Menu

History of Athens

Athens GA History

City of Athens

Read a short history of the City of Athens 

Clarke County

Find out more about Clarke County and its role in unification with Athens.

City of Winterville

Learn more about the City of Winterville and access the city's website.

Unification of Athens & Clarke County

Learn more about the extended process that brought Athens and Clarke County together.


Among the rolling red clay hills of Northeast Georgia near the confluence of the North and Middle Oconee Rivers, Athens-Clarke County has grown into a center of culture, nurturing individuals and ideas that have commanded national attention.

Over the next two centuries, Athens continued to grow and evolve from a sleepy college and textile town into the commercial, professional, medical and educational hub of the region. Athens Regional Medical Center and St. Mary's Hospital employ thousands of Athenians and provide award-winning healthcare. In addition to UGA, Athens Technical College and Piedmont College have expanded secondary education possibilities and the workforce.  While a consolidated local government creates efficiency,  a strong industrial, technology, and professional services base rounds out the economic environment.Named in honor of the center of higher learning that flourished in Greece, the City of Athens was incorporated in 1806, 21 years after the University of Georgia earned its charter. Many antebellum mansions that rose during the next 100 years have been restored, preserving a rich architectural heritage that has earned Athens its famed moniker, the "Classic City."

Today, Athens features a robust arts and entertainment scene, churning out world-renowned artists like the B-52s, Widespread Panic and R.E.M. New superstars like Brantley Gilbert, Drive-By Truckers and Corey Smith have all cut their teeth in Athens. The area is also home to world-class dining, featuring restaurants like Five and Ten, The National and The Last Resort.

Now with an enrollment near 35,000, the University of Georgia continues to influence the lifestyle and outlook for the community. The unmatched quality of life and skilled labor pool attracts large companies and entrepreneurs with the next great idea.

While Athens-Clarke County has propelled itself into the 21st Century, reminders of the past are everywhere. A rare double-barreled cannon from the Civil War guards City Hall. White-columned mansions line the avenues of the historic Five Points neighborhood. Artists still perform on the stages of the Morton Theatre, built in 1910, and the newly-reopened Georgia Theatre, which has housed various cultural centers since the 1880s.

Yes, Athens-Clarke County has enjoyed a bright 200-year history. The future looks even brighter.

Downtown Athens Historical photoCity of Athens

Early History

Athens was no more than a trading settlement on the banks of the Oconee River called Cedar Shoals during the late 1700s. On January 27, 1785, the Georgia General Assembly chartered the University of Georgia as the first chartered state-supported university. The charter was drafted by Abraham Baldwin and existed only on paper for 16 years. In the summer of 1801, a delegation of five men (Baldwin, John Milledge, George Walton, John Twiggs, and Hugh Lawson) traveled to what was then Jackson County to select a site for the university and contract for its building. The delegation unanimously agreed on siting the school on property on the hill above Cedar Shoals and the Oconee River. Milledge purchased 633 acres from Daniel Easley on July 25, 1801, and donated it to the university. He named the land Athens in honor of the Greek city that was the center of culture and learning during ancient times.

Honoring Ben Franklin, the name of the university’s first building, Franklin College, was often used as the school’s unofficial moniker in early years. In order to raise money to pay for construction of buildings, lots were sold adjacent to campus. By 1803, three homes, three stores, and other buildings faced Front (later Broad) Street. Other early structures included hotels, general stores, a blacksmith, and a tailor shop. The first class from the university graduated on May 31, 1804.

Incorporation

In December 1806, the town of Athens was officially incorporated and a three-member commission form of government was established. As the university began to grow in reputation around the state, commerce and industry, mainly from the cotton mills, sprung up as Athens became known as the Manchester of the South for its pioneering cotton technology. Rail lines would eventually connect Athens with other major southern cities beginning in 1841.

46 streets received their official names in 1859, including Lumpkin, Clayton, Hancock, Prince, Thomas, and Baldwin. Until that point, no street in Athens had an officially recognized name and many were entirely nameless.

Read more about Athens history around the Civil War and in contemporary times

Back to top

Winterville History

Winterville was originally established in the 1840s as Six-Mile Station, a Georgia Railroad depot for wood and water six miles east of Athens. The Winter family from Germany settled in the area in the 1850s and was soon entrenched in the small community. The depot was soon called Winter?s Station after Heinrich Winter, the first section foreman. When his cousin John Winter became postmaster in 1866, the village officially became known as Winterville. With the railroad, Winterville prospered on into the 20th century.

The village was originally located in both Clarke and Oglethorpe counties and incorporated in 1904. In 1906, the state legislature allowed the citizens to vote as to which county they would rather fall in. The citizens voted for association with Clarke County. It still remains today as the only other incorporated town entirely in Athens-Clarke County.

In 1971, the City of Winterville began holding its annual Marigold Festival to instill community pride and offer a city symbol of a hearty flower often used to signify friendship. The city is now dubbed the City of Marigolds and continues to hold its annual festival. For more information about Winterville, visit the Winterville website.

