The Houston Memorial Library: Where You Can Step Into History Every Day

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Did you know that Athens, AL, has one of the few open-to-the-public former Alabama state governor’s homes that you can visit every Monday through Friday for free? Did you know that you can check out current best-sellers from this home, which is also known as the Houston Memorial Library? Did you know that it is also a museum that boasts items that were used by United States President Andrew Johnson when he was a young man working in Mooresville in the 1820s?  This is just the beginning of the wonderful things you can learn, see, and experience at the restored building that housed a family from 1845 until the early 1900s. It is located at the corner of Houston Street and Market Street in Athens.

For decades, the 1843 Foursquare-style home that used to belong to Governor George S. Houston was the only public library in Athens. I have chatted with Athens natives who remember those days well, and two of them help run the library today. Anita Raby taught at West Limestone High School and Vicki Stevenson taught at Athens Middle School. They are both graduates of Athens State University and can tell stories by the hour about what life was like then. They also both share a concern for students of every “type and stripe,” and understand that if young people don’t understand our history as well as the treasures we have in this town, the loss to all will be immense.

Recently, the Houston Memorial Library received some grants from the Alabama Humanities Alliance as well as the Alabama Historical Commission. The grant money from the Alliance has gone largely to community outreach and advertising, and the Commission grant money has gone to repairing the facility and returning it to its original state. Anita told me that they will be building a replica of the front porch that was originally along the east side of the home, and showed me the old photograph that illustrates how that will look. The grant has also made it possible to film a virtual tour, so that people who are either new to the area or are visiting can know just what an excellent historical site we have here.

There are now several bilingual pamphlets that are geared toward informing the Hispanic community about the library and the museum, and a new addition to the library is the Tuesday p.m. Chess Club. Vicki has a son by the name of Will who is a former Alabama State Chess Champion and who teaches chess in the Madison Public School System. Vicki told me that Will starts with four-year-old kids, and is fully capable of teaching champion-level chess to any and all who are willing to learn. She proudly told me that she had graduated from playing against the young ones, and had actually held her own for a full twenty minutes against an older student before she heard the fateful word, “Checkmate.” I couldn’t help but laugh as well as admire her humility and tenacity. She made me think that perhaps I need to give chess a try. Chess is taught and played from 5 to 7 each Tuesday evening.

There are books for sale every day at the library, but there is a huge book sale that is coming our way on Saturday, October 1 from 10 a.m. ‘til 4 p.m. There is a solid collection of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books that have been donated to the library, and all are looking for a new home.

Some of the other features of the Houston Memorial Library are a genealogy room up on the second floor; a collection of the political cartoons of Charles Sykes, who was one of the best known political satirists of the early part of the 20th century; a wonderful collection of old photographs; antique furniture; old signs and posters; a sizeable display of arrowheads gathered by local residents; a parlor piano; and a grandfather clock which, while not original to the Houston family, is accurate to the period. It was donated in memory of Bryan Brown by his family.

There is a lovely brochure put out by the Houston Memorial Library Foundation which I think says it best when it comes to describing what is possible to experience in this Athens antebellum home that “belongs” to us all:

Sit and enjoy a favorite book in the down-home, friendly atmosphere of the cozy climate-controlled library. The Houston Library seeks to provide a personal, old-time experience through the preservation of history and a simpler way of life.

The Library is open and waiting to welcome you. Won’t you step into history one day this week?

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner