described in the records of the Henderson County Historical Commission, was built in 1915, replacing a 1914 structure that burned. It was to be an Athens home for the family and was provided by Mrs. Watkins’ father, Col. T.F. Murchison after Mr. Watkins decided to practice law in Henderson County instead of in Kemp.
Albert Bacon Watkins was born in 1857 at Kemp in Kaufman County, his mother a direct lineal descendant of President James K. Polk and his father the first Presbyterian minister ordained in the Republic of Texas. After attending local schools, Bacon graduated from Trinity University and joined the State Bar of Texas in 1879, then moved to Athens to practice law. Joining the Masonic Lodge in Houston, he later became Worshipful Master and eventually served as the only member of the Athens lodge to be elected Grand Master in Texas.
Bacon served as Judge of the Judicial District from 1892 to 1894 and also attended the Presbyterian Church and was a Sunday school teacher. His Lodge brothers later related that “he was of exemplary habits, free the little blemishes that stain the characters of many otherwise worthy men.”
“The life of Albert Bacon Watkins was filled with activity,” related the Athens Review in his obituary of February 8, 1923, “and had he possessed political aspirations there is no doubt but what he could have filled the governor’s chair or a seat in the United States Senate.” However, though he was active in the Democratic Party and a personal friend of Governor James Stephen Hogg, who appointed him to the district judge position, he remained out of politics. Also, according to the obituary, Judge Watkins was a “great lover of outdoor life and exceedingly active for one of his age.”
The 1915 Watkins home was built of hollow tile made by the Athens Brick Company and constructed with six-inch thick cement plastered walls. The total cost of the home was $8,300.00. The Watkins home was originally constructed with nine rooms downstairs, with the living room, dining room, library, bedroom, kitchen, and adjoining pantry and a screened-in porch. There was also a basement under part of the building. Upstairs there was four bedrooms and bathroom and the structure was centrally heated with coal. The ceilings downstairs were 11 feet high and upstairs the ceilings were ten feet high.
The Watkins family sold the house to another family in 1948 and the new owners remodeled the upstairs to form a separate apartment. Also, there were also other changes. The built-in bookcases in the library were removed to be given away, and also removed was the winding stairway from the front hall. Also, the glass windows on either side of the front door had been removed to be replaced with a better type of leaded glass. On the rear of the lot was an original carriage house that was later remodeled into a guest house.
At one time the house was also the location of the Carroll and Lehr Funeral Home.
The house’s location in 1923 provided the residents with an opportunity to see and assist in what could have been a dangerous situation. On that night Watkins was just going to bed he saw from his window that the nearby railroad trestle was on fire. According to the January 11, 1923 issue of the Athens Review, “Knowing freight would arrive in a few minutes, the Judge hurried to the scene where after a few minutes wait he flagged a train which carried many cars of highly explosive naphtha.”
The trestle had not burned completely and the crew decided to try and get the train over the trestle before it burned through. The reporter wrote: “Had there been a leaky car on the train it is probably [sic] that Athens would still be wondering what had happened as a result of the explosion.” According to the judge, the real heroes of the incident were the crew “in taking the high explosives through the flames.”