Athens History, Two Hundred Years In

The third in our series of articles looking at histories of Athens published for promotional or official purposes takes us, appropriately enough, from the sesquicentennial marked by the previous book, to the city’s bicentennial, occurring conveniently at the dawn of a new century and millennium. In fact, this book, Athens, Georgia: Celebrating 200 Years at the Millennium, was one of several community efforts designed to foster interest in the city’s history in the run-up to the bicentennial. Organized by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation (now known as Historic Athens) in 1999, it was largely written by none other than Conoly and Al Hester, the married couple who did more than most in documenting Athens history, Conoly as a longtime journalist and Hester writing local histories after his retirement from the University, where he had taught for decades at the Journalism school. Conoly wrote the general history that runs through the book, while Al wrote the interspersed profiles of local businesses. In addition to copious historic photographs, the book also features new shots showing Athens as it looked at the time, taken by the esteemed Terry Allen.

An excerpt from Conoly Hester’s general history appears on the two-page spread copied below, in addition to captioned images depicting painter Stan Mullins’ studio and the University’s Department of Dance.

Below is single page from one of the business profiles, of Georgia Power, noteworthy for its views of the Barnett Shoals Dam and the company’s old downtown Athens office.

This long-since-demolished building, as we can see here, is truly a lost architectural treasure, one of those buildings that we wish somehow could have won its battle with the wrecking ball.

Turning to the contemporary photographs by Allen, this view of College Square shows Blue Sky Coffee, Rage Hair Studio, and other businesses, in addition to what is now a rare sight: people hanging out, talking and reading, without tiny computers affixed to their person. Indeed, the area in front of Blue Sky in these years served as a popular meeting place for students, professionals—and everyone in between.

Another Allen photo shows Alex Cook at work on the mural on the back wall of the building at the corner of Broad and Jackson streets that became, in 1999, home to a new music venue, Tasty World. Closing in 2008, Tasty World’s near-decade of offering diverse talent won it a place alongside the 40 Watt Club and the Caledonia as a hot spot for up-and-coming music artists. In its later years, it expanded to include a second-floor space. The venue’s location right where the University meets downtown gave the local music scene a continued presence on the eastern/ southern part of the downtown commercial district. Since its closure nearly all live music has instead been found in the northwestern part, especially on and around West Washington Street.

Speaking of which, we cannot resist including one more brilliant shot by Allen, depicting the now-legendary outdoor Widespread Panic concert of 1998. Flagpole columnist Gordon Lamb’s recent book about the event, Widespread Panic in the Streets of Athens, Georgia, is available at the Athens-Clarke County Library in both the Heritage Room and the regular non-fiction section and is highly recommended. This concert was unique in many ways, unlikely to be repeated, though it did inspire AthFest to set up its concert stage at the western edge of Washington, that festival of local music having originally been held at the other end of the street.

If you view the image at its full size (right-click in Windows, Control-click in Apple) you will see a few signs of businesses no longer extant. One is Marrakech Express, located in what is now the Clocked! American Diner. Another is the original location of Jittery Joe’s, indicated by the large sign bearing the illustration of a coffee cup.

All this talk of the music scene, however, may give a misleading impression of this book’s broad scope. It is certainly meant for a general audience and may perhaps be most noteworthy for the business profiles written by Al Hester. Many of these companies, schools, hospitals, and other entities are not well documented, at least not in the form of publicly-available resources. Those interested in business history may not be aware of the wealth of information to be found here, a clear reminder that researchers always need to check general histories of the city, state, or country that they’re studying, not to mention books narrower in scope but which may touch upon other, related subjects. Most books published in the twentieth century have not been scanned and thus are not full-text searchable. A keyword search at Google Books for these business names, for example, will not turn up any results from this book. In other words, browse the shelves and check the indexes.

