The Madison, Indiana of my youth

Downtown Madison in the ’50s

“Hey, Wayne, like I told you last year, you know so much about the history of Madison and people who lived here, and if you don’t write it all down on your website, one of these days you’ll be gone, and all that history will be, too!”

That was a friend of mine, talking while we were attending the Madison Regatta early last month. He’s an outgoing, wisecracking kind of guy, but I could tell he was serious about this. I’d forgotten about him telling me the same thing last year until he mentioned it — again. So I got to thinking: “Well, hell, why not? Got nothing to lose. I’m always racking my brain to come up with a new column, anyway.”

So, my friend Jon Hallgarth, here we go:


I was born in Connersville, Indiana, up southeast of Indianapolis and near central Indiana. But when I was 4 years old, in 1949, my parents, Tony and Rubye, moved to Madison and built the Englewood Motel, near the intersection of what’s now Michigan Road and Clifty Drive. They called it the Englewood Tourist Court; the people they sold it to 10 years later kept the “Englewood” part, but changed the rest to “Motel.”

But enough about that. This column isn’t about me, or my parents’ motel.

The big factories on the west side of Michigan Road weren’t there in those days. Nothing but farm land, almost entirely uncultivated. An old farm couple, Dick and Mattie Keller, had sold the motel land to Mom and Dad, and Dick didn’t farm any more. Farther north on what was U.S. 29 in 1949 (later became U.S. 421) and also on the west side of the road, was a farm owned and cultivated by an old man named Louis Giesler. His place was just slightly north of where the plants are now.

Come back south about half a block or so, on the east side of the current Michigan Road, and you’d come to the farm of Robert Lee, who lived there with his mother, Hannah Gordon (I called them Uncle Bob and Grandma Gordon). They were good people, but Hannah was close to 90 when we moved there, and Bob nearing 70, and considerably overweight. Their house, barn, and other outbuildings were right across the road from where the factories are now, and approximately where one of those low-rent apartment complexes are on Michigan Road now.

And as you then went south on Michigan Road — uh, U.S. 421 in those days — you turned left and headed toward –NO, WAIT A MINUTE! You couldn’t “turn left” because what is now the eastern portion of Clifty Drive wasn’t even there yet! And the western part of Clifty Drive was “S.R. 107” and was mostly vacant lots or farmers’ fields, with a house or a restaurant here and there — but not many of them.

So let’s start south down what’s now Michigan Road (hope those not familiar with the Madison of those days aren’t already getting confused here). There are houses, houses, a church, an elementary school, there now on the west side of the road. But — here’s probably a surprise for those of you who moved here long after childhood, or are too young to remember it because you were born too late — there was for some years, an AIRPORT on that land where people now reside! No, big airliners didn’t come in to land there, and passengers didn’t come driving in with loaded suitcases and dressed as if for church. It was a SMALL airport, the land of which extended over to what is now North Cragmont Street, and the planes which took off and landed there, were small private ones called Piper Cubs. Don’t know if they still build them or not. The airport was dismantled in the early 1960s, to make room for lots for private residences.

Move on south on Michigan Road — er, that is, 421, as it was called then. Not nearly as many houses as there are now (Miles Ridge was entirely farm land). The part of what is now Miles Ridge that is closest to the road was a small farm owned by another elderly couple, George and Nettie Lyon. George was a tall, dignified, bald-headed old man, very nice. Nettie was short, loud, and excitable. And they had a faithful mule, named Mort.

The present Sunrise golf course was years in the offing; this was also farm land — the Crolley Farm, my dad once told me. He worked for a full-time farmer named Howard Dahlem, who baled hay in that hilly property each summer. I remember riding on a platform on the back of Dad’s tractor one year while he and Howard and a group of teenage boys were baling and stacking the hay. We stopped for lunch, and while we were eating while leaning up against the baler, there came a thunderstorm with heavy rain. We all crawled under the baler to try to keep dry. But — sorry, boys — that didn’t work! Water came pouring down one of the gulleys still visible in the hilly property, and washed us right out from under there!

Not a lot of difference from the ’50s as we go down Michigan Road/421 — until we get to State Street. What happened to Shawe Memorial High School, and Pope John XXIII grade school?! Well, they hadn’t been conceived yet; Shawe opened in 1954; Pope John, in 1966. The Catholic Church purchased the land from an old German farmer named Hans Steinberger. His farm house is still standing, just south of the Shawe tennis courts, surrounded by old, tall trees.

Then we come to the upper-income suburb just north and west of the Moose Lodge — and we see it isn’t there, either. Howard Dahlem, the farmer I mentioned earlier, had his farm — house, two barns, outhouse, several other outbuildings — on that land. He also owned farmland at other places in the county, and cultivated crops on all of them. I’ve heard from someone who knew him well that he normally worked until midnight, slept for three hours, then got up to do the early milking. I get tired just THINKING of all that! One of the houses presently in that subdivision — the one that sits near to, and parallel to, Michigan Road — was built on the exact spot where Howard’s house was.

Yes, the Moose Lodge was there in those days, and hasn’t changed much — on the outside, anyway. So let’s proceed on down to the top of Michigan Hill. Not many changes, except that the Mormon church was not there in those days. Then we’ll skip on down to the bottom of the hill, make a sharp right turn — and go right by the Pearl Packing Company, which was located on the left side of West Street (going south) for many years. Cows, pigs, etc., were slaughtered there every day, and the meat sold to many, many grocery stores, families, etc. At Christmas time, Pearl would receive orders from all over the country for Christmas hams. By the way, the big, impressive mansion that sits up at the top of the Michigan Hill, on the left as you start down the hill, was built by Robert Yunker, one of the founder of Pearl Packing Company’s sons.

Downtown Madison in the 1920s

 

 

Move on down West Street, and you’ll pass the Elks Lodge (burned out for the past 12 years), then the former City Hall right next door. And where Lytle Park is now located, was for many years the Madison Post Office. It was a beautiful tan stone building with a red tile roof — but unfortunately, it was torn down in the early 1960s.

Rogers Drug Store was on the northeast corner of West and Main (it’s now Shooters), and the building on the other corner that is now a coffee shop and a high-rent apartment complex, was Lodge Brothers Furniture — not to be confused with Lodge Brothers Hardware, half a block east of there on the south side of Main Street. Yes, the Lodges WERE all brothers — six of them. Four in hardware, two in couches and armchairs. Good family.

Down West Main slightly over a block, on the south side, was Betty Mundt’s Candies. I know, it’s still there, although it’s been closed for several years. Richard and Betty Mundt were like everyone’s favorite uncle and aunt — incredibly kind people, who were probably the most popular in town among the kids of those days. They opened at 9 a.m., closed at 9 p.m., did all the work themselves — no employees; and lived “over the store”. And during the school years, they were packed with teens, afternoons and evenings. Loved those cho-chos! And a number of the other yummy things they sold.

Just down west on Main from Mundt’s — and from Dattilo’s Fruit Market, which is still there — and in the southeast corner of the present Main Street parking lot, was the Madison Theater. Yes, they showed movies there, up into the late 1950s, but usually not first-run movies such as were viewed at the Ohio Theatre. B-Westerns (whatever happened to Randolph Scott?), detective movies, serials, and other second-run films, were shown at the Madison. It was hugely popular with Madison kids — including me. And if you were sitting in there watching a movie, and you suddenly felt something run across your feet — not to worry. It was just one of the rats who lived there.

In 1954, my mom and I attended the last minstrel show ever held in Madison, at the Madison Theater. I still remember that. Oh, yes, they had “blackface end men” — oh, horrors! RACISM! But it was a fine, entertaining live show. We all really enjoyed it. I remember one part of the show was a 13-year-old Madison girl who came out in a 1920s “flapper” costume, and danced the Charleston, with her mom playing the piano. My mom said the daughter didn’t do it just right, though. And she was a young adult in the ’20s, so she should have known.

On the corner of Main and Poplar, just across the street from where Greves TV is located now, was another favorite target of young Madisonians in my day: Samples Confectionery. Great ice cream, however you wanted it — sundaes, cones, dishes; the best root beer I ever drank (the mug half full for a nickle; fill ‘er up, and it cost you a dime); other soft drinks; and a great jukebox.

Across the street, on the southeast corner of Main and Poplar, two doors down from today’s Madison Comfort Station, was, in the 1950s, a sewing machine store owned by a man named Ted Bear. Have you ever noticed how that same building has just two stories, while nearly all the other store buildings in the area have three? Well, let me tell you …

One day, I think it was in 1954, a woman happened to be walking by Bear’s store, and was fiddling with one of her earrings at the same time. The ring came loose and — HORRORS! — fell down a grate in the sidewalk, down into the basement of the store.

The earrings were her favorite pair, and so she went into the store and asked Bear if it were possible for one of his employees to try to find them. “Yes, ma’am!” he said, and sent a man who worked for him down into the basement to look.

Now, keep this in mind: The store building used to house a tire recapping service, and there was still a lot of rubber shavings and powder on the floor in the basement. The man looked around, realized he didn’t have much light, and took out his cigarette lighter to brighten up the situation.

Bad move! A couple of seconds after he got it lit up, the lighter slipped out of his hand, landed in the rubber shavings (which are very flammable), and a fire burst up, faster than you can say, “OH, MY GOD!” The employee turned and rushed for a cellar sink to get a bucket of water. But before he could reach it, he heard a “Whooomp!” And the fire was off and running, burning through the ceiling into the first floor in no time.

