The location of both graves and legends, Fuller Park, located in the southeastern area of Athens, was reportedly first established in the 1930s as possibly a campground for the youth of the Athens First Baptist church as well for campers from what was then the Buckner Children’s Home. Created by First Baptist pastor Melton Lee Fuller and a later burial place for Mr. Fuller and his wife, the Park also been the center of some interesting rumors/legends over the years. Some local residents believed it is haunted, that it is the location of occult practices and that it’s part of a tunnel system under the Athens community. So what’s the story?
Let’s start with Rev. Fuller. According to his obituary in the Athens Review of Jan. 13, 1944, Rev. Melton Lee Fuller, former pastor of the Athens First Baptist church for about 25 years passed away from pneumonia after an “illness of some duration.” He first arrived in Athens in 1916 to serve a church that at that time was just a frame structure, according to Brian Spurling in his November 7, 1989 article in the Athens Review. Then a few years later Rev. Fuller led the congregation to erect “one of the most modern church homes in East Texas, later acquiring other church properties whose total value was estimated a few years ago at some $100,000.” They erected a brick parsonage, a “tabernacle” on a four acre tract, as well and an outdoor stadium adjacent to the church building.
Rev. Fuller was born on April 17, 1875 in Nacogdoches and lived there till he was about 20 when he began his pastoral studies, including courses at East Texas Baptist College, Baylor University and then the Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Fuller served pastorates at several churches, and also as a missionary - in fact he was at one time named State Evangelist for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. After serving churches in Winnsboro and Plano he arrived in Athens. It was at Winnsboro that he and Miss Virginia McClelland were married and she served as frequent church organist. She died in the 1930s.
Speakers at Rev. Fuller’s funeral included Athens mayor Dan Dickerson who spoke of the minister as not just his own pastor but as a friend and as a citizen. Burial was in Fuller Park next to his late wife.
So what are the legends attributed to this wooded tract where were buried two faithful servants of the church?
Mr. Spurling covered some of these legends in his 1989 story, and added the detail that Rev. and Mrs. Fuller had no heirs and his will, “which may have contained the only written documentation of the intended purpose of the park, was supposedly lost in a fire, also considered mysterious at the time.”
One of the most often heard rumors/legends of Fuller Park was how it was the location of a tunnel system and this came out in Mr. Spurling’s story. He described how the Review in planning a Halloween issue, had asked for reader stories. One lady, who wanted to remain anonymous, described the tunnels, saying that she had heard that they were from the mid 1800s and used as a part of the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape the South. The tunnel system was also rumored to be the basis for five pentagrams around the city that indicated the entrances of tunnels.
Historically speaking, the tunnels if they existed being part of the Underground Railroad was very unlikely. Though there were anti-slavery activists who did harbor runaway slaves and help them seek freedom in the northern states or even Canada, the “Underground Railroad,” was often unorganized and informal, and operated largely in border states. It was almost impossible that such a system could operate – even covertly – in the deep South like East Texas.
But could there actually be a tunnel system with access points at various parts of the Athens community, as the legends relate? Mr. Spurling got an expert opinion from an expert: “…according to a local geologist, however, any extensive tunneling in Athens is unlikely.” Why? As described by James Pool with Groundwater Services Co.: “In general, the water table is too high here…you would be trying to tunnel in loose sand.”
Because of local geologic features tunnels if they existed would be shallow. “Of course we could be talking about just some kind of basement or a tunnel in association with a hill.”
So what’s the truth about Fuller Park? Legends or facts? Part of the charm of Athens!