It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was...it was not that story.
But it was Athens, and as all Georgians know, when compared to any other city it's size in the state, Athens is the other place. Athens is unique. The University of Georgia facilitates the gathering of some of the South's most eccentric folks into one town, and not just on fall
Saturdays. This town is the launch pad for so many Georgia legends. R.E.M., The B-52s, Widespread Panic, Erk Russell, Vince Dooley, Herschel Walker, Larry Munson, even the infamous Cobb Brothers called Athens home.
You can't cram those sorts of folks into the same small town for over 200 years and not expect to hear some interesting tales, so let's look at a couple.
The Tree That Owns Itself
Thats right ladies a gentlemen, a tree that owns itself. The legend tells us that in the early 19th century, UGA professor Col. William H. Jackson willed the tree and everything within 8 feet of its base to itself. It pays no taxes and fears no man. The community cares for the tree and George Foster Peabody even had a concrete barrier built around the tree's property. Adding to the legend, the original tree became diseased and then fell over in a storm in 1942. The current tree grew from one of the acorns of the original tree. So the current tree inherited itself and 8 feet around its base from its father and is sometimes referred to as Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.
Call it inheritance, call it sleight of hand, call it squatter's rights, but by all accounts, this tree appears to be the rightful heir with no known objections. So there it sits, the proud owner of a small corner lot at the intersection of Finley and Dearing streets. Just look for the tree that looks like it owns the place.
The Robert Toombs Oak
If you have read ABG much, you've probably heard of Robert Toombs. If you continue reading, you'll probably hear about him again. He's a regular around here. He spent his college years, well, some of them, in Athens at UGA. As he did most places he spent more than a few hours, he left many stories. This is one of my favorites. There are a few variations of this one. I'm telling the most truthful version, which is to say my favorite version of a story that's probably only half true.
Young Robert was playing poker and smoking cigars, because Robert played poker and smoked cigars. He might have been enjoying a taste of bourbon as he was known to do that as well. But such activities were frowned upon for gentlemen who were preparing to read law at Franklin College in the early 1800s. So when a professor caught him engaged in such activities, he was threatened with expulsion once the dean woke up. Robert had enough experience with trouble to know that the best way to stay out of trouble was to outsmart it and the best way to outsmart it was to stay out in front of it.
There was only one thing to do. He went to the dean's house and knocked on the door, woke the dean up and shared his hardship with the dean. He had to withdraw immediately. His sister had run off with the circus and he had to go find her. Or maybe the family farm had been overrun with rabid goats and he had to fight them off with nothing but a spoon. You know, something believable.
So the dean granted him a withdrawal. With this paper, he would go on the Union College in New York state and then to law school at the University of Virginia before becoming one of the finest lawyers in Georgia.
But the professor was furious after Toombs outflanked him. And once he told the dean what happened, he flipped out too. But Toombs was free.
The legend goes own to say that some 50 years later, Toombs returned to UGA and stood beneath a majestic oak in front of the chapel. He gave such an eloquent speech that the crowd inside the chapel all came outside to hear the legendary orator give what must have been his greatest speech ever, even surpassing his "Enemy at the gate" before the Senate in 1860 and his secession debate with best friend A.H. Stephens the following year. Toombs and the tree developed a bond that everyone remembered.
As the legend recounts, the tree was struck by lightning the day Toombs died and never recovered. and then in 1908 it finally fell. The tree was turned into mementos and given to people. (If you know where to find one, ABG would love to have one). But the legend of Toombs and the mighty oak survives to this day.
Two trees, two legends, and told ABG style, the most truthful versions. These stories are alive today because people shared them. You know what to do.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire