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No Business Like Show Business: James Etheldred Williams

by Larry Upthegrove
James was born in Grainger County, Tennessee (just northeast of Knoxville) on January 16, 1826.  He attended school in Knoxville and Holston College at New Market, Tennessee until he was eighteen years of age. He went on to work for his uncle doing merchandising for two years, then was hired by the Post Office in Knoxville.  When the Postmaster left Postal Service to fight in the War with Mexico, James took over and ran the Post Office very efficiently, which is quite remarkable for someone only twenty years of age.
When the Postmaster came back to town, James went to work with two of his cousins, operating a steamboat on the Tennessee River delivering wholesale groceries to various stores between Knoxville and Decatur, Alabama.  This is where he learned the trade that did him well when he moved to Atlanta in1851, opening a produce brokerage firm there.  Also, while on the river, a passenger of his named Jenny Lind did an impromptu performance for the crew and infatuated James with show business.
His Atlanta business did so well that in 1854 he was able to build a new building with a grain and auction warehouse on the street level and a fine theatre on the upper level, that could be used to attract acts and performers from all over the nation.  He brought a new level of entertainment to the city that without the Athenaeum would have never existed.  It was constructed on Decatur St. about four buildings off of Peachtree, with brick exterior and fine white columns on the upper level. It seated about 800 people.  With hotels all around and the train depot nearby, it was a very successful venture. It stood there, at about 18 Decatur St., until November of 1864 when the Federal Army burned it down.
In 1857, James built a nice two-story brick home on a hillside adjacent to the city graveyard.  It is there that the Confederate high command was headquartered part of the day on July 22, 1864, the day of the Battle of Atlanta. That night, Drs. Noel D’Alvigny and James Logan set up a field hospital and did surgery all night long, on the grounds of current-day Oakland Cemetery.
James wasn’t in good enough health to be able to abide the day-to-day exertions of soldiering so he contributed to the war effort the only way he could.  He made his warehouse available for the collection and distribution of hospital supplies all over the Confederacy.  He did join the State Rear Guard in the waning days of the war.
When the war was over, he returned to the city and re-established his business.  He had been active in City Council for years and understood the workings of city government, so he was elected Mayor from 1865 to 1868. It was a very trying time to run a devastated city like Atlanta.  Under his administration the State Capital was moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta.
After his leadership of the City was done, he again turned to mercantile work and retired in 1880 to be with his wife since 1852, Sarah Elizabeth Lovejoy. They made memories with their eight children on Forrest Avenue.  On April 10, 1900, James left his loved ones and became one of the wonderful “Silent Citizens” of Oakland Cemetery.
The Athenaeum was never rebuilt, but in 1870 Laurent DeGive built DeGive’s Opera House on Marietta, St, to entertain Atlantans until his “Grand Opera House” would take over that responsibility.

Williams James E

James Etheldred Williams

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Athenaeum historical landmark.

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Athenaeum original location.

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Athenaeum original location.

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Athenaeum original location.

Lind Jenny Swedish Nighingale

Lind Jenny Swedish Nighingale

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