Watkinsville — and the Eagle Tavern — worth a stop
WATKINSVILLE – For years if it hadn’t been for the merging traffic of Ga. Highway 15 and U.S. 441, Watkinsville wouldn’t have had a stop sign.
Now it has three traffic lights and the prospects of more as this laid-back town experiences stirring growth as the seat of Oconee County where so many people are choosing to live — principally because of the county’s highly regarded school system.
It is interesting to note that in the early years, Watkinsville, along with Athens, was part of Franklin County, which was named for Ben Franklin.
At that time, Athens and Watkinsville vied for status and importance, but when the railroad linked Athens to Augusta in 1871, Athens achieved county seat status in newly created Clarke County.
That is when Oconee County was formed and Watkinsville became the county seat of Oconee. Watkinsville remained a sleepy little village for years. Oconee was largely a county of farm land and agricultural activity.
Now Watkinsville and Oconee are bustling with development and business enterprise. Watkinsville even has people complaining about traffic, but it also has village charm and has an allure for small businesses.
“Everybody seems to fight to get a location on Main Street,” says Joann Stewart, who, with her husband Charles, operates Attic Treasures, where you can find anything from Civil War bullets to jewelry to an 1851 Colt revolver to marbles (dating to 1837) excavated in 1995 at the site of the Atlanta Olympic Stadium.
Charles, former dean of the University of Georgia School of Social Work, also has on display a quiver and darts from the Amazon, dinosaur eggs and a photo of Elizabeth Barwick Durden. She was his great-great-grandmother who, in her time, lived with Indians along the Ohoopee River in Middle Georgia. “All the Durdens in the Southeast,” Charles says, “descended from her.”
Across the street from Attic Treasures, there is Eagle Tavern, which has an interesting history. Although I had stopped at this historical site many years ago, I must have passed it by more times than I can count in recent years and always felt guilty that I didn’t take the time to learn more about its history.
A placard traces ownership back to Edward Billups, who married Martha Richardson, the daughter of the tavern owner, Richard Richardson, who operated the tavern until he died in 1871.
Martha and Edward Billups then took over the operation of the tavern. Ownership passed down until Lanier Richardson Billups gave the tavern to the state of Georgia in 1956.
When you are passing through Watkinsville, make an appointment with Phyllis Palmer, and she will give you an insightful tour of Eagle Tavern. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you won’t be disappointed to browse around Watkinsville, which boasts one of the most hospitable bed and breakfast operations in the South, “Ashford Manor.”
Now you probably have heard the story that the founders of the University of Georgia chose not to locate the campus in Watkinsville because of Eagle Tavern. Researchers for the Athens Banner Herald, during the celebration of the University’s bicentennial, have concluded that this is not true.
Nonetheless, drinking was taboo in the university’s founding years, but obviously not today. If we are to believe that Noah once got drunk, it seems to me that it is a fact of life that people are going to drink.
People no longer ride their horses up to a tavern, like it was in Eagle Tavern’s heyday, stable their mounts and go inside for a leisurely drink — but some people in Athens, including police, often bent on entrapment, seem to think that is the way it should be.
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]