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Sunday, December 9,2012

New restaurant co-owner has long local history

By Brittany McIntire

There are a lot of reasons why people come back to Athens, though family history isn't usually at the top of the list. And for Jim Wahlstrom, new co-owner of Abrio's Vera Cucina on East State Street, it really wasn't "coming back" at all, since he had never lived here previously.

His family on his mother's side, however, has a long and rich history in Athens County, and Wahlstrom jumped at the chance to reinforce his family line to Athens.

The course that Wahlstrom took to re-establish his family in Athens was't a simple or short one.

When Wahlstrom and Georgann Hallenbrook purchased Abrio's earlier this year, they brought 40 years of experience in food services with them. Native to California, Wahlstrom started working at the age of 14 washing dishes at a restaurant. This evolved into his lifelong passion of cooking and restaurant management.

While attending Sacramento City College, Wahlstrom met Hallenbrook at the Incredible Edible Restaurant where they served up breakfast foods together. Upon graduating, Wahlstrom relocated to Atlanta, Ga., while Hallenbrook returned to her home in Columbus, and they lost touch. His resume in Atlanta included such impressive positions as director of operations for Ray's Restaurants, a premier upscale restaurant company; vice president of restaurant and retail development for Crews Enterprises; and director of franchise operations at Rio Bravo.

A quick look at Wahlstrom's resume might lead one to conclude that he tired of the heat and fast life of Atlanta and looked for a place in middle America to call home. But that wasn't what brought him to Athens at all, but rather, he said, it was "for love and history."

After a long-distance relationship, he decided to join Hallenbrook in Athens, knowing that it was here that he could follow in the footsteps of his Weethee ancestors (on his mother's side).

The history of the Weethees in America dates back to Scotland and the deportation of English-kept prisoners to the colonies. From this beginning, and many generations later, Wahlstrom's great uncle Daniel Weethee, five times removed, became one of the early settlers to the Athens area.

At the age of 19, Weethee purchased land in the area that would eventually become Athens. In 1798, he and his friend, Josiah True, traveled through the wilderness by compass to reach his new home. At one point, they were captured by hostile Indians, tied to a tree, and left to starve or be killed by wild animals. Luckily for them - and Wahlstrom and Abrio's in the long run! - they were rescued by surveyors.

Daniel married Lucy Wilkins, and they had two sons. Their oldest son, Daniel, built the Weethee House in Millfield north of Athens, which became a designated stop and relief to many runaway slaves escaping the South along the Underground Railroad. Their second son, Jonathan, built an impressive scholarly reputation and founded Weethee College, which boasted a co-ed student body, quite a progressive idea for the times. Some of Dr. Jonathan Weethee's books can still be found for sale on Amazon.

With all of this impressive local history propelling them, Wahlstrom and Hallenbeck say they're enthusiastic about becoming a viable part of Athens' business community, while supporting and utilizing local farmers and purveyors for their new restaurant.


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