Athens State University Located in north-central Alabama, 15 miles from the Tennessee border, Athens is the county seat of Limestone County. Since its founding in 1818, one year before Alabama’s admittance into the Union, Athens has contributed significantly to shaping the history of the state. Home to three Alabama governors and the state’s oldest institution of higher education, Athens boasts a number of historic buildings and residences. Originally an agricultural community, Athens has evolved into a major center of technology in North Alabama. Athens has a mayor-council form of government.
Before European settlement, north-central Alabama was inhabited by the Chickasaws. The first settlers arriving in the Limestone County area came from Tennessee in the first decade of the 1800s. These illegal settlers by and large were removed from Chickasaw land by territorial and federal forces. By 1816, however, the Chickasaw Nation had ceded its claims to land north and east of the Tennessee River. This opened the area to legal settlement and attracted interest from land speculators.
Downtown Athens, 1925 Partners Robert Beaty and John D. Carriell bought the current site of Athens at a government land auction and began selling lots in 1818. Athens was incorporated on November 19, 1818, and was chosen to be the seat of Limestone County on March 22, 1819. Several early state leaders emerged from the Athens area. Thomas Bibb, Alabama’s second governor and brother of its first governor, William Wyatt Bibb, was a resident of Athens, and his home still stands in the city. Athens quickly became a prosperous antebellum agricultural center. The town’s first newspaper, The Athenian, was established in 1819, and in 1822, the town founders obtained a charter for the Athens Female Academy. The school evolved into Athens State University, the longest-operating institution of higher education in the state. In 1845, another Athens resident, Joshua L. Martin, became governor. By 1859, Athens was a stop on the Tennessee and Alabama Railroad, which ran from Decatur, Morgan County, to Nashville, Tennessee.
George S. Houston House, 1934 During the Civil War, Athens was briefly in the national spotlight. In April 1862, federal forces occupied the city. On May 1, the Confederate cavalry forced U.S. troops to retreat to Huntsville, and many citizens of Athens cheered their departure. When federal forces retook Athens the next day, soldiers under the command of Col. John Basil Turchin looted and terrorized the town in what became widely known as the Sack of Athens. After the Civil War, Athens rebounded to again become an important location in North Alabama’s cotton and rail economy. Nine years after the end of the Civil War, George S. Houston of Athens became the first post-Reconstruction Democratic governor.
Agriculture remained an important part of the Athens economy throughout the twentieth century, but the city took several decisive steps to modernize and diversify its economy. Athens became, in 1934, the first city in Alabama to get its electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). In 1966, Wheeler Lake on the Tennessee River near Athens was selected to be the site of TVA’s first nuclear power plant, the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, which went online in December 1973 and was at the time the largest nuclear plant in the world. In addition to TVA development, Athens has benefitted economically from the expansion of the aerospace industry in the Huntsville and larger Madison County.
The population of Athens, according to 2020 Census estimates, was 26,686. Of that total, 72.9 percent of respondents identified themselves as white, 17.9 percent as African American, 8.5 percent Hispanic, 3.6 percent as two or more races, 1.5 percent as Asian, 1.2 percent as American Indian, and 0.2 percent as Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. The city’s median household income was $53,144, and the per capita income was $29,510.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the workforce in Athens was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Manufacturing (19.7 percent)
- Educational services, and health care and social assistance (18.6 percent)
- Retail trade (14.4 percent)
- Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (11.6 percent)
- Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (7.7 percent)
- Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (7.0 percent)
- Construction (5.7 percent)
- Public administration (5.7 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (3.7 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing and utilities (2.6 percent)
- Wholesale trade (1.5 percent)
- Information (1.2 percent)
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.6 percent)
The Athens City School System has four elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school, and one high school. The city has two private K-12 schools.
Playing Fiddle Tunes Athens is centrally located along Interstate 65, approximately 100 miles north of Birmingham and 100 miles south of Nashville, Tennessee. U.S. Highway 72 is an east-west route connecting Athens to Huntsville and Memphis, Tennessee. The Pryor Field Regional Airport, owned by the Decatur/Athens Airport Authority, contains one 6,107 foot paved runway. The Huntsville International Airport is located 23 miles from downtown Athens. Railroads in Athens include the Norfolk Southern and CSX lines.
Events and Places of Interest
Donnell House The Athens area is host to a number of cultural, sports, and outdoor recreation opportunities. One of the best known yearly events in Athens is the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention, which is held at Athens State University every October and attracts approximately 15,000 music lovers from across the country. In addition to the weekend of musical competition, hundreds of musicians participate in the numerous jam sessions conducted across the campus. Another event is the Annual Storytelling Festival, spanning three days in downtown Athens every October and featuring story tellers from across the nation. The Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives, located in the former L&N freight depot, features displays of memorabilia from the Revolutionary War to the present in honor of veterans. A number of structures in Athens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Robert Donnell House (1840), Cotton Hill (ca. 1828), the Joel Eddins House (ca. 1810), Fort Henderson, and the Courthouse Square and State College Historic Districts.
Wheeler Lake, the second largest reservoir in Alabama, is known for its catfish population. In 1996, the world record blue catfish, 111 pounds, was caught in the Wheeler reservoir. The city of Athens Parks and Recreation Department maintains and manages five city parks, the Athens Recreation Center, and the Athens Sportsplex. Every September, Athens hosts its annual Grease Fest, in which celebrants dress in togas and consume greasy foods such as fried cookies and snack cakes.
- Dunnavant, Jr., Robert. Historic Limestone County, Alabama. Athens, Ala.: Pea Ridge Press, 1993.
- ———. Antique Athens & Limestone County, Alabama: A Photographic Journey, 1809-1949. Athens, Ala.: Pea Ridge Press, 1994.
- Heritage of Limestone County. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, Inc., 1998.