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A Town Called Athens: OU, Athens weave together rich history

Ohio University has students that hail from Ohio to California to China, but most students know little about the environment in which they live.

Athens and OU have an intertwined history with many stories of surprising interest.

The beginnings of OU are rooted deeply in the original founding ideals of our country. OU was intended to be the Harvard or Yale past the Appalachians. The original name for the institution was the American Western University, which was supposed to educate the settlers from New England after the Revolutionary War.

During its first years of operation, OU functioned mainly as a secondary school because few in the area were ready for collegiate instruction. The first year’s enrollment was three students with a faculty of one (professor and president). Clearly, OU has come pretty far since then.

OU and Athens have both had instrumental roles in national racial and gender issues in the past.

In 1828, John Templeton became OU’s first African-American graduate and one of the first nationwide. In 1873, Margaret Boyd became the university’s first female graduate and one of the first nationwide.

During the Civil War, Athens was also an important stop on the Underground Railroad for former slaves heading north.  

OU is one of the biggest employers in Southeast Ohio, but that was not always the case. In fact, Athens used to have several major employers besides OU.

At about the turn of the century, the wool industry was very important to the Athenian economy. At the industry’s height in 1879, 300,000 pounds of wool were exported with sheep grazing on the College Green.

Athens was also a major coal center during the early 20th century. Millions of tons of coal were exported each year, and Athens County actually led the state in coal production.

However, by the 1920s, coal output was on the decline and the industry was causing major labor problems for hundreds of Athens County residents. Soon after this, the coal industry dropped off in Athens, and it’s vibrant history was largely forgotten.

Another major employer for the area was The Athens State Hospital — The Ridges, or the Athens Lunatic Asylum, as it was first called in the 1870s — and had about 2,000 patients by 1950.

The Ridges declined from that point and was finally closed in 1993 but still houses the Kennedy Museum of Art, the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and other university entities. It is listed as one of the most haunted places in the country, with Athens ranking high overall among the most haunted places in Ohio.

Speaking of The Ridges, the Kennedy Museum is very much a hidden gem of which many at OU remain unaware. It is a well-run museum with multiple interesting exhibits. I urge those who enjoy museums of any kind to take a look and support it.

Athens is a place with a long and vibrant history. However, I cannot cover everything.

Anyone that has time should give the book Athens, Ohio: The Village Years by Robert L. Daniel a chance. It has a great number of interesting facts that any Athenians, whether they be students or faculty members, would find interesting.

You might even find that the rental property you live in or the walk you take every day is historic.

Will Drabold is a junior at Athens High School enrolled in Ohio University classes and a columnist for The Post. Do you know some history he didn’t mention? Email Will at dd195710@ohiou.edu.

 

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