SEC Travel Guide – Athens, Georgia


Courtesy of University of Georgia

Unless you count the small wildlife park (or Luke the Red Mule and the chickens out at Tim and Alice Mills’ Farm–buy their grits as they are amazing) there is no zoo in Athens.  With the exception of the mechanical horse in front of Horton’s there are no amusement rides in “The Classic City“. The closest the War Between The States (WBtS) came to the area is a botched cavalry raid.  All that being said there are many things to do in and around the Athens/Clark County region if you know where to look.  But first a quiz:

Did you know?

The University of Georgia is the first state chartered institute of higher learning in the United States?

The city limits of Athens are measured outwards from the center of the doors of The Chapel?

And The Chapel contains what is purported to be the largest framed oil painting in the world?

Several buildings on “South Campus” are built the way they are because they were located inside earthworks constructed during the WBtS to protect “the backside” of Athens?  It was cheaper when they were built to do that than to excavate the extra dirt.

The Holmes-Hunter Academic Building is actually two buildings that were joined in 1905?

The Lumpkin House was given to the university with the caveat that it could never be destroyed or moved without the house and land, much of which now contains “South Campus” reverting back to the heirs?

Old College is a copy of Connecticut Hall at Yale?

Georgia’s two representatives in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, Crawford Long and A.H. Stephens,  were room-mates in Old College? (Crawford Long was known as “Baby” because he was younger than the other students) 

The Peabody Awards are administered by UGA’s Henry Grady School of Journalism?

Babe Ruth’s wife was from Athens?  Oliver Hardy lived in Athens for a while? Kim Basinger is from Athens?

At one time The Arch actually had gates that could be closed and locked? (if you look carefully you can still see the hinges)

The writing across the top of Memorial Hall designates battles at which UGA alumni were killed during World War I?

The original copy of the Confederate Constitution is in the collections of the UGA library?  (It is displayed every year on 26th April, Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia)

The covered bridge at Stone Mountain Park was moved from Athens where it crossed the Oconee River connecting College Avenue with Hobson Avenue?  (It was known by several names including “Effie’s Bridge”–ask an old-timer why)

Athens is one of only two cities in the SEC that were founded AFTER the universities that call the city home?  (the other being College Station, Texas)

AND only UGA & Texas A&M bury their deceased mascots at their stadiums? 

The fence that fronts Broad Street was built to keep livestock from roaming onto campus?  (no comment about co-eds from a certain place in Atlanta)

Athens was home to a major armory during the WBtS?  (The building which housed Cook and Brother Armory is still standing and is part of the UGA complex)

Some of the first rail lines in Georgia were laid connecting Athens to Augusta–and points between?  (At one point Athens had several rail lines serving the city and at least five depots)

One of the largest manufacturers of baseball bats, The Hanna Bat Company, was located in Athens for over 70 years?  (The company made bats for, amongst many others, Johnny Mize and Lou Gehrig) 

The first garden club in the United States was established in Athens?

Granted I am biased but the campus–especially “north campus”, the original part of the college– is one of the prettiest campuses in the SEC. You can get a walking tour of campus from the visitors’ center or take one of the guided tours offered. To get a real “feel” for campus find a copy of F N Boney’s A Walking Tour of The University of Georgia. “Nash” Boney came to UGA from Virginia in 1968 to teach history and is now a professor emeritus in the history department as well as being the official university historian (if you want a real treat try and find him on one of his early morning walks through campus and tag along). The book includes a brief history of just about every building on campus as well as many of the buildings not located on the main part of campus.

The Boney book deals specifically with the campus but match that with several other books and tours that examine not only campus but the city and you will have a full day of wandering all around “The Classic City”.  Athens of Old is one of the many publications available at the Athens Welcome Center. The booklet offers brief histories of most of the historical sites on campus and around different parts of the city. Another option, if you can find it, is the 1951 publication The Columns of Athens by William Columbus Davis. This book gives descriptions as well but also has pictures of several of the interiors of the historic homes listed. My sentimental favorite however (and thanks to my friend Pam I have the copy he personalized for his wife) is Dean William Tate’s Strolls Around Athens. Part auto-biography, part tour guide, and mostly reminiscence this lovely, soft-cover book is a fun read and a wonderful picture of Athens as it was in the early to mid portions of the last century.

