ATHENS, TEXAS. Athens, the “Black-Eyed Pea Capital of the World,” is located thirty-five miles west of Tyler on State highways 19 and 31 and U.S. Highway 175 at the center of Henderson County. The county seat of Henderson County was first Buffalo (1846), then Centerville by election (1848), and finally Athens (1850); neither of the first two county seats was within the new county boundaries delineated in 1850. The earliest settlers, E. J. Thompson and Joab McManus, arrived early in 1850. Matthew Cartwright donated 160 acres for a county seat, and the commissioners had Samuel Huffer survey the streets, the city square, and 112 lots. The district court first met in October 1850 under an oak in the square, with Oran Milo Roberts presiding. The first courthouse, a sixty-five-dollar log building, was ready the next month. A jail of hewn logs was built in 1856 on the same site and cost $500. Dulcina A. Holland suggested the name Athens, hoping that the town would become a cultural center.
By 1855 a Presbyterian congregation was organized, Joab McManus ran a hotel, E. A. Carroll had a store, and the Masonic lodge had been built. Athens was first incorporated in 1856, and a mayor and city marshall were elected in 1874; but the town, in one historian’s words, “never moved a peg” until 1900. There were no improved streets or sidewalks, weeds covered the square, and the few houses were unpainted. The early years witnessed a pottery (Levi S. Cogburn, 1857), a brick plant (H. M. Morrison, 1882), a cotton gin, a cottonseed oil mill, a compress, a newspaper (1873), the arrival of the Cotton Belt (1880) and Texas and New Orleans (1900) railroads, a bank (1887), and a telephone company (1901). In 1901 Athens was reincorporated, and newly elected city officials began building roads. From 177 people in 1859, Athens grew to 1,500 in 1890 and 4,765 in 1940.