October 7, 2021

VIEW FROM THE VIADUCT

Tootsie gave me this framed print of a painting by Athens artist Frances Graves in 1984.  Its soft pastels highlight a familiar view of this little town in the Sweetwater Valley.  Anyone who’s been there knows this is the view from the viaduct on North Jackson Street going down into town.

Aunt Julia’s house was a couple of blocks from here and faced the viaduct over the small railway station below. When you turned the curve the road descended sharply into downtown. Over to the left behind all the trees is the historic campus of Tennessee Wesleyan (now University). The brick church is the foreground is an African American Presbyterian church, and another church spire is visible further downtown. The steeple of the current version of the McMinn County Courthouse “on the square” is seen a bit to the right.

Athens is known as “The Friendly City”—don’t even think about challenging that title, Nashville!

There was always some pride in the city name as well and our high school class ring had a square onyx with a gold Parthenon mounted on it.  I guess we were also the “Athens of the South,” too.

This print captures the small town feel, with hills and the hint of mountains in the distance, churches, schools, merchants around the square, post office, railway station and friendly folks.  It seems we had our share of fires, too. The current courthouse was built in 1967 after a fire destroyed the previous one. 

One of the downtown Methodist churches burned before I was born.  My high school burned (at least one wing of it) during my freshman year and we had to walk to the Armory for makeshift classrooms.

In September, 1985, just a year after Frances painted this Athens scene, President Ronald Reagan addressed the people of Athens from the front steps of the McMinn County Courthouse!  The hometown crowds were cheering and waving American flags.  When we saw clips of the Reagan visit to Athens on television in South Carolina, one person wasn’t cheering at all.  Mother was a sold-out Democrat and never liked a Republican (she was even skeptical that Abraham Lincoln had been a good President).  She was just “peeved” to see Reagan smiling on her courthouse steps.

A favorite Tennessean was with him that day—Howard Baker, who had just left the Senate after being Senate Majority Leader.  Two years later, Reagan brought him to the White House as his Chief of Staff to help repair the administration’s relations with Congress. He was one Republican we Tennesseans (even Democrats) could admire! 

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