Athens' Historic Buildings Tour
By Jubilee P. Reid
Original Publish Date: October 12, 2023
On Sunday, October 22nd the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum is hosting a tour titled “A Walk Through History.” This event provides opportunity for the public to tour three historically significant buildings in Athens: the Fisher Manor, the Van Dyke Mansion, and Cherokee Hardware. The tour is self-guided, and the sites can be visited in any order. For touring Fisher Manor, visitors will park across the street at the E.G. Fisher Library and will be shuttled to the house. The Van Dyke Mansion has parking on the property, and there is parking available downtown for touring Cherokee Hardware. Tickets are available for purchase at the museum for $25 per person. All proceeds go toward the museum and its endeavors to preserve local history for future generations.
Located at 1116 Ingleside Avenue, the Fisher Manor is a large, English-style stone house built in 1938 by Robert Joseph Fisher Jr. (1893 – 1963) and his wife, Johnnye Foute McMurray (1901 – 1996). This historic residence, referred to as a “little Biltmore” by the former owners, is situated on a seven-acre lot and consists of two floors and a finished basement. The main room has a vaulted wood trussed ceiling and a large stone fireplace. One of the unique features of the manor is a still-functioning buzzer system which connects to parts of the home formerly used by servants.
The Fishers were an influential family in Athens. Robert Fisher Jr. was the president of the Athens Hosiery Mill and was highly involved in local business. His father Robert Fisher Sr. was the inventor of the Fisher Typewriter and a skilled industrialist; his brother, Edward, was the namesake of the E.G. Fisher Public Library. The Fisher manor is currently owned by Pam and Stanley Gallery, believed to be the sixth owners of the property. They have restored much of the property including the gardens, the stone walls in the patio, and they have preserved approximately 140 Hemlock Fir trees from detrimental insects. With an old-fashioned entrance gate to the wooded drive, seven bedrooms, a large swimming pool, pool house, tennis courts, and the original lead glass windows, this manor is worth touring.
The Van Dyke Mansion, on Prospect Hill, is a two-story Greek revival style, brick house located at 129 Elizabeth Street. This mansion was built around 1833 by Samuel Cleage (his name was Clegg until after the Civil War) and his son-in-law Thomas Crutchfield for Thomas Nixon Van Dyke (1803 – 1891), a prominent lawyer, judge, and former president of the Hiwassee Railroad. He likely built this residence for his new family as he married Eliza Ann Deaderick on May 23rd of that same year. Their ten children were all born in this house. Four of their sons served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, only one of whom survived. Thomas Van Dyke was imprisoned in Ohio in early 1864 and much of the family was sent to the North in June of that year and did not return for nearly two years. Union General William Sherman used the residence as headquarters for about six weeks and Confederate Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest stayed on the farm later in the war. After the war, Thomas Van Dyke spent most of his remaining years at the residence. The Van Dykes are buried along with members of the Fisher family in the Cedar Grove Cemetery which was part of the original Van Dyke farm.
The mansion was an incredible structure. The 18-inch-thick walls are comprised of solid brick made onsite by enslaved persons using nearby clay. At the time, the over-80-acre farm had beautifully terraced gardens. This notable building has suffered extensive damage in the past century though; the house caught on fire at one time, it has been vandalized throughout the years, and on November 30, 2016, an EF2 level tornado removed the roof and badly damaged the interior. The current owner, Lisa Long, purchased the building in 2009 to prevent it from being condemned. In 2012 she and her husband began restoration of this significant mansion.
The two-story Cherokee Hardware building is located at 13 East Madison Avenue. Originally the property was the site of Cleage Hall, a three-story brick building, constructed in the late 1820’s by Cleage and Crutchfield, who were likely the first contracting firm in Tennessee. The bricks were handmade by enslaved persons as were the bricks for the Van Dyke Mansion. The original building was used for many purposes including as a site for court proceedings and church services. The building was sold in 1872 and housed the law office of Thomas Van Dyke. It burned sometime after that, and the property remained vacant. In February 1897, the land was purchased by John W. Bayless and Thomas E. Moody; they constructed another brick building using portions of the original walls. Bayless & Moody Hardware was a thriving business during the early 20th century, and reportedly sold everything a person could need. They also operated a funeral home in the back of the building, advertising supplies from “Cradle to Grave.” At one point the post office was in the building as well. In the 1940’s the site changed hands again and the new owners changed much of the exterior of the building and operated it as the Cherokee Hardware Company. Cherokee Hardware disappeared in the 1990’s and the building was divided into a fabric store and antique shop. The current owners, Todd and Jackie Newman, are involved in ongoing restoration of this historic building.
These three buildings stand witness to much of Athens’ history and are rarely open to the public. This tour is a wonderful chance to see them firsthand! Be sure to stop by the museum for a ticket!