Athens, home of the University of Georgia (UGA), is located along the north Oconee River in Clarke County, in the rolling Piedmont of northeast Georgia. Athens and Clarke County combined to form a unified government in 1990. According to the 2010 U.S. census, Athens–Clarke County had a population of 115,452 making it Georgia’s fifth-largest city.

Chosen in 1801 as the site for the first chartered state university in the nation, Athens is known for its culture and diversity. Georgia’s “Classic City” has preserved many of its historic neighborhoods and landmarks, and its largely intact nineteenth-century townscape abuts the historic North Campus of UGA. Today Athens is the center for commerce and trade, health services, and cultural arts for all of northeast Georgia. The city struggles to maintain its distinctive sense of place in the face of rapid growth and development.

University of Georgia North Campus
University of Georgia North Campus
Image from UGA CAES/Extension

Early History

Athens was founded by a committee. In 1785 the state legislature made a bold step to endow a “college or seminary of learning,” thereby initiating the concept of state-supported higher education. Sixteen years later the legislature dispatched a committee of five to select a site for the university. Among them was John Milledge, a close friend of U.S. president Thomas Jefferson’s and soon to become governor of Georgia. Searching for a healthful location, the committee encountered Daniel Easley, a settler and land speculator, who owned and operated a mill on the banks of the Oconee River at Cedar Shoals. Easley showed them some property he owned on a hill high above the shoals, and it was there that the committee agreed to set the college.

View of Athens from Carr’s Hill

Milledge purchased 633 wilderness acres from Easley for $4,000 and donated the parcel to the trustees of the university. The trustees named the place Athens after the center of classical culture in Greece. When it was incorporated in 1806, the town had seventeen families, ten frame dwellings, and four stores. The town grew adjacent to the college on land sold by the trustees to produce revenue to construct the academic buildings.

University of Georgia, 1875

By the 1820s Athens had become a center in the South for textile manufacture, powered by the Oconee River and supplied by the vast cotton plantations nearby. Prominent residents included not only mill owners, merchants, and college professors but also the aristocrats and planters who came to Athens to educate their sons at the university and to enjoy the culture and society the college encouraged.

Many of the houses built by these antebellum Athenians still survive. For example, Ross Crane, a contractor who built the university’s Greek revival–style chapel (1832), constructed a mansion just west of the downtown area; it is now used as a fraternity house. Also on the west side of town, Robert Taylor built a Greek revival–style house with thirteen columns, one for each of the original thirteen colonies. Now known as the Taylor-Grady House, it was the boyhood home of “New South” spokesman Henry W. Grady and is designated a National Historic Landmark. John Addison Cobb, a wealthy plantation owner and enslaver who moved to Athens in 1824, created the town’s first suburb, Cobbham, in 1834. It is one of several Athens neighborhoods listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Taylor-Grady House
Taylor-Grady House
Photograph from GeorgiaInfo

Civil War Era

No major battles took place in Athens during the Civil War (1861-65). The only altercations were brief skirmishes at Barber’s Creek just south of town on August 2, 1864, when the Home Guard defended the town against fragments of Stoneman’s raiders, a Union cavalry force from East Tennessee that moved into the area as an extension of the Atlanta campaign.

Athens was, however, the wartime home of the Cook and Brother Armory, a converted textile factory. Cook and Brother manufactured infantry rifles (most notably the famous Enfield rifle), artillery and carbines, and the double-barreled cannon, which stands today on the grounds of city hall as the local symbol of the Lost Cause. The cannon misfired when the two balls linked by a chain failed to fire simultaneously.

Double-Barreled Cannon
Double-Barreled Cannon
Image from Kotivalo

By 1860 enslaved people made up nearly half the population of Clarke County. At the start of the war 1,892 enslaved people and one free African American lived in Athens. Their numbers increased during the war as enslavers allowed their enslaved workers to “hire out” to earn wages in town for the enslavers gone to battle. The armory often hired skilled enslaved workers during the war.

Athens was a major gathering point for Confederate enlistees and a haven for refugees from active theaters of war. Athens textile industries produced great quantities of Confederate uniforms, many put together by the Ladies Aid Society. When the war began university enrollment stood at 113, but in 1863, with students and faculty needed in the army, the university closed and remained so until after the war. The Confederacy requisitioned all campus buildings to house soldiers and refugees. The chapel became an army hospital and in 1864 a prison for 431 Northern soldiers taken nearby.

In the war Clarke County lost more than 300 men and boys (out of a total white male population of 2,660), and more than 100 university students and alumni perished. The most distinguished Athenian who lost his life in battle was Brigadier General Thomas R. R. Cobb, who wrote the Confederate Constitution. Cobb’s brother Howell, who survived the war, was president of the Provisional Confederate Congress and rose to the rank of major general. Active in national politics before the war, he had been Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and secretary of the treasury.

Late Nineteenth Century

After the surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, Union troops occupied Athens from May 1865 until early 1866. Freepeople flocked to Athens to celebrate emancipation. Thanks in large measure to the Freedman’s Bureau, Athens became a center for secondary Black education in Georgia for more than fifty years following the war, and a significant Black middle class emerged. The Knox School (later renamed the Knox Institute) opened in 1868, the Methodist School in 1876, and Jeruel Academy in 1881. African American men and women attended Black colleges and returned to Athens in professional positions, establishing their own social and fraternal orders and publishing three Black newspapers.

Knox Institute

Athens native Lucius Holsey, a young enslaved man with “an insatiable craving for some knowledge of books,” learned to read in slavery. After emancipation he became a delegate to the first organizational meeting of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (later Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), later becoming a bishop. Holsey also founded Paine College in Augusta.

College Avenue
College Avenue
Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

During the war some prosperous Athenians placed their money in northern and European banks. Their capital, combined with wartime profits from the production of armaments and Confederate uniforms and a stockpile of cotton accumulated behind Union lines, allowed Athens to recover rather quickly from the economic hardships of war. Manufacturing and trade flourished.

In January 1866 the university reopened, and by 1868 returning veterans swelled enrollment to 299, the highest level yet. Federal dollars first came to Athens when the university became a land-grant institution in 1872, enabling the creation of the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. As the university began to grow from a small, classical college for the elite into a larger, more varied institution serving the entire state, the town grew as well.

Athens became Clarke’s county seat in 1872. Passenger streetcars introduced in Athens in the 1880s led to the development of the town’s first streetcar suburbs, and the city’s population grew from 6,099 in 1880 to 10,245 in 1900. The first public schools opened in 1887 in identical ten-room brick buildings on Washington and Baxter streets—one for white students and one for Black students. The State Normal School for women opened in 1891 in a university-owned building and later moved to its own campus, in the section of Athens now known as Normaltown. The 1890s witnessed the institution of a police force, telephone service, and a modest downtown street-paving program.

State Normal School, 1919
State Normal School, 1919
Courtesy of the United States Navy

Monroe B. “Pink” Morton, a local real estate agent and politician, served as the second Black postmaster of Athens in 1897. Today the historic Morton Theatre, built by Pink Morton in 1910 at “Hot Corner” 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 Black cemetery, Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, along with such other notable African American citizens as quilter Harriet Powers, educators Annie Smith Derricotte and Samuel F. Harris, and state legislator Madison Davis.

Morton Theatre
Morton Theatre
Photograph by Melinda Smith Mullikin, New Georgia Encyclopedia

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 North Campus, designed by the late Hubert Owens, founder of the UGA’s School of Environmental Design, commemorates these women.

Rapid Growth in the Twentieth Century

The early twentieth century was a prosperous era for Athenians. Merchants and bankers built new establishments downtown, and electric lights and water service spread across the townscape. When the first automobile appeared in Athens in 1899, the race for greater mobility began.  The population of Athens doubled between 1900 and 1940 from 10,245 to 20,650. The Beaux-Arts city hall completed in 1904 rose atop the town’s highest point. James Knox Taylor (architect of the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.) designed the Federal Building, which was completed the following year across from city hall. Then it housed the federal court and post office; today it is a bank. A. Ten Eyck Brown designed the county courthouse, completed in 1914. Three multistory buildings, the highest standing at nine stories, changed the Athens skyline between 1908 and 1913.

Clarke County Courthouse
Clarke County Courthouse
Courtesy of Don Bowman

Athenian Ben Epps, a pioneer in early aviation, built his first plane shortly after his friends the Wright Brothers got off the ground in 1903. Today, Athens–Ben Epps Airport honors him.