Speaking of the Athens Welcome Center it is a good place to start your ventures around the city. The center is located in the oldest surviving house in Athens–The Church-Waddell-Brumby House c. 1820–and is chock full of information about not only Athens but the surrounding area and much of northeast Georgia. Bus tours focusing on whatever your interest are available through The Welcome Center or The Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. Also the Athens-Clarke County Heritage Foundation located in historic fire station number two, in conjunction with the center and visitors’ bureau, offers tours of historic sites in and around Athens-Clarke County as well.

If you have any interest in music then you know the influence Athens has had in that art form.  From Hugh Hodgson to REM to Drive By Truckers to The B-52s to Leo Kottke to The Dixie Red Coat Band and Roger Danz Athens has had an incredible impact on music. One of the brochures and tours available through the Welcome Center is to visit the places important in the development of the Athens music scene.

There is a walking tour of the African-American community that was located along Washington Street– of which The Morton Theatre and the First AME Church were a major part. Tours of the Morton Theatre can also be arranged.

Despite the fact that no major battles were fought in the area there is much to see and do for those with an interest in the WBtS and another brochure offered at The Welcome Center is on Athens’ involvement in the war. You can start with that brochure but if you have any serious interest and some time then there is a much more thorough tour called “The Civil War Heartland Leaders’ Trail” in which Athens plays a major part. Four CSA generals are buried at Oconee Hill Cemetery and two of them, Howell and TRR Cobb, were extremely important political figures in Georgia.  Howell Cobb has two houses that are still standing in Athens (both are privately owned but occasional tours are offered) and TRR Cobb’s home is a museum/community center and open to the public. This excellent tour is geared specifically to those with serious interest in the WBtS and is best done over an extended period or in parts but if you fit that category then by all means venture forth. The trail begins in Gainesville (northwest of Athens) with visits to sites involving General James Longstreet then back towards Athens with a stop in Jefferson and the Crawford Long Museum.

After the tour of Athens head west to the sleepy little town of Lexington (an aside: get the Oglethorpe County tour guide at The Welcome Center and visit all of the interesting sites there. Lexington, for what is now a small sleepy hamlet, overflows with historic sites and you could spend a day wandering through Oglethorpe County). Continue in a general westerly direction to Washington to visit the site of the last meeting of the Confederate cabinet as well as the home of “The Unreconstructed Rebel” himself Robert Toombs and the other historic sites and homes in and around Washington/Wilkes County. Crawfordville and Liberty Hall is only a short distance away. This state historical site and museum was the home of Alexander Stephens. Stephens was a fascinating man and represented Georgia in the House of Representatives and also served as governor and was vice-president of the CSA. Only after visiting the homes of Toombs and Stephens can you really get a feel for these men who were miles apart in almost every detail but remained best of friends for all of their lives and, as William Davis titled his book, they were “The Union That Shaped the Confederacy“.

Along the same lines as the Heartlands Leaders Trail is the Georgia’s Antebellum Trail.  Both trails overlap in many areas with the Antebellum Trail meandering in a generally Southerly direction through the quaint town of Watkinsville (visit the historic Eagle Tavern and Asbury home as well as the Elder’s Mill Covered Bridge; the absolutely beautiful and picturesque Madison (try to visit during one of the tours of homes if possible; visit authors Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker and see Rock Eagle in Eatonton; and the city that bills itself as the “First Lady of Georgia” former state capital Milledgeville (visit Andalusia-home of Flannery O’Connor, the old Governors’ Mansion and State Capitol among other historic sites. And just as the Heartland Leaders Trail this tour requires some time and effort but it is worth it.

