In 1866 Darwin A. Richards of New York settled on 200 acres near Wild Horse Creek southwest of what is now Athena. He operated a stage coach stop, with postal service,known as Richards’ Station. The original four block settlement was named Belleview by Mr. Richards, but locals employed more picturesque names such as Squawtown, Yellow Dog and Mud Flats.
In 1871 Thomas J. Kirk arrived in Umatilla County and acquired 450 acres adjacent to Richards. Others who settled in the area about this time included Benjamin D. Clemons, who built a smithy in 1878 and also the first house in the townsite which Richards and Kirk platted from their lands. This was accomplished in June of 1878, at the time of the Bannock Indian War. The community was named Centerville, as it was halfway between Pendleton and Walla Walla.
Centerville’s first church was organized in 1873 (five years before the town) when the Christian Church was formed. The Baptist congregation organized in 1890 and what is now Sacred Heart Mission Catholic Church came three years later. More recently a Seventh Day Adventist Church has been added.
Newspapers were an important part of early Athena life. The Centervillian was established in 1879 and became the weekly Athena Press. Robert Irving was editor when it was discontinued May 16, 1985.
In 1880 the Hotel St. Nicols was built and operated by John Froome. It is still standing on Main Street and formerly housed the Caledonian Games Office.
By 1890 saloons filled one solid block on Main Street, but there were other attractions. Two years laters, three doctors resided in town, and two railroads stopped at the two train depots.
The First National Bank was incorporated in 1890 by a group of businessmen with C.A. Barrett as president. At the time, Mr. Barrett was councilman and mayor. He was instrumental in having the first water system installed and helped bring electricity and a telephone system to town.
The First National Bank was purchased by the United States National Bank of Oregon on April 17, 1939.
The civic-minded T.J. Kirk, who donated property for the early churches, also provided land for a school. D.W. Jarvis was hired as superintendent in 1877, and 12 years later he suggested the name “Athena” replace “Centerville” as there were already two other Centervilles in the region. As a classical scholar, Prof. Jarvis said the rolling hills around the town were similar to those surrounding Athens, Greece, hence the new name. It was made official by the state legislature on May 16, 1889.
Athena’s first high school graduation was in 1897, with ten graduates. In 1915 a new school building was ready for use, and housed all 12 grades until McEwen High School was built in 1948 on land donated by the family of former Mayor Andrew B. McEwen. The 1915 building was destroyed by fire in 1975, and a new $1.3 million elementary school opened in 1977.
Find out more about the past and present at the official Athena web site.