To aid the research process, here we supply a handy list of all of the enterprises profiled by Al Hester, in the order in which they appear in the book:

the University of Georgia;
the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce;
the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government;
the Southern Mutual Insurance Company;
the Athens Hardware Company;
Suntrust Bank;
the Athens Marble and Granite and Master Grave Service;
Stiles Properties;
the Athens Regional Medical Center;
Georgia Power;
the Bank of America;
the First American Bank and Trust;
the Athens First Bank and Trust Company (now part of Synovus);
the University of Georgia Athletic Association;
the Varsity;
St. Mary’s Health Care System;
the Clarke Broadcasting Corporation;
Truett-McConnell College;
the Guest Printing Company;
the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation;
Exploration Resources;
the Oliver Rubber Company (no longer based in Athens);
the Fowler Products Company (now Fowler Office Interiors);
the ABB Power T & D Company (now Power Partners);
Gold Kist;
Collins, Wilder & Moody (now Collins/ Moody and Company);
Hawthorne Orthopedics;
the Classic Center;
Conwed Plastics;
the McLane Company;
the Georgia Square Mall;
Noramco;
Flower, Inc., Balloons (now Burton and Burton);
Seaboard Farms;
White Cap (now Silgan White Cap America).

Three Businesses, Two Buildings: Bell’s, the 40 Watt Club, and the Potter’s House, 1989-1991

On November 4, 1989, the Bell’s grocery store on Prince Avenue closed. Previously home to a Kroger, Bell’s had occupied the building since 1976. The closure marked the end of an era, when major grocery stores, as well as the largest department stores and other major chains, were often located downtown or very close to downtown. It also connects to moves made by two other Athens institutions, the Potter’s House Thrift Store and the 40 Watt Club. The former, which these days operates under a different name (the Atlanta Mission Athens Thrift Store, found at the Homewood Village Shopping Center), in 1989 was located at 285 West Washington Street. The next year, it would move to the former Bell’s location, while the 40 Watt Club, then located at 256 West Clayton Street, would move into the vacated Potter’s House spot.

In tracking these changes via microfilmed and digitized old newspapers, striking differences in the research process emerge. A internationally-known music venue like the 40 Watt Club not only has its history well documented in the local press—one of its owners working at the still-young weekly newspaper Flagpole—but is also discussed in numerous histories either covering the Athens music scene or broader related topics. A grocery store, as we saw in our first article about the Bell’s chain, likely has several advertisements running in local newspapers, leaving behind a clear trail for researchers to follow, supplemented by city directories and perhaps newspaper articles. Indeed, in our case here, an article about the Prince Avenue Bell’s closing, published in the Athens Observer on November 16, was written by one of Athens’ leading journalists at the time, Conoly Hester. But a thrift store run by a non-profit organization, while it may be more stable compared to commercial enterprises, can be strangely silent in the public record, with few articles and advertisements found in newspapers and magazines. The researcher would need to turn to the organization itself, hoping that extensive records have been maintained.

Hester’s article, seen above and below, notes Athenians’ nickname for the Prince Avenue Bell’s. “Ghetto Bell’s” may seem crude, even offensive, but anecdotal evidence suggests that, despite the negative impressions reported by Hester, many neighborhood residents applied the term with affection. It even became the name of local songster Vic Chesnutt’s publishing company. In 2005, Chesnutt explained why he chose the name in an article in No Depression magazine. The discussion came up there because that year Chesnutt also used the name for his new album. Ghetto Bells featured Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks among other guests, serving as quite an illustrious final act, however obliquely, for a grocery store that had been closed more than 15 years.

Digging further into Hester’s article, Athenians will not be surprised, though they may be disappointed, to find that certain socioeconomic concerns that the city faces today were present in 1989. The Prince Avenue Bell’s was small, with fewer of the features we expect from a modern “supermarket,” creating a stark divide between what was available to residents living near downtown compared to what was available at comparable businesses located at shopping areas farther out, whether they be somewhat close, like Alps Road, or not, like Gaines School Road and the area around Georgia Square Mall. As explained by local residents quoted by Hester, transportation to such locations for those lacking a personal automobile could prove difficult. In coming years, the only grocers that opened in or near downtown, namely Daily Groceries, Phoenix, and later Carniceria Costa de Jalisco, were even smaller than the Prince Avenue Bell’s.

