Madison, back in the day …

Downtown Madison, Indiana — what a history it has! It goes back to 1809, when a man named John Paul founded this town on the banks of the Ohio River, in the southeast corner of what was then the Indiana Territory. It didn’t become a state until 1816.

I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on the history of Madison. But I know a few things about it. For one thing, it’s probably the only town its size in the U.S. (about 12,000 population), which still has a totally volunteer fire department (other than the paid city fire chief). Downtown Madison has four of the six independent fire companies. Fair Play, which is on East Main Street, is the oldest volunteer fire company in Indiana, dating back to 1841. Washington, located at West and Third streets, was established in 1846. And its firehouse, which has housed Washington’s fire apparatus since 1868, is the oldest firehouse in continuous use in Indiana.

Western Fire Company No. 3 is located down in old Madison’s far west end, and was formed in 1853. In those days, a fire in the west end was a long way off for the horse-drawn equipment of the Fire Play and Washington companies. So West Madison, which always has had a rather independent bent, started its own.

And finally, in 1873, we head back east to Walnut Street, where a ladder company named after the street was organized. There were many people of German and/or Irish descent living on Walnut in those days, so the company eventually came to be called “the Wooden Shoes,” with a pair of those displayed on their trucks (Americans have always had a tendency to refer to Germans as “Dutch”); and four-leaf clovers also depicted, to point to the Irish portion of the membership.

And the majority of that membership was Roman Catholic — partly due to the ethnicity of the membership, and partly because there were many Catholics living in that part of old Madison. Irish immigrants built the first Catholic church in Madison, St. Michael’s, in the latter 1830s, if I remember correctly. It still sits at the top of the street named after it, St.Michael’s Avenue, although it is no longer a functioning Catholic church.

Local legend has it that the Irish laborers who built the railroad cuts up the Hanging Rock Hill, used the stone they dug to help build St. Michael’s Catholic Church. In addition, the hollow at the foot of the Hanging Rock Hill which is now occupied by an upper-income mobile home park, was once the home of hundreds of Irish immigrants, living in their shanties. And they called it (surprise, surprise), “Irish Hollow.”

Then a few years later German immigrants began arriving, predominantly Roman Catholic also, but with a significant minority of Lutherans. The Catholics began attending St. Michael’s church. But they were not comfortable with the Irish, with whom they often had trouble communicating. So in the early 1850s, they built St. Mary’s Catholic Church, known to modern-day Madisonians as Prince of Peace, on East Second Street.

The central parts of Main Street were as busy as a one-armed paperhanger in my youth. Three sizeable grocery stores (A & P, Kroger’s, Jay-C Store), and many, many Mom and Pop neighborhood groceries, kept the downtown Madisonians well-supplied with food, and without their having to go to the hilltop, as they must now, with no grocery stores at all downtown. Men’s and women’s clothing stores, shoe stores, drug stores, confectionaries — even two operating movie theaters! You didn’t have to drive to the hilltop, or down to Clarksville, to get stuff in those days!

Saturdays in downtown Madison, Main Street was packed with people; I mean, REALLY packed! Because Saturday night was when the stores stayed open until 9 p.m. Farmers and their families — and many others — came to town then to shop, socialize, have dinner, people watch — whatever suited their fancy. Or attend a movie at the Ohio Theatre, or the Madison Theater (different spellings), which was on the southeast corner of the present Main Street parking lot. Nowadays the Ohio is still here — sort of — but hasn’t shown a movie in over a year.

One of the favorite places for eating, and gathering, on Saturday night was the Fiesta Restaurant, 100 block of East Main, right next to Hertz Shoes, which is still in business. I can still see every table full when I walked in — sometimes with the same families at the same tables as last Saturday, and the Saturday before …

Those of us who came in alone — usually various downtown merchants whose stores were open until 9, plus a few oddballs like me — usually headed for the “round table,” situated in the dead center of the dining room. There, you could sit, jaw with others, and look over the younger, more attractive women as they came in. And also joke and tease with the waitresses, all of whom would know us — sometimes better than they’d have preferred.

Oh, and, the food was really good, too. Just thought I’d add that, if anyone was interested.

Old Madison’s neighborhoods all tended to have their own, rather unique personalities, as was true in many cities in those days. But the most unique, and colorful, in Madison, was, in the opinion of many, Walnut Street. Or, as it was known for many years, Incubator Avenue.

