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A Brief History of Athens

Written by Athens resident Bill Hartman in 1947

as a class assignment at Concord College.

The history of the community may be traced back to the year 1848, when William Holroyd came to Mercer County and bought a farm two miles from the site which is now the town of Athens. At this time there were no churches and the people worshiped in their various homes. The most frequented place was in one of the homes of the Martin brothers, eight of whom had settled in the vicinity. Once a year a "camp meeting was held, and people from miles around would come. It was at one of these get to-gathers that the idea of the first church was conceived. In fact the plan called the three churches…one at Athens, called Concord, one at Bethel ( in the Danielly neighborhood) and the other at Pisgah ( in the Johnson and Stafford neighborhood.)

The country road ran through the small community and it was decided that the church should be built as close to it as possible. Captain Holroyd was in charge of the building and all the townspeople helped. The ladies suggested the name Concord Church and it was adopted. This was, in truth, a Methodist church, but it was used by all denominations. The church stood through the trying days of the civil war which devastated the whole community.

About the time of the Civil War, Summers County, had not been bounded and was still a part of Mercer. In 1869 the people of the Northeastern part became dissatisfied with the distance they had to travel to Princeton courthouse. It so happened that the court house at Princeton had been destroyed by fire and the people wanted the new one to be built at Concord. An election was held at the vote carried favoring the new site. The documents were moved to Concord into a four-room log house.

A post office was erected and mail carriers established. The address you used when sending a letter to what is now Athens, was Concord Church. J.F. Holroyd was appointed the first post master and he held the office for several years.

In the meantime the town had been steadily growing in size and population; the four-room log house, (court house) was much too small for the large crowds attending court sessions so they were forced to move into the church. Captain Holroyd hadn't remained idle either. He had foreseen the need of a building to accommodate all these "court attending" people, and had built a store-room.** He was selling a great deal of goods. Not content at stopping there, he got to work on another project -- a large frame building which was later to be known as the "Mountain House". By this time he saw that a community was in the making and sold his farm to move to Concord.

Now the layout plan of Athens didn't turn out to be so tactful with The Mountain House, the saloon, and the church…one opposite the other.

** Dr. James Vermillion and Ben Fanning also accommodated many of the crowds at court.

The saloon made quite enough noise; the church naturally contributed its share, but the fifty odd cats that had been placed in the Mountain House made it even more difficult. Very often you would see the faithful old negro "Uncle George" cross the street with a large tray full of tumblers which provided ample music for the prayers of "Brother" Sheffey, who was located just across the way, and who was earnestly praying for some sound establishment to replace the saloon. His prayers were answered. Stewart Johnston (father of Mrs. Daisy Higgenbotham) built a shoe and harness shop.

Colonel Henderson French had given a tract of land for the new brick court house, and they turned their attention toward the erection of that. About the time that they had gotten the walls of the first story completed, the people of Princeton voted to move the court house back to their community. This threw things in a dilemma, but it is always darkest before the dawn. During the dispute, the State Board of Control elected to build a Normal School. The people of Athens concluded that one unfinished wall would never do them any good, and so asked for the school….the wish was granted and there it was built.

The school stood where Concord Training School stands today.(Now Athens School) In the spring of 1875 the Normal School opened, and had an enrollment of 75 students. Captain French was the president and held the office for seventeen years. Major Reynolds was his assistant, school was in session five months, closing in the winter and opening in the spring. Students came from miles around and most of them had to walk, so the people of the community had to make arrangements for them to board in town. The Mountain House was enlarged, and Dr. Vermillion and Mr. Fanning built cottages.

1876 and 1946 were both years of housing shortage in Athens. However the class of '76 didn't mind, and it was not at all uncommon to see six or seven boys crowded into a small room. Of course things then were a bit crude but the students were so eager for an education that they appreciated even the small kindness given them. Many families who were eager that their children have an education moved into Athens and a number of houses were built.

Commencement Day was quite an occasion in the little school. Everybody looked forward to the exercises of the week and came from miles around in wagons, buggies, and on foot.

All the time the town was growing - slowly but steadily. In 1871 the Masonic Lodge was organized and by 1924 its membership was an outstnding one hundred and seventy. The Eastern Star Chapter and Royal Arch were also introduced. There was a civic club, and a business men's club. Two more churches were built, and a Soldiers Memorial Library was opened to the public. A bus line with the aid of the Princeton company was opened, and this solved a lot of problems for the community students and the citizens of the thriving little community.

The post office, of course, had originally been named Concord Church, but so often the students left off the "church" and the mail went to Concord, in Hampshire County, West Virginia. In 1896 the faculty met to discuss the matter and they suggested the name of Athens.

In the year 1910 the large brick Normal School was destroyed by fire, and classes were held in churches, at the Masonic Hall, and in fact any available spot where a class might assemble.

A new building meant a long hard fight, but the people of Athens were ready, willing, and able. Twenty-six acres of land was purchased from S.T. Vermillion, and construction was begun. The building erected then still stands, a monument to the pioneers of Athens, and Concord Church.

1. A Bird's-eye View

Leaving Princeton, the county seat of Mercer County, we take State Route 20, and after a steady climb up a winding road, for about five miles, we get our first glimpse of Athens. Looking from mountain to another, so to speak, the view is beautiful. The streets run along the tops of the ridges, so that very few so-called city blocks are formed. Many of the streets follow ridges to a "dead end."

Athens looks to be much larger place than it is from this point, and its two hundred homes and buildings spread all over the area add to the effect. In reality they only cover the equivalent of two square miles.

The first thing to catch the eye of people who are traveling toward our town is the silver water tank towering into the air above all buildings; it can be seen for many miles. It is said by townspeople that pilots sometimes use it as a landmark in their navigation.

