As an historic “college town,” Athens, Ohio, and the university in its midst have had to find ways to collaborate during the past 211 years to ensure both entities thrive. But sometimes, conflict happens. An errant circus. A near riot. An attempted rent increase. These are a few of the disputes that have put town and gown at odds over the years.
Ohio University history started when the Ohio General Assembly passed an act establishing the college on Feb. 18, 1804. The state granted the land because the city had exceeded 5,000 population – a requirement before any town could establish a university. The city of Athens became a town in 1801.
“Parents and guardians may rest assured that the morals, as well as the education of youth at this academy, will be particularly and strictly attended to by the principle and trustees,” according to an article in the Ohio Gazette and Virginia Herald on Aug. 11, 1808.
This map shows Ohio University’s preliminary plat in 1800. This image was taken from Ohio University’s Mahn Center in the Ohio University Archives Collection by Levi Whipple.
In 1806, Jacob Lindley, an active trustee, drew a plan for a two-story brick academy building 24 by 30 feet, constructed on the east side of College Green. By 1808, the brick building was completed. This modest building would establish Ohio University as a college, but more work had to be done to ensure the university would be operational.
This sketch shows what the first Academy Building might have looked like. This image was taken from Ohio University’s Mahn Center in the Ohio University Archives Collection.
Ohio University’s financial struggles in the early 1800s
In the beginning, the college had one main channel of financial support: rent. OU’s lands were granted by the state of Ohio. In 1804, 150 families lived on university-owned land.
This map shows how Ohio University looked in 1800 to 1813. The image was taken from Ohio University’s Mahn Center in the Ohio University Archives Collection by William E. Peters.
By 1812, the number of students began to increase (from three to 14). A new building was needed. By 1812, Cutler Hall was built for $17, 806.
This photo is a drawing of Cutler Hall. In the center of the building is the bell tower, which was added in 1820. This image was taken from Ohio University’s Mahn Center in the Ohio University Archives Collection.
As the student body and college buildings expanded over the years, so did the amount of debt. By the late 1820s, students paid $5 per semester, which brought in around $1,000 yearly. Annual rents from lands were around $2,700, more than double the revenue from tuition. Operational costs were estimated at $3,850 yearly, around $150 more than what OU was taking in. OU was having some financial issues. Regardless, additions continued to be made …
Town and Gown relations today: rowdy weekends
From city roads to enforcing public safety during large event weekends, the Athens City Council and Ohio University often have to work side-by-side.
Athens Councilwoman Christine Fahl said that in general being a council member in Athens is not that different than being a council person in any other city.
“As a council person you are always balancing your decisions, actions and policies between various players and issues,” she wrote in an email.
Still, demographics do play a role. Fahl explained that the city incurs a lot of extra expenses because of the high student population.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the city of Athens has a population of around 23,000. Ohio University has a student body of around 22,000.
“Other towns of similar size are not having to pay tens of thousands of dollars to public safety for overtime due to huge parties for weeks in the spring,” she said.
The parties include bashes such as Palmer Fest. The annual block party is hosted every May and has around 8,000 attendees. Incidents such as the near-riot in 2009, where furniture was set on fire, tasked the Athens City police with working overtime. During the 2015 fest, there were 57 arrests, according to The Post.
This photo shows the police force at Palmer Fest. The photo appeared in an article on The Cleveland Scene in 2012 by Kyle Swenson.
Mike Canterbury, Athens city councilman, said the university and the town often have to come together to work on projects.
Sometimes this cooperation can be difficult when the city and council don’t agree on a project …
Fight over the Green in the mid-1800s
The combination of selling off lands to pay for rising costs and expansion efforts escalated conflict between the town and the college.
On Sept. 16, 1827, OU’s third president, Robert Wilson, recommended to the board of trustees that a fence be built to safeguard what is now called College Green. Wilson believed the dirt from the town was the root of sickness and epidemics that had been affecting the small student body. The fence would keep out the “filth” from the cattle, sheep, and livestock, Wilson argued.
However, there was one major problem: Wilson asked for the removal of College Street to implement this plan. No action was taken. But Wilson was determined to have his fence. On April 15, 1835 — eight years later, Wilson and Rev. Amos Miller attempted to seek a deed from Athens town council relinquishing the Green for the enclosure.
The townspeople appear to have ignored this request.
On June 30, 1835, the circus was in town. Despite Wilson’s warning to keep away from the college campus, a tent was erected in the middle of College Green. This incident led to a lawsuit. Wilson won his case, but he also fueled the already brewing tension between the college and the residents again over the Green, a suit which ended up at the Ohio Supreme Court.
Eventually, a compromise allowed the college to rebuild a fence to cover as much of the area as deemed “necessary” to preserve the sanctity of the college. The fence was built in 1838, 11 years after it was first proposed.