Yes, that meant that families on that working-class street, tended to have a lot of children. Which wasn’t hard to guess, as there was a Mom and Pop grocery store on practically every corner: Bob Anger’s, Holcroft’s, Breitenbach’s, and a number of others.

But the neighborhood wasn’t ethnically or religiously homogeneous. You had German and Irish Catholics, German Lutherans, Baptists (often from the hills of Kentucky), and so on. Breitenbach, Cull, Bilz, Hallgarth, Jones, Hoagland, Youngblood, Claghorn, Schoenstein … and on and on they went. There were even some Winghams — my mother’s family — who lived on Walnut at various times.

There were a couple of factories at the north end of Walnut Street in those days (the 421 Hill Road, or “the new hill road” as it’s known to us old Madisonians, was not built until the 1960s, taking out nearly 100 houses on North Walnut). The one best remembered is the glue factory. Ah, I can smell it now!

Yes, the glue factory had an aroma you couldn’t ignore — or forget. It permeated the neighborhood. But when kids from other parts of Madison came to North Walnut occasionally to play baseball with the Walnut Street boys at a public park that was there in those days (no, not the one that’s there now), they would hold their noses and say to the neighborhood kids, “How the heck do you stand that smell?” And the neighborhood kids would look back, straight-faced, and say, “What smell?” Yes, given enough time, you can get used to anything — even hanging.

One of the neighborhood tales of those days was about a man who worked at the glue factory, and who, right in the middle of his daily duties one day, jumped straight up into the air, then fell over dead. Heart attack. As one of the old Walnut Streeters said to me, “I’ve seen a lot of ’em go in my time, but I never seen one go like THAT!”

There are other old Walnut Street stories that I’ve savored over the years. One of my favorite, supposedly happened at a garage that was run by a man named Perkins, for many years. Guys who were friends of his, or residents of the neighborhood, liked to hang out there on occasion to chat, give each other a hard time (a sure sign that men like each other; if they didn’t like another guy, they wouldn’t bother teasing him), brag about their sexual exploits, etc. Sounds like a barber shop I’m told exists in Madison to this day.

Anyway, there was one guy who came in frequently, who was loud mouthed, and loved to brag about how many women he’d — uh, “bred”. One day he was in there, sounding off about that topic, and he happened to glance out the front doors of the garage. A woman was walking down the sidewalk on the other side of the street.

“Yeah, I’ve bred her before,” the guy said, pointing across. One of the other guys there looked at him hard, and replied, “So have I. That’s my wife.”

Speaking of the old playground on North Walnut, in 1952, my second-grade year in school, Howe’s Circus came to town, setting up in that playground for a one-day visit, matinee and night show. I don’t remember a lot about it, except that they had no elephants (the one they had had, died, and somebody with the circus said they had “Four more ordered”); that as circuses go, it wasn’t especially impressive; and that there were such rips in the canvas of the Big Top that you could see an airliner going over through them.

There were several circuses which came to Madison during the 1950s. The best one, as I remember, set up in Irish Hollow (it was just a big empty field at that time). It was well run, well maintained, and a very entertaining circus.

But a friend of mine who is now in his late 80s, told me about attending a circus in the same spot, in 1938. That one was owned by Tom Mix, a Western movie star of the 1920s and ’30s. My friend said that the big climax of the show in the Big Top was to be Mix riding in on his famous horse, Tony, and shooting out all the light bulbs in a chandelier hanging from up in the canvas. But my friend said Mix was obviously very drunk, and missed every shot he took at the bulbs! I believe he said Mix almost fell off Tony, as well.

And speaking of the various neighborhoods, have you ever heard of a famous actress of the 1930s and ’40s, named Irene Dunne? Who was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Actress five different times (but never won; she made it look “too easy”)? Well, she lived in Madison from the time she was 12, until she graduated from Madison High School at age 18, in 1916. No, she was born in Louisville, Kentucky, not Madison. But her mother was a Madisonian, and when Irene’s father died when she was 12, her mother moved her and her younger brother back to Madison.

And if you go down West Main Street, to Vernon Street, then turn left onto Vernon, go south one block, then turn right onto Second, and go about half a block, watch on your right, and you’ll see a big, two-story house, with a sizeable front yard. That’s where Irene Dunne lived during her Madison years.

And, as Mark Twain said in one of his novels, “We will draw the curtain of charity over the remainder of this scene.” Hope those of you from other parts of the planet found Madison in the 1950s (mostly) interesting to hear about. And to my fellow Madisonians who are old enough to remember it all, I hope it brought back fond memories.


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