Back to top

Clarke County

Early History

Clarke County was created by an Act of the Georgia General Assembly on December 5, 1801. The county was named after Revolutionary War hero Elijah Clarke and included 250 square miles of land that was originally part of Jackson County. Clarke came to Wilkes County, Georgia from North Carolina in 1774 and was most recognized for being credited with the 1779 victory at the Battle of Kettle Creek in Wilkes County. The Elijah Clarke Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument in his name in the middle of Broad Street in Athens that still stands today. (Georgia Historical Society Marker information)

As the population of the country grew alongside of the University of Georgia in the early 1800s, Clarke County’s agricultural and cotton industries prospered. The adjacent plantation harvests flowed through city mills and were bolstered by the natural resources of the Oconee River. These early manufacturing and textile production were big industries in Clarke County and in Athens, particularly so once the railroad came to the area beginning in 1841. Athens and Clarke County were second only to Savannah and Chatham County in capital invested in manufacturing during the 1840s.

Civil War & Reconstruction

Two skirmishes took place in Clarke County during the Civil War in 1864, one near Barber’s Creek and the other off of Mitchell’s Road. The Battle at Barber's Creek occurred when a remnant of Union Cavalry approached Athens from Watkinsville, Aug 2 1864. They were survivors of the famous but disastrous (for the Union) Stoneman's raid, hungry and almost out of ammunition, - desperately looking for a shortcut back to Union lines and safety. The Athens Home Guard and other local troops were called out and faced them down over the creek. After a couple of cannon rounds the Union Cavalry decided they wanted none of it and took off in another direction. Thus ended the Battle of Barber's Creek.

An occupation garrison arrived in Athens on May 29 and a provost-marshal government was set up temporarily, taking over some of the College buildings and camping on the UGA grounds downtown.Formal military occupation of the area ended before the end of 1865, although federal occupation continued until early 1866.

Separating Oconee County

The original Clarke County Commission had selected Watkinsville, now in Oconee County, as the original county seat. All county offices and county business, including the courts and jail, later moved north to Athens when the seat was moved on November 24, 1871. For four years, county meetings were held in the old Town Hall in Athens until 1876, when a new courthouse was constructed in the area bounded by Prince Avenue, Hill Street, and Pope Street. The current courthouse in use today was later erected on the corner of Washington and Jackson streets downtown in 1914.

On February 12, 1875, the state legislature created Oconee County from the southwest corner of Clarke County and named Watkinsville as its seat. Oconee gained one-third of Clarke's population, and one-half of its land.

County Government

During this time, the title of commissioner of roads and revenue was proscribed by the legislature to what would be known as county commissioners. The county, as an extension of the state, would operate welfare and health programs, build and maintain roads, and conduct courts of law that were part of the state justice system.

On March 29, 1973, the Georgia legislature passed legislation increasing the number of county commissioners from three to five and allocating a position for a county administrator.

Back to top

Unification of Athens & Clarke County

Movements for Consolidation

The idea of consolidation had been in citizens' minds for some time, no doubt due to the small size of the county, the area's rapid growth, and number of services already jointly run or contracted between the city and the county. In 1955, the school systems of the city of Athens and Clarke County were consolidated.

The first movement for consolidating the governments of Athens and Clarke County began in the mid-sixties. The voters of Athens-Clarke County passed a local constitutional amendment in 1966 that authorized the Georgia General Assembly to create a charter commission to study consolidation and to draft a charter for a consolidated government. In 1967, the General Assembly passed a local act that created the first Athens-Clarke County Charter Commission.

The first unification referendum was held on March 12, 1969, and required the passage of two separate counts: one count for the city of Athens and one for Clarke County (excluding Athens). The measure passed in the city with 59.8% support, but failed in the county with only 29.3% support.

Second Attempt

A second consolidation attempt began with the passage of another local act of the General Assembly in 1971, authorized by the 1966 local constitutional amendment. A referendum for consolidation was held on May 24, 1972. Again, the city residents passed consolidation while the county residents opposed it. The levels of support and opposition had changed, however. In the 1972 vote, the city voted 52% in favor of consolidation compared with 60% in the 1969 vote. However, the county vote was 42% in support of consolidation compared with about 30% support in 1969.

Third & Fourth Attempts

In 1981, the General Assembly established a third charter commission based on the 1966 constitutional amendment. The charter commission held five public meetings to obtain citizen input for the charter and enlisted the help of a governmental consulting firm to aid in the charter writing process. The charter was very detailed and included a budget for the proposed consolidated government.

A referendum was held on February 16, 1982. Although support in the city and county had increased since the 1972 vote, the consolidation referendum failed again. While 55% of the city votes were for consolidation, only 45% of the county voters supported it.

A fourth movement for consolidation began in the late 1980s. In 1988, a citizen group entitled the Quality Growth Task Force formed to examine issues related to the future of Athens and Clarke County. This group formed an ad hoc committee entitled the Government Reorganization Committee to examine the issue of consolidation. In July of 1989, both the city council and the county commission approved a resolution to establish a fifteen-member charter commission. Five members were to be appointed by the citizen task force, five by the City Council, and five by the County Commission.

Unification

The referendum for unification was held on August 7, 1990. Based on the amended Georgia Constitution, a revised voting rule was used which required two counts for passage of the referendum in Clarke County. One count was required for the city of Athens, and one count was required for the county as a whole including Athens. Previously, votes from Athens had not been counted in the total county vote. The city voted 58% in support of unification and the county 59% in favor of unification. This time, unification would have passed even under the old method (separate city and county votes). If the new voting rule had been used in the past three attempts, all three would have failed.

The new government would be run by a head elected official (now titled mayor) and 10 commissioners. With the passage of unification, Athens became the second consolidated government in Georgia and the 28th in the nation.

Back to top