While we know an exact date the Prince Avenue Bell’s shut its doors from the Observer article, even a rough date for when Potter’s House moved is harder to pin down. The Hill-Donnelly Cross Reference Directory published in February 1990 still had Bell’s on Prince and the thrift store on Washington. Next year’s edition, also published in February, noted the move, with Potter’s House now listed at both 434 and 450 Prince Avenue. Southern Bell telephone directories published in December 1989 and December 1990 mark the same change, definitely suggesting that the thrift store was up and running at its new spot at some point in 1990.

In the August 8, 1990, issue of Flagpole, editor Jared Bailey revealed that he and Barrie Buck, who co-owned the nightclub at the time were planning to move the 40 Watt into the building on Washington Street that housed the Potter’s House. According to Bailey, the Potter’s House would move to a new, to-be-determined location, suggesting that at the time this issue went to press the thrift store was still doing business on Washington. (Under this article, by the way, is an ad for another thrift store, Go Clothing, that would later move to 195 Prince Avenue, the site of its nightclub successor namesake, Go Bar.)

The Red and Black picked up the story about a month later, in their September 18 issue. This piece provides a photograph of the front entrance of the Clayton Street version of the 40 Watt, later home to the Caledonia Lounge. The author refers to the “Potter’s House building” and discusses the 40 Watt’s plans for renovating the space, suggesting that perhaps the thrift store had moved.

A clearer indication of an exact date comes from advertisements run by the Sunshine Cycle Shop, which by chance moved into the building across the street from 285 West Washington during this same period. These Flagpole ads, an example of which from November 28 is provided here, say that the new location is across from the “Old Potter’s House,” again suggesting that the thrift store had switched locations. This new home for Sunshine fits into our story in a different way, as the building-address (294 West Washington) is none other than the original location of the Bell’s that later moved to Talmadge Drive, near the hospital, and then moved to Prince Avenue.

In September 25, 1991, an edition of William Orten Carlton’s regular column in the Flagpole (copied below) mentions that there had been two Potter’s House stores in Athens, combined into one at the new location. Using the Johnson city directories found in the Heritage Room, we find that the 1987 edition did indeed list a Potter’s House at 476 North Avenue as well as a “Clothing Outlet” next door at 478. These storefronts were at the Athens Plaza shopping center. The 1988 edition, however, does not include these locations. Going in the other chronological direction to older city directories, we find that the Potter’s House had been on North Avenue for only a brief time; the second store having previously been located at 3500 Jefferson Road.

Bell’s had only occupied the 434 Prince address, though as Hester’s article noted plans had been made to enlarge the store before it instead closed. As it turned out, the thrift store would make use of a larger space for several years, though later the Episcopal Thrift House would move into 450 Prince. Several years down the line, the Potter’s House began running ads in the Red and Black, as seen below, from the October 2, 2002, issue. Sometime around the start of 2010, the store changed its name.

In the March 20, 1991, Flagpole, readers finally learned the 40 Watt’s reopening date. Renovations of the former Potter’s House space had been extensive and unsurprisingly brought delays. Local music legends Pylon were to headline the first night. As we have learned from our articles here using newspaper clippings to tell the story of the Athens music scene, Pylon also played the first night of the reopened Georgia Theatre less than two years prior.

The Athens Observer article below, part of Don Nelson’s regular “Business Observer” column, provides more details about the new 40 Watt, and provides rare information about the two shops that were opening in the storefronts in front of the new venue: Funkadelia and Rocket Head. The former was replaced by the tattoo shop Pain and Wonder, which still operates today, while the latter morphed into Low Yo Yo Stuff Records, which stayed in the tiny space until 2006 and later returned to West Washington Street, only a few storefronts eastward.

Perhaps designating the opening date of the new 40 Watt as April Fools’ Day wasn’t the best idea. There was another final delay. The Red and Black on April 2 updated readers.

The official opening Pylon performance ended up taking place on April 4, as seen here in the venue’s concert listings, published in the April 3 Flagpole. From this list of musical acts, we see that the West Washington version of the 40 Watt Club was poised to stake a position in the Nineties similar to that of the Last Resort in the Seventies and the Uptown Lounge in the Eighties, as touring ensembles like Firehose, Uncle Tupelo, and the Jesus Lizard shared the stage with familiar locals like the Flat Duo Jets, Five-Eight, and Porn Orchard. The ad even slips in a silly joke: note the “return engagement” of “Call,” the bane of all concert listings.

