At some point Jacksonville acquired the moniker, “The Athens of the West.” A curious and bold title to claim for one’s town, we have to ask: is it for real? Is “Athens of the West” a designation that nineteenth century Jacksonville residents recognized, or is it a nostalgic label applied by wistful twentieth centurions harkening back to better times? Several cities have vied for the title, including those in several states called Athens, as well as St. Louis, Missouri, Crawfordsville, Indiana, Iowa City, Iowa, and Topeka and Emporia, Kansas. As my research unfolds, I find more and more towns similar to Jacksonville that boasted multiple female academies (Oxford, Ohio, for example). It is not at all inappropriate to ask when and how the people of Jacksonville decided that they were the rightful heirs of Plato. In fact, it’s an important part of piecing together the world in which American Athena is set. And if I’m going to self-apply the name “American Athena” to my work, I had better be sure it is accurate.
At the very least, we can say the folks at the JFA thought they were something special. Take this little gem from the 1858 JFA Catalog:
With such “love of order,” one must wonder if they drew inspiration from the Parthenon when choosing the Greek-revival columns of the JFA. You decide.
Tracing the exact origin of the name “Athens of the West” has proven tricky. Looking through 19th century newspapers, the name is definitely in vogue by the 1850s. Take for example this letter to the editor from a local newspaper, The Constitutionalist, dated 8 March 1854, decrying the fact that a local bookseller is offering Solon Robinson’s runaway bestseller, Hot Corn Stories. The letter’s author is shocked that such salacious literature should be in a town renown for its learning and culture (which is strange when nationally, the book was considered by many religious leaders to promote morality).
Yet the name “Athens of the West,” has no precise beginning. Some attribute it to the work of IC alum and local physician Hiram K. Jones, who was also an avid philosopher and friend to Transcendental thinkers in Concord, MA. But Jones’ work did not reach prominence until later in 1870s and 1880s. Others believe it simply emerged as a title for a town that based its economy on the construction of educational and medical institutions. In the 1960s, author Paul R. Anderson came the closest to discerning when the good people of Jacksonville adopted the title. He wrote:
“It is possible that the term was first used by the families who early emigrated from Huntsville, Alabama, at a time a town which had many of the cultural characteristics of Jacksonville and which had been called ‘The Athens of the South.’ It may have been brought along by emigrants from Lexington, Kentucky, which had on occasion also been referred to as ‘The Athens of the West’ or it may have been applied by Alcott, Emerson, and other visitors from the East.”
So there you have it. We know that it was in use during the 19th century beginning in the 1840s and 1850s, but we don’t know where it came from, whether it was used just locally or more widely, or whether people even took it seriously. If anything turns up in the research then you will be the first to know.