Ben Epps
Ben Epps
Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

Philanthropist George Foster Peabody endowed a new city library and generously contributed to a fund to build a World War I memorial (Memorial Hall) on campus in 1925. The prestigious Peabody Awards, honoring excellence in broadcasting, is named for him and administered by UGA.

The Athens area grew rapidly during and after World War II (1941-45), and by 1980 the population of Athens and its suburbs was 62,896. From 1951 through the 1970s outside industry moved in. Dairy Pak, Gold Kist, General Time, and Westinghouse built manufacturing plants and brought executives to Athens as Beechwood and other suburban neighborhoods emerged. A grant from the Kellogg Foundation built the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, one of the first conference centers in the nation. The Navy Supply Corps School moved in 1954 from Bayonne, New Jersey, to the old State Normal School campus and remained there until 2010. (The UGA Health Sciences Campus opened on the site in 2012.) In 1958 the Athens Area Vocational-Technical School (later Athens Technical College) first opened its doors in former army barracks located downtown. The university, which had swelled with returning veterans after World War II, also benefited from the coming of age of the postwar baby boom generation, reaching an enrollment of 23,470 in 1980.

Navy Supply Corps School
Navy Supply Corps School
Courtesy of the United States Navy

Recent Developments

In 1980 Athens became a Main Street City, one of the first in the state to embrace a program for downtown revitalization through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thanks to Historic Athens (formerly the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation), the National Register of Historic Places lists the entire downtown as a historic district. In 2006 the Athens–Clarke County Commission designated most of the city’s downtown a historic district, instituting new guidelines for the construction and renovation of buildings within that area.

Following consolidation of the city and county governments in 1990, preservationists won a long battle to save and incorporate an old firehall into the $27.3 million Classic Center. The facility combines convention space and a theater for the performing arts. At the entrance a statue of Athena, the Greek goddess of war and the personification of wisdom, commemorates the 1996 Olympics, when Athens hosted women’s soccer, rhythmic gymnastics, and volleyball competitions.

Georgia’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) is proving a useful tool to Athens–Clarke County, funding restorations, schools, a new library, bike paths, nature trails, public utilities, and more. The university’s sophisticated Performing Arts Center complements the Classic Center, and the Georgia Museum of Art brings the world of art to town and gown. 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. The North Oconee River Greenway Project is developing a thirteen-mile trail for bikers and hikers.

State Botanical Garden of Georgia
State Botanical Garden of Georgia
Courtesy of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia

R.E.M. and the B-52’s put Athens on the map in the 1980s as a lively venue for rock music and helped spawn a plethora of bands and the clubs where they perform. The B-52’s left Athens, but R.E.M. stayed to make their mark as historic homeowners, preservationists, and friends of the environment as well.

Athens has its own symphony, opera company, band, choral societies, gospel groups, folk, jazz, blues, and more. In the spring, the annual Human Rights Festival brings together political activists, musicians, and craftsmen, and the city’s Twilight Criterium, one of the country’s largest cycling events, attracts both cyclists and spectators. Athfest, a local music festival held on outdoor stages and in venues around town, takes place each June, and on autumn weekends the town swells as football fans flock to watch the University of Georgia Bulldogs.

UGA is the largest employer in Athens–Clarke County, and its presence is still the largest single factor in the city’s increasingly diversified economy. Major industries in Athens–Clarke County include poultry and timber.

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Morton Theatre

Morton Theatre

The historic Morton Theatre was built by Monroe B. "Pink" Morton in 1910 at "Hot Corner" (Hull and Washington streets) in Athens as a cultural center for the Black community. It was the first vaudeville theater in the country to be built, owned, and operated by an African American.

Photograph by Melinda Smith Mullikin, New Georgia Encyclopedia

University of Georgia North Campus

University of Georgia North Campus

The University of Georgia's North Campus is located right next to downtown Athens.

Image from UGA CAES/Extension

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View of Athens from Carr’s Hill

View of Athens from Carr’s Hill

Georgia artist George Cooke's View of Athens from Carr's Hill (1845) is on display at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the University of Georgia campus in Athens.

University of Georgia, 1875

University of Georgia, 1875

Photograph of the UGA campus, looking southwest from Broad Street. This view from 1875 illustrates the early campus form with its axial pattern of walkways among plantings of young hardwood and evergreen trees.

