Museum Matters: Athens on the move | Community

The City of Athens Bicentennial Poster was unveiled Friday, March 18 at the Bicentennial Launch Celebration held at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum. It bears the 200th anniversary logo of the city of Athens which describes the history, “Progress since 1821” and “The friendly city”.

In the center of the logo, there is a white and black hand united in partners with a handshake. The city has moved from the days of slavery to the days of equality for all, providing enrichment in the lives of all who live there. It is compared to a group of communities across the United States that are also known as “The Friendly City”; a city that offers opportunities and enrichment to its citizens and visitors with all the resources at its disposal.

The poster, created by award-winning artist and president of the East Tennessee Arts Center Allan Sibley, chronicles some of the people and places in the city’s history that have contributed to its growth. This is a mixed media of red acrylic on masonite board with colored pencil and graphite used to represent each person or place. The museum sells these posters for $20 for the 16 X 24 size and $10 for the 11 X 17 size. Limited quantity signed posters cost $5 more for either size. All proceeds benefit the museum.

This town’s rich history began on November 16, 1821, when the state authorized McMinn County justices of the peace to hold an election to elect commissioners to find a site for the county’s new courthouse.

The county seat had been Calhoun since the county was established in 1819 and they now wanted to have the county seat in a more central location for all residents. They made it the judges’ duty to send commissioners to choose a site.

In May 1822, authorized voters gathered to elect nine commissioners. One of them was Isaac Hurst. Hurst is credited by folklore with naming Athens because he thought it resembled the topography of Athens, Greece. After considering different sites, they chose to buy land from William Lowry and Joseph Calloway. The land had a source and lay along a winding stream called Eastanallee. The original city boundary was 35 acres.

On August 23, 1822, the state legislature approved the site of the new county seat declaring the name Athens. Today, the Lowry house remains on East Madison Avenue overlooking the city.

The commissioners laid out streets and alleys, laid out lots, and prepared for the construction of the new courthouse, jail, and storehouses. They advertised in the Knoxville Registry 30 days before the property sale the lots for sale in the city. The terms were that the lots would be awarded to the highest bidder, with 12 months credit. The sums coming from the sale of the lots were to be used to construct the public buildings; the courthouse and stores must be on the same land with the jail on another land. Any surplus funds after the buildings were completed would be deposited in the county treasury for use by the city, subject to the county court. Calhoun was to remain the county seat until the public buildings were completed. When they completed the buildings, the court was authorized to pay the commissioners an amount “…not exceeding one dollar and fifty cents a day”.

In 1824, the commissioners turned over all excess funds and powers to a newly appointed seven-member commission. This commission was established by the state legislature to oversee the city of Athens for 30 years. These commissioners would have the power, through county judges, to appropriate funds for improvements, oversee land sales, collect taxes, fees, and meet any other community needs. They could even fill their own vacancies by a majority vote of the commission. They were tasked by the state legislature with making improvements to the local spring and placing a fence around the courthouse.

In 1870 Athens incorporated, but in 1879 this was repealed by the state legislature. Incorporations were often repealed by the state due to legislative changes or challenged within the legal system by a group of citizens. It was a long struggle for Athens to hold an infallible incorporation until 1903, when the city was again able to organize itself as an independent political body and further develop the community with its own ordinances.

The McMinn County Living Heritage Museum is a non-profit organization whose mission is to collect, preserve, and present artifacts, documents, and other items related to the history of McMinn County and area for education and the enrichment of its citizens and others.

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