Chris Paysinger, SOA Promotion committee member, speaks to Rotary last month regarding preserving Athens' history and celebrating our uniqueness

Until last Thursday you were going to get a stock assessment of Athens’s history. But just after Thanksgiving dinner, my wife asked her young cousin, who is in 4th grade what he liked about school. I was ready to weigh in on the invigorating discussion that would follow when he stated that he was enamored by Alabama History. Much to my chagrin James didn’t say which subject he most liked, but which he most disliked…Alabama History. After what likely equated to a harrowing cross-examination, he noted that it was boring and that they were currently talking about the Civil War. I firmly believed this was my chance to change his mind. I asked what his teacher said about Athens in the War and he noted that they talked about “some stuff in Montgomery” but that was all. It is easy to blame the teacher or the state and federally mandated curriculums for this incident. But it is not isolated and more worrisome; it is a part of a much larger problem that may have direct effects on Athens and Limestone County.

The survival and greatness of a small town is predicated on its uniqueness. But as the world becomes flatter, places and people assimilate, with all ultimately becoming a homogenized version of their former self. Athens could easily be no different. But, luckily, it doesn’t have to happen here. Athens and Limestone County have the elements in place that make a community a wonderful place to live. But perhaps one of the most significant benefits, and one that is least considered, is our history. As I built my Master’s thesis on Athens, I was amazed as sources seemingly fell from the sky. Perhaps the thing I most learned though during the process was that for years I had searched out history of people and places, far removed from my community, when stories better than any historian could imagine lived here in Athens and Limestone County.

These stories, of Emily Frazier, a self reliant slave, who, when the Union army occupied the town in 1862 bought up all the whiskey she could, and sold it to the soldiers…until their commander complained about their drunkenness. She then went and bought a cow and sold them milk. The story of the Donnell family during and after the Civil War, whose home still stands at the middle school, is better than that of any leading figure in the South. The story of the Isom’s, who lived 4 miles east of Athens and were vocal Unionists, so much so that the sheriff publicly threatened to hang them, is a wonderful example of a divided community.

I recently discovered a quote, which has become a favorite, and is by William Faulkner. He said, “To understand the world you first must understand a place like Mississippi.” What he was saying was that people have a propensity to look outward for direction and guidance. Faulkner was keenly aware that your community is ultimately what defines you. To understand it though, you have to be critical regarding the whole of the community. It is no doubt the reason Faulkner wrote about the Sartoris’s, the Snopes’s, the Compsons’s…disparate families all existing within the same fictitious county… And he also knew that the you can never divorce a place of its past.

For 10 years I have taught in the Madison area. A place esteemed by many as a veritable boomtown. A place to which many look for what to do to move forward and be progressive in education, economic and housing development, etc. I’ve no inclination to believe that there are many lessons to be learned from the place. But one that I hope Athens and Limestone County will take away from the Madison model is that what has developed there is a people and a community that has lost their “sense of place.” There is little attachment or pride in the community among the students and the people with whom I interact. Madison could be picked up and dropped into any place in this country and blend in seamlessly. But I can’t believe this is what makes a community great.

Athens and Limestone County have the culture, the people, the education system, and the rich history on which to focus to be a great community. But to keep that focus, businesses, groups, organizations, and institutions must be specific in branding those attributes that makes this place special. Athens State has done a wonderful job recently in renovating buildings which convey something about the institution and its past…and most especially its future. Their Vision 2020 report notes why ASU has thrived for 188 years, and continues to do so. The report plans for the changes and contingencies of the future, while building on the successes of the past.

A friend noted a few days ago that exit 351 has become one of “those” exits. They described it as a blip on the GPS, a place to fill up or grab a quick burger before leaving Athens in their rearview mirror. Many people believe that history should be saved to remember the past and honor those who came before us. In the case of Athens, I believe we can’t afford to forget our past…but only for the sake of our future.        

Photo and caption in the News Courier      


Spirit Awards Luncheon

by Pam Hartmann, Organization Committee

Mark your calendars for Monday, January 31, 2011, because Spirit of Athens is hosting the Spirit Awards Luncheon at 11:30 a.m., in the Rodgers Center at First Presbyterian Church on Jefferson Street, in downtown Athens.

Awards will be presented to a few outstanding volunteers and supporters who have demonstrated great interest and service toward the revitalization of Athens’ downtown.  All of the community is invited to the luncheon, which combines the Spirit of Athens annual meeting with the awards’ presentation. This is a great way to show support for the downtown while celebrating with new friends and a few old ones. Have you been interested in finding out more about the campaigns and events that Spirit of Athens sponsors that highlight the downtown?

This luncheon is a great opportunity to hear about the successes and to acknowledge the people who have worked diligently to keep things moving in the right direction in Athens.   Although there will be a few guest speakers, the luncheon is planned with an emphasis on fun, good food, and socializing. You’ll have plenty of time to eat and meet a few new faces at this meeting. Spirit of Athens committee members will be visible and ready to offer information or have you volunteer to help this organization make Athens’ downtown the most successful downtown in Alabama.

Seating is limited for this luncheon. VIP tables for 6 will be available for $100. VIP tables will be up front and specially decorated for the guests who have reserved them. General reservations are $20. per person and must be made no later than January 26th.
 Attendees will be delighted by the food prepared by the Sweetest Things Tea Room, and by LuVici’s. There will be lots of additional surprises for those attending the luncheon. Information on volunteer opportunities, membership and upcoming events will also be available.

The Spirit of Athens, led by executive director, Trisha Black, follows the national Main Street Program model. The Main Street Four-Point Approach is a unique preservation-based economic development tool that enables communities to revitalize the downtowns and neighborhood business districts by leveraging local assets- from historic, cultural, and architectural resources to local enterprises and community events. It is a comprehensive strategy that addresses the individual issues and problems that challenge traditional historic downtown districts. The Four-Point approach emphasizes the areas of Organization, Promotion, Design and Economic Re-Structuring.

If you would like to share your talents and get more involved in your downtown, there is room on many of the committees or you can volunteer for one of the many individual events that Spirit of Athens sponsors.

Reservations for the Spirit Awards Luncheon, may be purchased online at www.athensspirit.blogspot.com or call 256-278-6436, and leave a call back message, or email tblack@athensal.us. Reservations are due no later than January 26th.


Re-locating to Athens and finding a Jewel downtown

By Pam Hartmann

“Northern Alabama is one of the best-kept secrets” This quote from a prospective co-worker opened my husband’s sales-pitch for a possible relocation to the Tennessee Valley.   After a TVA job interview in Athens, he returned to our home in Miami loaded with facts and figures to make his presentation.  After he interacted with his potential new co-workers and garnered much input, I must say, his pitch was very intriguing.  “ Northern Alabama has a beautiful countryside with rolling hills, and multiple waterways and streams.  It is home to several outstanding state parks.  Athens is located as the center point between Chattanooga, Huntsville, and Nashville. All  were attractive selling points.”
Miami is known for it’s exciting night life, eclectic mix of Cuban and Latin cultures and beautiful beaches.  All I knew after living there for three years is that I wanted to move back to somewhere that people said “ya’ll”.  I’m originally from Louisiana, so I was real serious about the “ya’ll”!   For this criteria, Northern Alabama got a resounding, ‘Check!’
The other thing I kept telling people I missed while living in Miami was “the green”.  I didn’t quite know how to explain it- although the palm trees, beaches and proximity to the Florida Keys were awesome, on a day-to-day basis I never saw enough GREEN!  There were turnpikes and condos and postage-stamp yards as far as they eye could see.  Oh, how I missed the “green”.   ‘Check!’  Welcome to Northern Alabama-  now  my daily drive takes me through hilly, green fields.  How they restoreth my concrete-saturated soul!
Another bit of trivia you may not be aware of is that Miami drivers are repeatedly voted the “Rudest Drivers in America”.  Let me tell you, no title has ever been more deserving.  Each drive on the turnpike was a fight to stay alive, as drivers repeatedly cut you off.  I would come home daily and check to see if a targeted bulls-eye was painted on my car! Don’t even get me started on ever hoping to get through a 4-way stop intersection.
I must say, after moving to Athens, I did have a problem getting through a 4-way intersection one day, but not quite for the same reasons.  Shortly after arriving here, I discovered the electricity was out for a portion of Hwy 72 as I approached a traffic light.  I groaned inwardly and braced myself for the inevitable hostile competition to get through the intersection.  I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that the drivers were so considerate of one another that  it took a while to get through the intersection, but not for the usual reasons.  It was because people seemed to be saying:
“After you”
“No, after you- I believe you were here first”
“No, you go ahead, I insist”
I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my husband about this joyful traffic experience I had in our new hometown!
We lived in an apartment in Madison the first month of Johns’ new job as we researched the surrounding areas to choose the area we wanted to make our home.  He interrogated his co-workers about the pros and cons of each area and we researched and rode around until we enthusiastically chose Athens.
The clincher for me was downtown Athens.  With it’s majestic courthouse in the center, surrounded by quaint shops and restaurants, it is a welcome break from the concrete malls and cookie-cutter shopping centers. My daughter, visiting from Miami for Christmas this week, murmured as we drove through the decorated square,
“Every time I drive through here, it’s like going back in time through a portal to some place nice”.
I think she expressed it perfectly- Athens has managed to retain the nostalgic feel and charming aesthetics of small-town USA in our downtown , while having the savvy to know that it must also strive to remain active and vibrant. This does not happen by accident.  My husband’s career and travels around the country have enabled us to drive through many small towns.  It is heart-breaking to see how many downtowns have declined into boarded-up, dusty, gloomy ghost towns.
I discovered the Spirit of Athens while seeking to meet people and become more involved in the community over a year ago.  This organization was formed to revitalize and keep active Athens’ downtown area. I was warmly welcomed and my input and questions were encouraged. Not only did I make wonderful friends, but I was amazed to find how many  activities and projects the Spirit of Athens is spearheading at this very moment.
 From the Hometown Celebration and the Spirit of Athens sponsored homemade ice cream ‘Crank-off’, to the i-Walk campaign that was simultaneously kicked off with the Chick-fil-A Jessica Elkins run, to breakfast with The Easter Bunny, to co-sponsor of the annual Athens Christmas Open House, to their annual Spirit Awards Luncheon in January, to their fa├žade grant program for local downtown businesses, to working with the city fathers on making improvements to the downtown, to ad campaigns that highlight Athens, the Spirit of Athens, is the lifeblood of downtown revitalization. They are constantly promoting events as well as encouraging patronage to our fine shops and cafes on the Square. Not only does this promote tourism, but the spirit of community and camaraderie that so many towns lack is reinforced with each completed task. Lasting memories are formed between neighbors and families and these are the bonds that draw children and grandchildren back to Athens when they grow up and seek their places in the world.
I hope that the people of Athens realize what a rare jewel they have in their midst on the Square.  I long for more to get involved and find a place working as a dedicated volunteer like I have. I hope that more will see what is being done in this downtown and realize how easy it would be for it to become a boarded up ghost town or a concrete jungle. I pray that more will do their part to keep the legacy alive for future generations of people here. With the spirit of the incredible people I have met in Athens, I have no doubt that I will remain here for years to come, and I will encourage other good people to come and sit awhile and enjoy this historic place.