Map of 1890 Madison, A Vintage Vignette

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Map of 1890 Madison
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
December 2, 2009

The Frances Cabaniss Roberts Collection in the Department of Archives Special Collections of the M. Louis Salmon Library at the University of Alabama in Huntsville includes a unique map of the town of Madison as it existed in 1890. Just how it came into the possession of Dr. Roberts is unknown, but she saved it for posterity. Now it shows us each structure along Madison’s primary streets for a time when the census records are no longer available (destroyed by fire).

The map was sketched by J. B. McDonald on the 28th of August, 1890, for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut. The notations on the map indicate that the Connecticut-based company insured at least ten of the thirty primary structures drawn on the map. Even the insurance premiums are noted on the map, but whether they were for a year or a month of coverage is not specified. The notations show premiums for houses and stores plus their stocks or inventories as ranging from $1.10 to $3.25 with coverage limits up to $2,500. The legend of the map states that it was drawn to a scale of 50 feet to the inch. Details of shape (“footprints”) and porches are included, apparently to scale.

What today is named Main Street on the maps is shown as Broadway Street. Today’s Front Street is labeled as North Rail Road Street. Most of the primary structures on the map are colored yellow on the sepia background, but three of the primary structures are colored red. No obvious reason for the color change was found. A large (uncolored) platform along the railroad at the site of today’s Veteran’s Memorial Park is depicted, as is a small “post office’ structure at the site of today’s Animal Trax store. This location for a post office in Madison was previously unknown and not found in other old records. Further to the west along today’s Front Street is a much larger structure labeled as “P O” or “P 6”. It is assumed that the notation should be for “P. O.” to denote a more recent and enlarged structure for the post office of 1890. A little further west, located on the north side of the railroad directly across from the old Clay House Museum is a structure sketch labeled as “C Seed House”, no doubt as a storage location for cottonseed from the several cotton gins located in and around the town.

The map shows detail including a “cow shed” between the houses that are now at 25 and 23 Front Street. Likewise, only trees are sketched behind the post office (Animal Trax location) as a “wooded lot” where the Brewer Cotton Gin was later constructed. Further to the east and on the north side of the railroad tracks is an uncolored structure diagram labeled as the dwelling of “J. F. Lanier”. Altogether, the map includes 30 structures labeled as dwellings or stores plus the two post offices, the depot, two warehouses, a doctor’s office in addition to the railroad platform, cow shed, and the cottonseed house.

Eight of the structures are labeled with the letters “G. M.”, which at first glance appeared to be the initials for George Martin. Eventually, it was determined that the letters stood for “General Mercantile” to describe the type of stores. The map also shows that Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher had an office located at 210 Main Street, now the Bandito Burrito annex. The map depicts a furniture store at 212 Main Street. That furniture store was noted as owned in 1890 by G. W. Martin. The 206 Main Street location (later the D. T. Thomas store) was depicted as a shoe shop owned by George A. Fields. The rest of the stores on Main Street were pretty much as known from other historical sources, but what is now the Clay House Museum was in 1890 the home and boarding house of Mrs. Lucy Wise. Even in the nationally prosperous times of 1890, two of the Main Street stores and one on Front Street were noted as “Vacant”. Perhaps times have not changed so much in some respects.

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