Speaking of the WBtS and Athens one cannot help but  mention one of the quirkier things to see while visiting the city. Built at the afore-mentioned Cook and Brother Arsenal and the only one of its kind in the world is Athen’s own double barreled cannon. It was not considered feasible as a weapon–reports varied–but did have its use on occasions. Today it sits –facing north, naturally–in a small park adjacent to city hall.  Another unusual site is “The Tree That Owns Itself“.  Yes, you read that correctly. In the early 1800’s W.H. Jackson, a professor at UGA, deeded the tree and an eight foot radius to the tree in perpetuity.  Unfortunately the original tree was felled in a 1942 windstorm but was replaced by a seedling and is still tended by the Athens Garden Club. The white oak, which has its own facebook page, is only challenged for ownership of its property in the occasional law school debate. What do you do with an old rail trestle that is abandoned, goes nowhere, connects to nothing, and is about to fall down? Well, if you are in Athens and that trestle was on the cover of an REM album you turn it into a city park. There are some issues with its structural soundness so if you wish to see it then hurry. The same can be said for what remains of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church where REM not only practiced but held its first public performance. The only thing still standing is the steeple and like the trestle its saving is questionable.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia is a part of the university and is located only a few miles from the main campus. Wander through over 300 acres and five-plus miles of trails exploring everything from native flora and fauna to herbs, roses, terraced gardens, rhododendron and camellias, and the greenhouse full of exotic plants from all over the world. Whether you want to explore at your leisure or take a guided tour of the facility you cannot help but enjoy this beautiful setting. There are also events scheduled that include everything from lectures on the plants at the garden or the growing of native or exotic flowers or even musical presentations. Check the schedules on the web site for more information about these events.

On the eastern portion of campus is the relatively new (1996) Performing and Visual Arts Complex which houses The Georgia Museum of Art. Also The Official Museum of the State of Georgia the focus is on American artists but there is a sizable portion dedicated to European and other art. As with all museums there are many and varied touring exhibits as well so check to see what is on display. The museum is free.

Remember as well Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall for all things related to UGA athletics and beautiful Sanford Stadium. While at Sanford stop and pay homage at the grave-sites of the dearly departed Uga’s.

The university has decided to add a little something to your Athens’ visiting pleasure:

An exhibit of historical football memorabilia from the UGA Athletic Association Archives will be displayed through fall and guided tours of the three Special Collections galleries will be offered each home game Friday at 3 p.m. at the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries, 300 S. Hull St.

“Leather Helmets and Silver Britches: Georgia’s Football Heritage” features photos, scrapbooks, and bowl game souvenirs, including rings, watches and pendants. Helmets and jerseys worn through the years, including those of UGA’s two Heisman trophy winners — Frank Sinkwich and Herschel Walker — are also on display, as are mementos from the 1980 National Championship season, which starred Walker. The athletic association collection is part of University Archives, housed at the Special Collections Libraries building.

Tribute is paid to Von Gammon whose fatal injury in an 1897 game led the state legislature to consider banning football at state institutions. Gammon’s mother appealed to the governor to prevent the ban. A telegraph from “Pop” Warner, UGA head coach 1895-96, expresses his regret at being unable to attend a memorial service for Gammon.

Discover the familiar and the lesser-known from Georgia’s storied past in the museum galleries of UGA’s three special collections libraries. Featuring some of the most significant and treasured materials from our state’s history, the galleries are filled with cultural and historical artifacts from each collection.

Explore interactive kiosks with access to oral history interviews, historical film, video, and sound recordings. Look for familiar faces from the state’s political history in Art Rosenbaum’s mural “Doors.” Marvel at documents and objects dating back to colonial times and beyond. See a re-creation of the Washington office of Sen. Richard B. Russell Sr., one of the most powerful politicians in modern times. Marvel at the Steele Microphone Collection which dates back to the 1920s.

Meet in the second floor rotunda of the Russell Building for Special Collections Libraries (300 S. Hull Street, located near the intersection of Baxter and Lumpkin streets. Parking is available for off-campus visitors in the Hull Street Parking Deck (via the Baxter Street entrance). The building and exhibit galleries are open to the public Monday through Friday from 8AM to 5PM; Saturday from 1PM-5PM. (Closed home football game days.)

Interested in a group tour? Contact Jean Cleveland at or (706) 542-8079.