“Going back, going back, going back to Athenstown;
Going back, going back, to the best old place around…”
Imagine, a city whose population ebbs and flows seasonally and over time, where a third of the population is out of town for long periods and is constantly changing, with a fourth of that third leaving for good every year, replaced by a new fourth. The Census would probably put it differently, but you know what I mean if you live in Athens.
The first Athenian was a man named Daniel Easley, who was running his grist mill down on the river below Nuci’s Space when some gentlemen rode up on horseback and said they were looking for a site in the surrounding wilderness that they could turn into a college. Easley knew just the spot, up the hill on a bluff above the river, and he sold it to them, reserving part for himself, in case their scheme actually worked, figuring that a college would mean a demand for housing, food, drink, football and music clubs. One assumes that Easley got by during summers, when the 20 or 30 young college men went home to their plantations, by selling grits to the faculty and the tavern owners.
And that has been our pattern ever since, hanging around selling stuff to each other until they come back to Athenstown, and life begins anew, and we all join in the scramble to make ourselves attractive to 18-year-olds. What do the 18-year-olds see in Athens? College, of course—the requisite degree that certifies the rest of life, but also the fun of being away from home: burgers instead of beets, beer instead of milk.
My own love of Athens did not begin when I was a student. I had very little awareness of the town, which stood around me in all its molding glory. If only I had taken a stroll up Prince Avenue in those days before progress destroyed most of the old houses from the pages of that fast-going-out-of print treasure-trove, The Tangible Past of Athens, Georgia, published at the end of last year by an all-star amalgam of local historians (plus me). Oddly enough, I did take a stroll around the Prince Avenue area one night, in connection with an initiation, and I retain dark images of Pulaski, Dougherty, Cobb, etc. from that era.
During that period, as in most, Athens was up and out. You went to college here, if you were white and could afford the low tuition and cheap rooming houses, and then you left Athens and went back to your hometown family business or went on to Atlanta or beyond for a career with one of the many businesses eager to hire you, and maybe you came back for football games, because that was the only way to see one, because they were not on TV.
There was a period, which began way back in the late 1970s, when Athens changed from a way-station to a destination for students. The four-years-and-out pattern was disrupted by the Vietnam War, which caused a generation of students to prefer college over jungles. After the threat of that war lessened, students who came here for college began to drop out for other pursuits—starting a business, playing music, taking a breather. That generation of students, or at least some of them, discovered Athens as an inexpensive, fun place to hang out, with big, old, accommodating houses in pleasant neighborhoods within walking distance of the growing scene downtown.
Kathy Prescott and Grady Thrasher are making a movie about that period in Athens—how it happened and whether it persists. They have interviewed a bunch of people and have accumulated historical footage, and their film (working title Athens in Our Day) will be ready probably next spring. Meanwhile, Athens seems to be morphing again, with all the high-rise student apartments downtown and the concomitant influx of national brands to give them what they’re accustomed to back home in Cobb County. We’re probably returning to a four-years-and-out town-and-gown-symbiosis, except Pillsbury grits instead of Easley’s.
If you’re as excited as I am that our old friend Chuck Searcy is making a rare visit home, be sure to drop by 190 Milledge Circle this Saturday, Aug. 22 at 4 p.m. for the yard party thrown by Chuck’s old friend and property manager, Dennis Waters. Dennis is providing the music; you bring your snacks, drinks and a chair.