Taylor-Grady House

Taylor-Grady House

On the west side of Athens, Robert Taylor built a Greek revival-style house with thirteen columns, one for each of the original thirteen colonies. Now known as the Taylor-Grady House, it was the boyhood home of "New South" spokesman Henry W. Grady and is designated a National Historic Landmark.

Photograph from GeorgiaInfo

View on source site

Double-Barreled Cannon

Double-Barreled Cannon

Athens's unique double-barreled cannon was designed by John Gilleland and built at the local foundry in 1863. The cannon was to be loaded with two balls connected by a chain several feet in length; when fired the balls were to cut a swath through Union soldiers. The cannon proved uncontrollable when test-fired, however, and was never used in combat.

Image from Kotivalo

Knox Institute

Knox Institute

The Knox Institute was founded in 1868 in Athens, which became a center for African American secondary education after the Civil War. Located at the corner of Reese and Pope streets, the prestigious private school offered academic and industrial instruction. The school closed in 1928, and the structure no longer exists.

College Avenue

College Avenue

Athens became Clarke's county seat in 1872. Passenger streetcars introduced in Athens in the 1880s led to the development of the town's first streetcar suburbs, and the city's population grew from 6,099 in 1880 to 10,245 in 1900.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, # clr064.

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State Normal School, 1919

State Normal School, 1919

Old Rock College, State Normal, Athens, Ga. The State Normal School for women was located in the section of Athens now known as Normaltown.

Courtesy of the United States Navy

Clarke County Courthouse

Clarke County Courthouse

The Clarke County Courthouse, located in Athens, was built in 1914 and designed by A. Ten Eyck Brown. It has elements of Italian Renaissance revival, neoclassical revival, and Beaux-Arts classicism architecture.

Courtesy of Don Bowman

Ben Epps

Ben Epps

Georgia aviation pioneer Ben Epps is pictured with his first airplane outside his garage in Athens, 1907.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
clr176-83.

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Navy Supply Corps School

Navy Supply Corps School

From 1954 until 2010, all active-duty supply corps officers in the U.S. Navy were trained at the Navy Supply Corps School in Athens. In 2010 the school relocated to Newport, Rhode Island, and in 2012 the UGA Health Sciences Campus opened on the Athens site.

Courtesy of the United States Navy

State Botanical Garden of Georgia

State Botanical Garden of Georgia

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, established in 1968, covers 313 acres in Athens and serves as the headquarters for the Garden Club of Georgia.

Courtesy of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia

Athens Parlor Market, 1909

Athens Parlor Market, 1909

The Athens Parlor Market is pictured in downtown Athens circa 1909-10. The store, owned by Wiley Thomas Young, sold produce, meat, and groceries.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, # clr207-84.

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Athens Fair, 1901

Athens Fair, 1901

A downtown parade for the Athens Wheat and Oat Fair is pictured in 1901.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, # clr068.

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Athens City Hall Dedication

Athens City Hall Dedication

Members of the Athens police department and city dignitaries attend the dedication of City Hall, circa 1911.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, # clr045.

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Cotton Bales

Cotton Bales

Cotton bales are stacked and ready to be placed into storage in the warehouses on Thomas Street, behind the Franklin House, in Athens circa 1915.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, # clr012.

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Carnival, Athens

Carnival, Athens

Carnivals usually drew large crowds, and none of the attractions were more popular than the freak show. There one could gaze upon fire breathers, sword swallowers, two-headed calves, and human pincushions. This woman with a live snake in her mouth was photographed at a carnival in Athens in October 1900. The price to view the show was 10 cents.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
clr096.

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Rufus L. Moss Sr.

Rufus L. Moss Sr.

Rufus L. Moss Sr., pictured in 1853, was a prominent Athens businessman who played a vital role in the development around Tallullah Falls and Gorge. In addition to founding the first hotel in the area, the Cliff House, in 1882, Moss cofounded the town of Tallulah Falls and worked to bring the Northeastern Railroad into the region. In 1909 he sold his significant land holdings to the Georgia Power Company, paving the way for the electrification of Georgia.

Courtesy of Mary Bondurant Warren

40 Watt Club

40 Watt Club

The 40 Watt Club was established in 1978 in an Athens apartment lit only by a 40-watt light bulb. Now situated in its sixth location at 285 West Washington Street, the club has hosted such well-known Athens bands as R.E.M, the B-52's, and Widespread Panic.

Courtesy of Explore Georgia, Photograph by Geoff L. Johnson.