The famous story of the Battle of Athens in 1946 starts in Etowah, about 20 miles northeast of Cleveland, Tenn., where members of the Cantrell family were prominent. They owned the bank, among other things. Paul Cantrell ran for Sheriff of McMinn County and was elected in 1936. The courthouse, the county jail and the sheriff’s office were in Athens so Paul Cantrell relocated to Athens. There were folks who believe that ballot boxes were switched between the polls and the county jail to allow Cantrell to be elected.
In those days the Sheriff in McMinn County was paid on a bounty system. The fee given to the sheriff’s office was based on number of arrests. Paul Cantrell became corrupt quickly and began to make wholesale arrests based on trumped-up charges of public drunkenness. Deputies even arrested people who came through town on buses and stumbled after having sat so long before making their way to the public restrooms. Athens became an open town. Roadhouses sold illegal whiskey and promoted gambling and prostitution. Each of the establishment paid the sheriff for the privilege of operating.
Paul Cantrell controlled elections by taking all of the ballot boxes to the county jail to be counted without witnesses. Whoever he decided upon won the election. George Woods was a friend of Cantrell from Etowah and was elected to the General Assembly as a representative in 1940. He was able to get a bill passed to reduce the voting districts in the county by half and to reduce the the number of justices of the peace from 14 to the seven that Cantrell controlled.
The McMinn county court directed the county to purchase voting machines. Cantrell countered by having Woods introduce and get passed a bill abolishing the county court and selling the voting machines to boost county revenues. Cantrell decided to serve in the legislature in 1942 and 1944. He had made his chief deputy the sheriff. In 1946 he was running for sheriff again and the current sheriff ran for state representative.
Soldiers stream back from war
During WW II more than 3,500 young men were taken from McMinn County by the draft and sent overseas to the war. Those men started returning to Athens in late 1945 and early 1946. They were accustomed to drinking as they saw fit. Having a few beers and a drink of whiskey was common for them. The deputies began to arrest these men and when they put them into the county jail. They would have fun beating them.
The veterans formed an independent political party and ran candidates for five of the offices including the office of sheriff. Balloting was to be held on Aug. 1, 1946. Every business in town closed on election day so that all of employees would be able to vote. Most of their owners were anticipating violence during the election.
The veterans had selected poll watchers for each of the polls to observe the voting. The sheriff had hired more than 100 deputies for election day and the deputies ran the veterans out of the polling places. One black farmer came into the Athens Water Works to vote and when the deputy looking over his shoulder saw that he was about to mark his ballot for the veterans he hit him with the butt of his rifle and told him that he was at the wrong precinct and could not vote. As the farmer was trying to leave with blood coming from his head, the deputy shot him in the shoulder. He staggered out the door and other deputies carried him to the jail and locked him up without medical care.
The polls were to close at 4 p. m. but the deputies started collecting the ballot boxes just after 3 o’clock to carry them to the county jail for the usual counting. The deputies held their guns on the veterans while they carried out the boxes. The veterans sent a pickup truck to the National Guard armory. The men broke off the locks and brought all of the weapons to the county jail and distributed them to the veterans.
No-nonsense vets in gunfight with sheriff
At about 9 o’clock the veterans demanded that the ballot boxes be brought out to be counted publicly. Someone fired a shot and the shooting began from both sides. At some point an ambulance came slowly down the street with red lights flashing. The veterans stopped shooting and stepped back. When the ambulance stopped in front of the jail the deputies escorted two men to the ambulance who were supposedly wounded. The ambulance sped away. Later the veterans found that the two men were not wounded; it had been Cantrell and Woods who had escaped.
A little after midnight the veterans dynamited the front door of the jail. The deputies surrendered and the veterans spent the rest of the night counting the ballots. The veterans won their elections with a two-to-one majority and took over the government of McMinn County. The deputy who shot the black farmer served two years in prison but no charges were brought against anyone else in the exchange.
Crooked government is the major reason for keeping weapons from being banned.
Ken Herron is author of Amos in Islamic Holy Land (2007), and is a retired textile executive living in Calhoun, Ga.