James Clemens, Founder of Huntsville, A Vintage Vignette

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James Clemens, Founder of Huntsville
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
February 20, 2007

James Clemens, “The Founder of Madison”, was born in Pennsylvania in 1778, but he came to Huntsville from Kentucky in 1812. He was related to Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka “Mark Twain”), and his ancestry included Gregory Clemens (Clements), a member of the English Parliament at the time of Oliver Cromwell. Gregory signed a death warrant for King Charles I of England and was subsequently hanged. His widow and children emigrated to Virginia in 1664, from which location part of the family moved to Pennsylvania, according to some on-line genealogies. James Clemens entered the mercantile business in Huntsville with a partner who returned to Kentucky after a few years. Their store was in a building at the corner of what is now Clinton and Church Streets in Huntsville, on a lot that reached south to the Big Spring. By the early 1820s (some reports indicate by 1816), James Clemens had a two-story “store-house” constructed on the lot, and that house was recently moved from its original location to rest at Pratt Avenue and Meridian Street. In recent publications, the structure was reported as being the Jeremiah Clemens house, but actually it was never owned by the U. S. Senator son of James. In fact, Jeremiah (born in 1811) was reported to be 5 years old when the house was constructed, and then he was sent away to military school in LaGrange when he was 15. He never inherited title to the property, as he died in 1865, only 5 years after his father’s passing. James’ estate, which included two lots in Mooresville plus three plantations with residences, was tied up in court until the 1870s, so Jeremiah did not live long enough to receive title to the house or lot in Huntsville.

As James realized that time was drawing to an end for him, at the age of 76 in 1854, he purchased ¾ of the 16th section of “school lands” in Township 4 South, Range 2 West. Previously, the entire section had been reserved by the U. S. government for the state of Alabama as a means of funding public education. James knew that the railroad would need a depot in that location, halfway between Huntsville and Decatur. His intent was to found a town around the railroad station, with the name of “Clemens Depot”. However, when the Memphis & Charleston Rail Road drew the town on their maps, they labeled it as “Madison Station” for unknown reasons, thereby denying James Clemens his memorial town.

Clemens had laid out a town plat and sold at least 15 lots plus a one-acre tract in the town before he died. The acre was sold to George Washington Martin, a grandson of Frank Ephraim Martin (Revolutionary War soldier who was granted land in the area from a Georgia land lottery and settled on the northeastern slope of Rainbow Mountain in 1805, while it was still Indian territory). G. W. Martin also purchased the first lots sold, Lots 12 and 13, on February 13, 1857. Most of the lots fronting on the railroad were 66 feet wide and 198 feet long. These dimensions resulted from the length of the standard surveyor’s chain -- one chain wide and three chains deep. The lot sizes allowed for each purchaser to erect a house with a garden spot behind it, backed up by room for an “outhouse” plus grazing space for a cow or horse and some chickens. Many of the lots along the railroad were used to erect “storefronts”, buildings that had a store in the front section of the house. Early owners subdivided some of the lots along Main Street, so that several stores were eventually emplaced on those lots.

Clemens believed in the future of his town, as he bought the 4th quarter of the 16th section from its original purchaser, William Gooch, just a few weeks before he died in 1860. Clemens also was something of a social reformer, as was his son Jeremiah. Both men freed their slaves in the 1850s, well before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Additionally, the last lot that James himself sold, only 3 months before his death, was to a free black man, Edmund Martin from Morgan County. That particular lot was at the corner of what today is Sullivan Street and Front Street, an eminent location in the town of the early days. Moreover, several of his lots were sold to women, back in a time when few women were afforded property rights in their own names. Considering its founder’s actions, it is no wonder that Madison has always been a progressive town, enjoying a high degree of social tranquility and acceptance of all people, including former Union army men and their families after the war. Even without any monument to the founder, Madison today continues the legacy of James Clemens. It is hoped that someday soon, there will be a suitable monument erected on the Village Green along the railroad tracks to commemorate Mr. Clemens and other pioneers of the village.

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