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Ann Crutcher examines names scratched more than a 130 years ago onto a window pane at the Houston Memorial Library in Athens. A protrait of a prominent Athens citizen of the 19th century, Benjamin Lee Allen, hangs on the wall behind her.
Daily photos by John Godbey
Ann Crutcher examines names scratched more than a 130 years ago onto a window pane at the Houston Memorial Library in Athens. A protrait of a prominent Athens citizen of the 19th century, Benjamin Lee Allen, hangs on the wall behind her.

Hanging
on to history

Legacy of historic Athens library's archives may be in peril without your help

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com · 340-2445

ATHENS — With a diamond clutched in her hand, 20-year-old Mary Ella Houston, the daughter of a soon-to-be-Alabama governor, etched her name and the names of others onto windowpanes at her family home.

That’s supposedly what happened Feb. 19, 1874.

Her engravings and that date are visible in two panes in a second-story window at the Houston Memorial Library, formerly the Athens home of her father, George Houston.

Voters elected Houston governor in November 1874, ending a Republican reign that had lasted since the Civil War’s end.

According to a local historian, the late Faye Axford, the Athens citizenry rejoiced by shooting anvils and firearms at the Limestone County Courthouse.

George Houston served two terms, and voters then elected him U.S. senator, but he died before assuming that office. Athens changed the name of the street in front of his home from West Street to Houston Street in his honor.

Mary Ella Houston later donated the family home, built around 1830, to the city in memory of her father. It became the Houston Memorial Library.

The bottom floor houses the library and the top floor houses archives, with items ranging from pre-Civil War clothing to a collection of prints by World War II political cartoonist and Athens native Charles Sykes.

The Houston Memorial Library in Athens was formerly the home of a two-time Alabama governor.
The Houston Memorial Library in Athens was formerly the home of a two-time Alabama governor.
But the Houston legacy, much like the Republican foothold after Reconstruction, is in peril.

Curator Jackie Leonard said membership in the Limestone County Historical Society has dwindled from 100 in 1970 to 14. The library and archives survive financially on membership dues, donations and city funding.

“Our older members have died, and the younger generation is too busy with other hobbies to get involved,” Leonard said.

Society members like Leonard, Ann Crutcher, Billie Sue Bates and Rex Lewis have spent nearly a year cleaning the archives and rearranging exhibits to make it more attractive to the public.

“I enjoy seeing the artifacts and being reminded of other eras in time,” said Crutcher, whose family donated display cases from its jewelry store to house items.

“Each item has a story to tell, and it’s a fun way to learn about our history,” Bates said.

If interest in the society and archives doesn’t thrive, the county could lose this portal to the past.

To pique interest in local history, the society offers trips to historical sites, publishes a quarterly magazine and hosts speakers who discuss historic topics, such as its upcoming program on the state’s most legendary tombstones. The society also works to get the state to mark sites with historical markers, and restores cemeteries.

“We want this work to continue beyond our lifetimes,” Leonard said.

Perhaps Leonard’s wish will come true. Perhaps the next generation will grasp this task, and the archives can continue as steadfastly as Mary Ella Houston’s etchings in the windowpanes.

Wanted: members

The Limestone Historical Society, which oversees the archives at the Houston Memorial Library, is accepting new members.

Dues are $15 for an individual, $10 for seniors and students, $20 for a family, $300 for life and $500 for a patron.

Membership to the library is $2 a year.

Schools can set up tours, and parents can bring children this summer for an outing. It also is open to the public. There is no admission, but the society accepts donations.

The library is open 10-5 Monday through Friday and 9-12 on Saturday.

It is on Houston Street in downtown Athens.

To learn more about the society, go online at:

www.limestonecountyhistoricalsociety.org.

Discover the past

The second story at this Athens library houses an archives with an eclectic collection that includes these items:

  • The opera glasses that former slave and Athens soprano Patty Malone bought in Paris while on tour with the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.

  • The wedding slippers, shawl and gloves that Ann Davis Richardson wore at her November 1880 wedding to Thomas Maclin Hobbs, the son of Confederate Capt. Thomas Hubbard Hobbs.

  • Mary Fielding’s Civil War diary. Fielding recorded events such as the Union’s sack of Athens.

  • A 1976 quilt that the third-grade classes at Julian Newman Elementary made to commemorate the Bicentennial.

  • Original post office rack from the Thach community.

  • An 1886 bear trap.

  • A hunting horn that slave cobbler Otho Frazier made from a goat horn.

  • Items honoring the career of Judge James E. Horton, best known for his role in the famous Scottsboro Boys trial.

  • An original plat of Athens in 1818.

  • Rare sheet music and instruments from around the world, including a German accordion and African kalimba.

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