Three church steeples stand out clearly on the horizon against the background of mountains and trees. The college grounds and most of its buildings can be seen in the flats.

Driving into Athens, we pass a cemetery on the right of the highway, a filling station on the same side, and a row of fine houses. Almost in the center of the town we see the grade and high school buildings, and on the other side of the street, a red brick store building now empty. Traveling on through, we pass the white frame Baptist Church, Masonic Lodge, City Hall, telephone office, a large frame, ugly green building, which once housed many of the college students, a Gulf service station, and the one-time hotel, (which has since been converted into apartments). This brings us to the proverbial "corner" of the town. On this corner we see the bank building, a drugstore and a feed store. Rounding the corner we see the post office, and another drug store. A clothing store and a food store lie side by side while across the street is the Methodist church, a large rambling white frame with stained glass windows. Next to it we see another food store, and a road leading to the town garage. We are now well on our way, having passed the "business section," to the college. There are several prosperous and beautiful homes on this drive. The Sweet Shop is the first commercial building we approach, standing next to Sam Holroyd Hall, an addition to the college. Faculty hill is a picturesque sight, all brick, or combination brick and shingle homes. Making a turn to the left we enter the gateway to the administration building, and follow a paved lane shaded on either side by trees (mostly maple) which have been planted at frequent intervals.

At the end of this drive we come to the gymnasium, and the swimming pool, from this point we can look far out into the blue, seeing small houses dotting the horizon where small-scale farmers live, but for the most part only the haze of distant mountain ranges, and acres of woodland meet the eye.

If you are wondering how one can see so far in this small town of ours, I might add that there are no factories or mines, with their dust and dirt, to mar the view. The altitude, of course, helps. When one is 2,598 feet above sea level, he can see quite a distance into the great beyond.

All in all, considering, cleanliness, quietness, climate and surroundings, Athens is a very pleasant town in which to live.

2. A Day on Main Street

Nestled on these "seven hills", Athens has an early dawn, and even though the proverbial rooster waits for that first streak of gray and red which heralds the beginning of day, many people have already arisen, and are busy with the chores of another day.

The first people to arise are the farmers who, many times are up by four o'clock. Some of them have chores which demand awakening at this hour; others get up this early from force of habit.

Around six o'clock more lighted windows shine out in the semi-darkness for by now the miners, and shopmen, railroaders, carpenters, and truck-drivers have dashed cold water over their faces, and are sitting down to a heavy breakfast. They have to be up and about at this hour for most of them have to travel many miles to their places of business.

Lots of people await the zoom from their first grind of the 6:45 bus to awaken them. For many, many years the driver, (almost an institution within himself) has been the same, and leaves at the same hour and minute each morning so he and his bus have become reliable alarm clocks for the folks along main street.

By this time most of the townspeople awake and although many mornings, it is not yet daylight, they have already milked the cows, prepared and eaten breakfast and are hurriedly getting the children up for school.

Traffic steadily increases both into and out of Athens--workers going out, and teachers and students coming in.

The two restaurants open at seven o'clock and although the proprietors are busy at work, it is not with customers, but with getting ready for them. Not many people visit the restaurant that early in the morning--they all have their coffee at home.

Traffic reaches its peak around eight o'clock. The three grocery stores are open, the paper boys wait around for the morning papers, which have to be delivered, and several students begin their walk to the college.

Around this time, approximately 7:50 the air brakes from the bus on its return trip can be heard rounding the corner at the bank, and the chatter of "8:00 class students" fills the air. These students come from the near-by cities of Princeton and Bluefield.

Barber shops--we have two-- open at 8:30 and the retired workers, confirmed loafers, plus one or two customers soon drift in just to sit and talk.

The bank door shades roll up about the time that the big school bell rings, signaling all "trudge-a-longs" to hurry up, lest they be tardy. After this, the town noises recede, and things remain quiet until around eleven o'clock.

Eleven o'clock, like the shot of a gun, brings a crowd, for that is the time that the second load of mail comes in. Everybody gathers at the tiny little post office. Farmers waiting that new brood of chickens, or a package from the mail order house; clerks wait to collect the mail for the stores in which they work; professors pulling bulletins, circulars, and magazines from their big boxes at the bottom of the long rows; and most excited of all, students awaiting letters and packages from home. This milling in and out of the post office barely subsides when the mad rush of school kids out for lunch begins. All the drugstores are packed with teachers and students gulping milkshakes and devouring sandwiches. The main street corner is blocked with people snatching up last bits of gossip, and last-minute smokers.

The grade and highs schools resume classes at 12:45 and the college at 1:30, so the town is again quiet for a little while.

Between 3:30 and 4:00 all the schools close and the cardboard policemen are placed on the streets to remind speedy drivers to watch for small children. Some of the children are loaded on buses to be transported and some walk to their various homes.

The last mail call of the day is at 4:00 and by this time the students are going back home, and a few out-of-town teachers drift into their stores for some last minute preparations for the evening meal.

Between this time and 6:30 the traffic is heavy with returning laborers; however the movement is not the same as it was this morning--rather than the brisk and energetic fever that prevailed at that time, the movement is sluggish and dull. By this time these people are tired from working and riding; they are eager to get home to their families and a good hot supper.

Between 7:00 and 8:00 quite a few families travel over to the neighboring city to see a movie, go bowling, or go skating.

A few men are hanging over the grocery store counter exchanging last bits of news, or arguing over politics, wage and price control, daughters who ran off and got married, or the new calf out in the barn lot. In the drug store they are content to let someone else do the talking, namely: Gabriel Heatter, Lowell Thomas, Kaltenborn, or Winchwell. By 9:00 in Athens, the street is practically deserted and lights flicker and go out.

Athens is a town of common, hard labor, and as such the citizens who live in it are ready to "turn in" early--just as they arise.