Founded in 1818 by John Coffee, Robert Beaty, John D. Carroll, and John Read, Athens is one of the oldest incorporated cities in the State of Alabama, having been incorporated one year prior to the state's admittance to the Union in 1819.The town was first called Athenson, then the name was then shortened to Athens, after the ancient city in Greece.
The Athens area was the home of William Wyatt Bibb, the first Governor of Alabama, and of its second Governor, his brother,Thomas Bibb, who succeeded him in office when he died in a fall from his horse.
Athens was traditionally a cotton and railroad town, but since the local aerospace boom of the 1950s and 1960s it has increasingly entered the orbit of nearby industry center Huntsville as the area's cotton production has steadily declined.
In downtown Athens the Main Street district is a 15 block area with 147 buildings, more than 90 on the National Register of Historic Places has 127 businesses that employ approximately 650 persons (90 of them part-time). From 8,000 to 10,000 cars pass through the district daily, according to ALDOT estimates. In 2011, 10 new businesses opened, creating 21 jobs. In addition, two vacant buildings were purchased for renovation to house new retail, office space, and loft apartments, and an existing business extended shopping hours and added part-time employees. The Athens Main Street program credits Main Street Alabama with helping strengthen its effectiveness through training at quarterly managers meetings and assistance providing a consultant from Mississippi Main Street to train its Board and committees in the Main Street Four-Point approach to revitalization.
Main Street is a unique preservation based economic development program.