Athens, the "Black-Eyed Pea Capital of the World," is located thirty-five miles west of Tyler on State highways 19 and 31 and U.S. Highway 175 at the center of Henderson County. The county seat of Henderson County was first Buffalo (1846), then Centerville by election (1848), and finally Athens (1850); neither of the first two county seats was within the new county boundaries delineated in 1850. The earliest settlers, E. J. Thompson and Joab McManus, arrived early in 1850. Matthew Cartwright donated 160 acres for a county seat, and the commissioners had Samuel Huffer survey the streets, the city square, and 112 lots. The district court first met in October 1850 under an oak in the square, with Oran Milo Roberts presiding. The first courthouse, a sixty-five-dollar log building, was ready the next month. A jail of hewn logs was built in 1856 on the same site and cost $500. Dulcina A. Holland suggested the name Athens, hoping that the town would become a cultural center.
By 1855 a Presbyterian congregation was organized, Joab McManus ran a hotel, E. A. Carroll had a store, and the Masonic lodge had been built. Athens was first incorporated in 1856, and a mayor and city marshall were elected in 1874; but the town, in one historian's words, "never moved a peg" until 1900. There were no improved streets or sidewalks, weeds covered the square, and the few houses were unpainted. The early years witnessed a pottery (Levi S. Cogburn, 1857), a brick plant (H. M. Morrison, 1882), a cotton gin, a cottonseed oil mill, a compress, a newspaper (1873), the arrival of the Cotton Belt (1880) and Texas and New Orleans (1900) railroads, a bank (1887), and a telephone company (1901). In 1901 Athens was reincorporated, and newly elected city officials began building roads. From 177 people in 1859, Athens grew to 1,500 in 1890 and 4,765 in 1940.
Cotton was the major agricultural crop until the 1930s. During the Great Depression farmers shifted to livestock and vegetable production. Oil and gas exploration in the region began in 1928, and some production occurred in the 1940s. In the 1950s Athens had a furniture plant, an electronics manufacturer, an apparel manufacturer, and a cannery. In the 1980s the town businesses included three banks, two savings and loans, oil, gas, and clay production, and manufacturers of televisions, clothing, bricks, steel buildings, mobile homes, medical supplies, boats, and bridge bearing pads. Corn, cotton, tomatoes, and black-eyed peas were once raised in the area, but agricultural revenue in the 1980s came principally from livestock, hay, and nurseries. The town had forty-two churches, a radio station (KBUD), a newspaper (the Athens Review, since 1885), and a library. Athens had grown to 10,967 people in 1990. By 2000 the population was 11,297. The Old Fiddlers Reunion in May and the Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree in July attracted crowds of visitors. In the fall 1990 semester Trinity Valley Community College, which was founded in Athens in 1946, enrolled more than 4,460 students. For recreation the town offers parks, a YMCA, swimming, golf, tennis, a theater, and Lake Athens.