An Official History of Athens, Georgia, 1951

Another curious overview of Athens history found in the Heritage Room stacks was published by the city’s own mayor and commission in 1951. Athens, Georgia: Home of the University of Georgia 1801-1951 was created “in celebration” of the sesquicentennial of the city’s founding, which of course corresponded to the actual beginning of classes held by the University of Georgia, six years after the University of North Carolina. This short book according to its introduction was “distributed to the taxpayers of the City of Athens.” No author is listed on the cover or front matter. However, the last chapter bears Mayor Jack R. Wells’ name.

While the text itself offers plenty of insight into how certain Athenians conceived of their city at mid-century, we cannot but conclude that most present-day readers will be more enticed by the photographs printed in the book. We offer here scans of some of them, with brief explanations.

The book’s cover offers aerial shots of Sanford Stadium in an earlier stage of its development and of downtown, with much of the present-day skyline already easily identifiable, accompanied nonetheless by some prominent landmarks that have been lost to the past.

In 1951, Athens was home to a smaller Kroger store. These neighborly versions of the prominent grocery chain, once common, have not been seen in this part of Georgia since the Emory Village store in Atlanta closed in 1998. This Athens location of Kroger closed much sooner, replaced by the end of the decade with a location on Prince (later home to Bell’s and, later still, the Potter’s House Thrift Store). Though now a bank, this building for many years was the home of the Phoenix Natural Food Market. Across the street some buildings now owned by the University are visible.

A few blocks southwestward, the Tree That Owns Itself in 1951 was, as inscribed in the caption below, the Tree That Owned Itself. The original was gone, and its descendant was still a baby, hardly visible in this photograph.

Heading back downtown, this scene shows us the old site of the Belk department store, in a building sadly no longer with us, while Belk is still with us, the last of Georgia Square Mall’s anchors open for business today. Also clearly visible is Dick Ferguson’s, which opened in 1934 and moved from this location to the Beechwood shopping center in 1995.

The photo above is one of the several in the book dating from much earlier than 1951. In this case, old enough to show both the church and opera house that once occupied a block of Washington Street and an older location of the Confederate war memorial. This photograph was also used for postcards, as seen in Gary Doster’s A Postcard History of Athens, Georgia. As Doster explains, the residence visible in this shot on the right is known as the Eustace Speer House, named for a University professor who also served as a Methodist minister. The house was demolished in 1920 to make way for the Palace Theatre and other buildings as the downtown commercial district continued to grow.

Back to the 1950s, we see buildings to the north of the Georgia Theatre that are no longer extant, including the then-home of AM radio station WRFC. Along the right border of this shot, we get a glimpse of Horton’s before a façade was added to the building’s upper level.

On the former site of St. Joseph Church, the “Roman Chapel” is even more a relic of the past than the newer church, now that only a portion of the latter building remains. As the book explains, this older structure served many functions and was located behind the church.

This view of the “Roman Chapel” leaves us with unanswered questions. So we turn to a recent book, the multiple-author Tangible Past in Athens, Georgia. The history of St. Joseph in its different manifestations comes up at several points in that massive tome. As explained by (again!) local historian Gary Doster, in his chapter, “An Annotated Compendium of Some Moved Houses, Churches, Monuments, and Other Structures in Athens, Georgia,” the building was originally built around 1850 by Thomas R. R. Cobb to house a women’s elementary school, the Grove Seminary. In the late nineteenth century it indeed became, as the text above claims, the original home of the University law school. The property was sold to the Savannah Diocese in 1881. When construction on the church that still stands today commenced in 1913, the former Grove school was moved back from the street, where it slowly decayed over the next half century, despite numerous plans to make use of it.

The picture below, taken from another section of Tangible Past, shows the old Grove school/ “Roman Chapel” as it stood behind the new church.

For a brief final note, here is a shot of Athens General Hospital in an earlier, simpler form. As with the former St. Joseph property, the past is ever present, even in ghostly form, as the final remnants of this version of the building were demolished in late 2020.