As soon as Ted Bear realized his store was on fire, he rushed to the phone and picked it up to call the Madison Fire Department. But the receiver was already so hot that he had to drop it again, and hurry everyone, and himself, out of the burning building.

There were fireboxes on many utility poles in those days, and somebody pulled one near the store within seconds. Within minutes, Madison’s four downtown fire companies came roaring to the scene and did everything they could to bring the fire under control. They finally did — but the fire had spread clear up into the third floor, stopping only just below the roof.

Contractors later told Bear that the third floor was not salvageable. So he had them remove it. And that’s why it’s a two-story building now, and has been since 1954.

Then there’s the Broadway Fountain, and the Broadway Hotel & Tavern, which were already there, and had been for a long time. Little change there. And I’ll tell you a little story about the hotel and tavern in a few minutes. But first, some of the prominent Madisonians of those days.


Emery O. Muncie and Connor K. Salm were the Madison school superintendent and Madison High School principal, respectively, for many, many years. Nice gentlemen, both of them. I knew Mr. Salm better. He was a short, reserved man — but you didn’t want to let that fool you. He wouldn’t “take any crap” — especially from the kids at MHS.

Margaret Dixon was employed at the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library for about 50 years — most of them as the librarian, as they called the director in those days. She ran the show; but she was well-liked by the public, and her staff. And when it came to the library, she knew every inch of it. It was her entire life. She lived on South Walnut Street with her mother; never married.

The Schultz brothers, Bernard and Edwin “Abie”, owned a shoe store on East Main Street in the building where Subway Restaurant was located in recent times. They had the store for many years, and were known and liked by everyone. Bernard, the older brother, had a good sense of humor, but at the store, was all business, and if you were his friend, he would occasionally needle you, trying to “get your goat.” Abie, as everyone called the younger brother, was easy-going, jovial, and a load of fun to be around. He could say something right to your face that probably would have offended some people, then burst into his contagious laughter — and you’d find yourself laughing right along with him. In those days, my earlier adulthood, I was quite a beer drinker, and I can still hear Abie when I would walk into their store, yelling, “Hello, Wineo! I mean Wayneo!” It always cracked me up. The “Two Little Dutchmen,” as some friends called them. I miss them both very much.

Irene Dunne, a great Hollywood actress of the 1930s and ’40s, wasn’t born in Madison, but in Louisville, KY. But after her father’s death when she was 12 years old, her mother moved herself, Irene, and her younger brother to the mother’s own hometown, Madison. They lived in a two-story house on West Second Street, just west of Vernon. Irene went through junior high and high school here, and her friends nicknamed her “Dunny.” An elderly couple who lived on East Second Street back in the ’50s told my dad once that Irene and their daughter — their family was also named Dunn, but not related — used to run around together. Irene was nominated five times for best actress at the Academy Awards. She never won, but in her later years she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award Oscar.


And now to wind up this very long column, I’ll tell you that story about the Broadway Tavern & Hotel. It has been here since 1834. In April 1861, a theatrical troupe was traveling around the Midwest, putting on live plays for a few days at whatever theater was available in a given town. They landed in Madison, where they had made arrangements to appear for several performances at the Madison Theater. I believe it was called the Grand Opera House in those day.

Of course the actors had to find hotel rooms to stay in while they were in Madison. One young actor rented a room upstairs at the Broadway.

This young man had been “keeping time” with one of the young actresses in the troupe. One morning, she came storming into the front door of the Broadway, into the lobby, and demanded to know which room the young boyfriend was in. Having been told, she started angrily up the stairs. At the same time, the young actor came out of his room, possibly having heard her, and they met on the stairs.

“A doctor told me this morning that I’m pregnant, and you’re going to marry me TODAY!” she cried.

“Hell, no, I’m not! I’m not marrying anybody!” the actor replied, also in high dudgeon. The two exchanged a few more diatribes, and then the actress reached into her purse, produced either a long sharp knife or a pair of scissors, and slashed the man across the face with them.

He wrestled with her, managed to get the weapon away from her, and shouted to the desk clerk downstairs to send someone to get the sheriff. No telephones in those days, young folks.

The sheriff duly made an appearance, and arrested the young woman for assault. She was lodged in the jail. What happened in her case is not clear, because according to an article which appeared in The Madison Courier of those days, when the theatrical troupe left town a few days later, both the two young thespians went with them. And to borrow a line from Mark Twain, “We shall draw a curtain of charity over the remainder of this scene.”

And now for the information you’ve all been waiting for: Who was that young man?

He was gaining a reputation as a competent young actor, a handsome young man and a “lady chaser.” And a few years later, he would become known all over the world for a horrific act.

His name: John Wilkes Booth.

Don’t believe me? Old Corporal doesn’t lie. Look it up.

Hope all of you enjoyed my memories of my early days in Madison, Indiana. AND some things I’ve learned that I didn’t actually see.

Quite a town. Quite a history. Just sayin’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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