Motorists speeding down I-65 and seeing the “Welcome to Athens” sign pay it no attention. Just another wide place in the road. If they knew what happened here they would slam on their brakes, tour the town, and take selfies where world history was made.
I’m not talking about visiting Founders Hall where the first all-female college in America – maybe the world – was established in 1821; nor the Courthouse Square where General John Turchin’s Yankee soldiers sacked and pillaged the town in 1862; nor the former site of an opera house, law school and Niphonia Fairground, the latter said to be the “most costly and commodious in the South” before the Yankees burned it; nor Fort Henderson where 900 Yankee troops were tricked into surrendering to the “Wizard of the Saddle,” General Nathan Bedford Forrest. And I’m not referring to touring the historical homes of two former Alabama Governors and two U.S. Senators. Nor, the gravesite of former Alabama Chief Justice Thomas N. McClellan, whose successor, after a long train trip from Montgomery to attend his funeral, allegedly became slightly inebriated and, while delivering the eulogy, fell into the grave. Certainly I’m not suggesting they drive and photograph a portion of North Marion, the shortest one way street in America.
And no, I’m not talking about taking selfies in front of 407 E. Washington Street where a local author, while under the influence of pork ‘n beans, floating in Louisiana hot sauce and cheap wine penned Cornbread Chronicles. None of that.
There is a French term that describes Athens – Savoir faire. It means polished, cultured, refined. We are, to paraphrase former Gov. George Wallace, just as cultured as any four-eyed, briefcase toting, Harvard professor who can’t park his bicycle straight. More so, I’d say.
Our greatest cultural achievement occurred in 1987 when Julia, a pig, was crowned Christmas Queen of Athens. And for two years in a row! Why? Well, Julia was a beautiful pig. Like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, she had magnolia white skin – “that skin so prized by Southern women,” beady black eyes, perky ears, a lovely snout and a good looking tail, a curly one that resembled an Arby’s French fry. Only cultured and refined Southerners elect a hog Christmas Queen. While others talked about diversity and inclusion Athenians were bringing it about.
And how did a lowly porker who spent her youth rooting for acorns and wallowing in mud holes rise from obscurity to become Athens Christmas Queen? In America anything can happen. In Athens it probably will. She was homeless, wandering the streets near Pilgrims Poultry plant, rooting for acorns, when Athens Vet, Dr. Bruce Young gave her a luxurious home in the servant quarters behind his grandparent’s stately old mansion at 310 North Jefferson Street. He named her Julia, after a pretty young lady he knew.
In 1987, I was honored to meet Julia after Dr. Young placed his grandparent’s mansion on the market. I was interested in purchasing it for use as a combination residence and law office. While inspecting the outside, I opened the door of the servant quarters. “OINK – OINK!” A large Chestershire hog lunged at me. I slammed the door and ran. It was Julia. I was so rattled I forgot to ask for her autograph. Her fame spread across the globe. Athens resident Kay McFarlen was living in Madrid, Spain the winter of 1988 and well remembers the Christmas parade. She was entertaining Spanish friends in her home, playing cards and watching tv when CNN International flashed the news that Julia was Christmas Queen. Julia was riding in the Grand Marshall’s convertible as it slowly made its way through throngs of cheering Athenians, Dr. Young seated at her side. Julia oinked her approval.
Kaye’s Spanish friends were impressed. “Say, isn’t that your home town?” Kaye puffed out her chest, burning with Southern pride. “Why, yes, it is.”
When Julia became pregnant, it was announced to Athenians on a large billboard. Associated Press and CNN International flashed the happy news around the world. And for a moment the world forgot about war and was happy. Athens was famous. Our Citizens were proud.
But no-good lurked in the shadows. City Officials grew jealous and fearful she might run for office – even Mayor. And be elected! They conspired against her. They said it was a violation of ordinance for a pig to live in the city, even though pet dogs, rabbits, cats, ducks, birds, turtles, snakes, guinea pigs and lizards lived in town. Blatant discrimination! Where was the ACLU? The people rose up and wore t-shirts proclaiming “LET JULIA STAY.” Democracy in action. Our Founding Fathers would have been proud.
News of Julia’s success and Dr. Young’s good works reached Supreme Headquarters in hell. Ol’ Satan connived to destroy them. Some folks believe that Ol’ Satan always tempts men with booze, wacky-backy, dancing, rock ‘n roll and good looking women wearing tight skirts and high heels. Send a man good whiskey and a good-looking woman and he’ll snare ‘im every time, it’s said. That use to be true. But Ol’ Satan has grown more subtle. His weapon against Dr. Young was a color copier. How subtle is that? “Hmmm, I wonder if it will copy a twenty-dollar bill?” Dr. Young asked himself. It did. Ol’ Satan egged him on. Dr. Young copied more – a whole stack, in fact. Some folks said if he hadn’t started putting Julia’s face on twenties he wouldn’t have been caught. Dr. Young went to prison – all because he wanted to honor Julia. A real Southern Gentleman.
Julia was our most famous and beloved personality for a time. Her five minutes of fame extended over two years and brought smiles to many faces and worldwide attention to our town.
Athens motto is “Classic, Southern, Character.” Julia embodied all three. The fate of Julia and her piglets is unknown. I’m sure she is wallowing in a celestial mud hole in hog heaven. Julia’s portrait, shot by Athens Ace Photographer, Roger Bedingfield, wearing her Christmas Queen Crown and enjoying “Swine dining” and eating her favorite food – corn on the cob - in her favorite restaurant, can be seen at Luvici’s Restaurant on Jefferson Street. Go by, eat a delicious meal, and take a selfie with Julia.
By: Jerry Barksdale