Meghan Frick, News-Topic

LENOIR — You might start a story about downtown Lenoir like this: “Once upon a time, it was the Athens of the South.”

In a time before U.S. 321, a time before urban sprawl, a time – if you can imagine it – before furniture, that’s exactly what it was.

Sometime between the mid-1800s and the first stirrings of the Great Depression in 1930, people started calling downtown Lenoir “Little Athens” or “Athens of the South.”

Just a few decades later, downtown was dead and dormant.

Today, it’s starting to spring back to life. This is the story of how that happened.

Life and culture in “Little Athens”

Downtown Lenoir’s Grecian moniker derived mostly from its cultural offerings.

“It was cultural and educational,” said John Hawkins, director of the Caldwell Heritage Museum. “At that time, the town of Lenoir was seen as a cultural center.”

Even before that, downtown had served as the only commercial center in the county. In the late 19th century, there were country stores scattered in other parts of Caldwell County. But Lenoir’s was the only centralized downtown structure, said Mike Gibbons, who serves on the Caldwell Heritage Museum’s board.

And it was thriving.

“The main hub of all activity was centered in and around Lenoir,” Gibbons said. “And it was all in downtown.”

The cultural offerings came from Davenport College, which opened its doors in 1855 as an all-girls institution.

The college offered a more textured education than girls in other areas were receiving at the time, Hawkins said. Students learned astronomy, music and Latin.

So musical performances, plays and art were mixed in with the commercial offerings in downtown Lenoir.

Years later, that would change.

For years, a suffering downtown

By 1985 Keith Dubois, then executive vice president of the Downtown Merchants’ Association, had to protest to the News-Topic that downtown wasn’t dead. [more]