Approaching the XXth Century|
Chapter 27, Page 273
Athens at its Zenith+
As noted in this history, Athens did not become an organized community until 1831 when town lots were laid out. Prior to that date from 1819, it had been a huddle of cabins along what became Main Street.
The first fifty years as a community with the name Athens, saw it struggle for the county seat of Menard county - and lose. Then were the terrible cholera epidemics and finally the years of the Civil War. It remained basically a farming area center, supplying the needs of an essentially rural region.
From 1865 one, Athens was looking at the one thing that would cause it to be more in the main stream of developing America. That was the coming of railroad transportation. Such did not happen until the mid-1870s.
During the next twenty-five years Athens boomed. The mining of coal to supply the railroad and the growing domestic demand. So, from the years of 1880 through World War I into the 1920s, it was a busy little city, growing slightly, experiencing the influx of eastern Europeans who worked in the mines and brought with them Catholicism.
Herr is an inventory of the town at its zenith; (November, 1892): a lumber yard; electric lights (the telephone was on its way!) a bank; the Odd Fellows Halls; two blacksmith shops; the railroad with its depot and freight house ( a minimum of for passenger trains a day, with connections to Springfield and Peoria); a bakery; a large hotel; a broom factory; a gun shop; two tin shops; 5 shoe shops (cobblers); three brick yards; two barber shops; two grain buyers; the Knights of Labor Lodge; the Sons of Veterans; a GAR Post; a city park; three saloons; two jewelry stores; five doctors; three meat markets; a millinery shops, a harness shop. ++
Also to be found; two lawyers, two hardware stores; two livery stables; a furniture house; seven retail groceries; two boarding houses; an opera house; and implement store; and undertaker; a roller-flouring mill; two carriage and wagon houses; five dry goods and clothing stores; two flour and feed stores; one exclusive boot and shoe store, a weekly newspaper and job print shop; five churches; two restaurants; two billard parlors, a ten pin (bowling) alley; a grain elevator; a $2,000 city hall and caboose; the Modern Woodmen and Masons; two coal mines - employing 200 men; contractors, apinters, carpenters, plasterers, etc., a press-board factory (?).
During the year one-hundred new houses had been built; three brick buildings, a population of 1500 and a city government!
One Hundred Years
From the town's fifthtieth birthdate (1881) to its' one hundredth (1931), it had its ups and downs, mostly downs. Most conspicuous was the improvement in its public educational facilities. With the improvement of the highway system in the state and the advent of automotive transportation, the community gradually changed it its habits. This brought on the decline of rail transportation and the introduction of electric power and mechanized farm equipment. The need for local services started to decline and the small rural city no longer was the focal point of the area interests.
Meanwhile the community was to live through WWI in which, as it had done during the Civil War, it responded patriotically - a large number of Hall-Overstreet family descendants serving in that brief conflict. Garages replaced blacksmith shopts, auto agencies replaced livery stables and the harness shop vanished. The grocery store lingered on, but a new mode of entertainment appeared - the motion picture theater.
Another Half - Century
From 1931 to 1981, things moved fast, particularly in the field of communications. There would be no home without a telephone and the demise of the local newspaper (to be replaced by an area publication) was hastened by the radio and after 1940 by television - communications became global. WWII and the subsequent wars in the Pacific, changed the parochial concepts from the village to a world-wide community. Merchandising changed, farming changed, the two most stable institutions became the bank and the undertaking parlor - people came home to be buried.
Taverns replaced the saloons as the workingman's club and the Catholic church was the newest and most resplendent building. Beauty shops dotted Main street and the 'picture show' vanished. There was some movement for small city homes as the problems of living in the nearby major cities became too violent or complicated. This time Athens was becoming a bed room community - a place for homes not for place of employment.
Nostalgia grew. A library came into being; genealogy fashionable and home-comings important. The super-market replaced the grocery and the small, independent specialty stores could not compete with the shopping malls of the nearest big cities. Schooling continued to gain in importance; but those going into the professions were not to live in the home town. The doctor, the lawyer, the dentist, had vanished along with the dressmaker and hat maker. There had never been a hospital.
Descendants of the Hall-Overstreet family were no longer farmers, small business people, or specialized craftsmen. They had become factory workers, state employees in Springfield; else they became small-service or handy men in their small city. Often, they lived far away and only came back to their home town to rest in the cemeteries there. The population of the town hovered around the 1500 mark.
+a good haven for retired farmers - in the future, it may serve the same function for retired city dwellers!
+The author has filed Helen Jensen Shannon's information on Athens prepared for the 1982 observance in the Ill. State History Library at Springfield.
++There were drugstores, often owned by doctors, in the community.
Athens for many years has clung to its limited Abraham Lincoln associations and traditions. Trying to capitalize on the Lincoln interest has not proved very successful. It has yet to find a workable formula for making it a viable community - perhaps this can be done sometime in the future. Perhaps the bedroom community concept will work, providing it can prove that it is a real wholesome and safe place to live with outstanding recreational and educational facilities.