Suppose you could travel back in time to Athens in1884. What would it look like?
That was the concept used by Dr. Will Matthews in the 1924 anniversary issue of the Athens Weekly Review as he described his memories of Athens in 1884. The author was described as the Henderson County representative for the Dallas News.
His method in the article was to identify what occupied a space in Athens in 1884 and then designate what was there at time of writing in 1924.
He begins: “When I reached Athens May 24, 1884, I found upon the spot that is covered by our magnificent court house, in the midst of a number of large oaks trees …a small two story frame court house 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. And another two room building nearby housed other county offices. Also, at the time, “the entire [courthouse] square was a deep sand bed that worried both man and beast to get through it.”
Later he described a location that would be familiar to more recent Athens historians and that was the corner where the Taco Bell restaurant now is located. However, in 1884 that was a livery stable and then in 1924 the Methodist church.
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 afterwards 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 shot gun.” He added that the shotgun was placed in a rack over the door.
Then he described more of the buildings and added some more about them. “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.”
Going further along then came the Cotton Belt Railroad, and his opinion of that organization wasn’t complimentary, “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.”
Also in this area was “the Athens Jail made of hewn logs with long spike nails driven in the logs as thick as they could be driven.”
Then he begins to go down East Tyler Street where he lists homes of prominent Athenians at the time and among the homes were stretches of woods or empty fields, perhaps indicating that Athens was quite rural at this time. 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.”
As he moved visually over to East Corsicana Street he arrived at the site of the Presbyterian Church, which he identified as one of the two churches in town. Down that street were more homes and then he turns his attention to South Prairieville Street where besides other homes he locates the other church in town – 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…. “