This photo is a drawing of Cutler Hall in 1848. This image was taken from Ohio University’s Mahn Center in the Ohio University Archives Collection.
The civil war monument that sits on College Green is a tribute to two battles: the actual Civil War and the one between town and gown. The monument was built by the city, and shows the 94 foot wide strip that used to be considered town commons.
This photo is of the civil war monument. The photo was taken from waymarketing.com.
Town and gown relations today: Bobcat Lane’s 7-year closure
Bobcat Lane is a road off Richland Avenue running to Baker University Center. The university built the road to improve access to campus for visitors and emergency response vehicles as well as to become a new drop off/pickup site for public transit vehicles, according to Ohio University’s Compass.
This is Bobcat Lane. The photo is from an article in The Athens Messenger.
The road was constructed in 2008, but it didn’t open until 2015. Athens city officials expressed safety concerns, according to The Athens Messenger. Council members still have those concerns.
Councilman Canterbury said he was concerned that pedestrians wouldn’t look before crossing the road, and the university should help increase public awareness. Councilwoman Michele Papai also was concerned with pedestrians crossing the road but said the situation was difficult because the college wanted it and a written memorandum of understanding between Mayor Paul Wiehl and University President Roderick McDavis that had already been signed years ago.
Attempted rent increase sparks tensions in the 1840s
In 1843, the college tried to resolve its bad financial situation by reappraising its lands. This reappraisal would mean a rent increase for residents living on college land.
This map shows what Ohio University looked like in 1844 to 1910. This image was taken from Ohio University’s Mahn Center in the Ohio University Archives Collection by William E. Peters.
The issue was brought before the Ohio Supreme Court in 1842. Leaseholders argued that their rental agreements were not subject to re-evaluation.
Tensions reportedly rose to the point where Athens townspeople stoned McGuffey in the streets, but there is no proof that this in fact occurred.
In 1843, the court ruled that OU could not reappraise its lands. Furthermore, a limit was imposed on how much rent OU could collect annually. Today, that limit is $4,500 per year.=
Eventually, the college was able to solve its financial problems and the college became a symbol of Athens. During the Hocking Valley Flood in 1873, the townspeople and the university helped rebuild the lands destroyed by the natural disaster.
This photo shows the 1873 flood. The Ridges can be seen in the background. This image was taken from genologytrails.com.
Athens in the 1900s
During World War II, the city placed more than 2,000 student veterans in homes. After the war, the student population increased to the extent that the college could not provide housing for the influx.
East Green’s Veteran Housing. This image was taken from Ohio University’s Mahn Center in the Ohio University Archives Collection.
But the main difference between relations in the 1900s is the beginning of active involvement between the city residents and the university in resolving conflicts.
Harry Crewson was OU’s 17th president and prior he was the president of the Athens City Council, elected six times. Crewson was known for resolving conflict between the city and the college.
In September 1971, OU employees were on strike and near riotous. The mayor of Athens was away at a convention for sister cities in Athens, Greece. Crewson as the acting mayor, had to step in to resolve the conflict.
This recording was used with permission from the Mahn Center Archives oral history tapes by Archivist, Bill Kimok in 1997. The tapes and oral history collection have never been published. Kimok’s article can be found on Ohio University’s Ohio Today. Harry Crewson passed away in 2003.
Town and gown relations today: memorandums of understanding
“If it weren’t for the university, you wouldn’t have the city,” Councilman Canterbury said.
He talked about the $250,000 pledge that OU gave towards a new fire truck. OU relies on the city’s fire service. The new fire truck will help improve the safety of all residents in Athens.
“Their needs are our needs too,” Canterbury said.
This image is a copy of the memorandum of understanding signed by Mayor Paul Wiehl and OU President Roderick McDavis. It details the agreement that the college and city work together on accessibility planning for people with disabilities. Taken from Ohio University’s site.
Councilwoman Papai said that in the past 10 years she has seen a lot of improvement in communication between the city and college.
Papai referred to the public meeting in which OU talked about its 2016 Master Plan for expanding the campus.
“In past years it was done in a vacuum,” she explained. The last Master Plan was released in 2006.
Papai also discussed memorandums of understanding between Mayor Wiehl and OU President McDavis. Bobcat Lane and the new fire truck pledge resulted from having memorandums of understanding. Other examples include helping enforce safety procedures for big event weekends like the annual Halloween block party.
“It legitimizes the position by having this agreement,” she said.
All the councilmembers agreed that having the university around provides another source of ideas, and when there is transparency between the two governing bodies (the council and university), the city population as a whole sees the benefit.
To trace Ohio University and Athens history, the author used material from Ohio University Mahn Center archives’ building files in addition to two well-known historical books on Ohio University: Betty Hollow’s “Ohio University, 1804-2004: the spirit of a singular place” and Thomas Nathanael Hoover’s “The history of Ohio University.”