Thomas G. Riddle, A Vintage Vignette

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Thomas G. Riddle
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
May 31, 2010

Professor Thomas G. Riddle was a man in tune with transitions. In 1913 he was a partner in Madison with David N. Teague operating a buggy and harness dealership. They sold the “Banner” model of buggies, and a newspaper article claimed that their harness was the best available “for man and beast” (the horse), using only the “highest grade leathers.” In fact, the article stated, “You are 'harness safe' while driving over rough roads if your harness was purchased from this reliable firm (of Riddle & Teague in Madison), and your horse will look good and stylish too.” While stylish horses were no doubt a good selling point, Riddle understood the need to change with the times. He concurrently ran a real estate and development business in Madison. As part of that enterprise, he purchased a “horseless buggy” and offered to take those shopping for “real estate, farms, and town sites” on tours of the area at no charge in his automobile. That was done in partnership with A. L. Smith. However, in June 1913 Riddle alone platted the College Park Addition of Madison. That development of six blocks of lots, each measuring an average of 25 feet by 140 feet, is located south of Mill Road on the west side of Sullivan Street. It included streets named High, Riddle, Oak, Pine, and Walnut. Today Pine Street has disappeared, and Walnut Street is named Pension Row, lying on the west side of the Riddle development.

Yet, there was much more to this venturesome man. He was one of seven directors of the Bank of Madison in 1913. He was a state-level official in both the Woodmen of the World society and the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. The former society was noted primarily as an insurance society with social functions, whereas the latter organization was (and is) a group promoting “virtue, liberty, and patriotism”. Their emphasis in the early 1900s was on protectionism of American jobs from immigrants as well as promoting teaching the Bible in public schools. Riddle was born in Tennessee in 1870 and graduated from Winchester Normal College in Winchester, Tennessee. He lived with his wife and three-year-old son Harry in Hazel Green at the time of the 1900 census, where he was listed as a teacher. He moved to Madison in 1901. He was listed as a teacher in the 1910 census. The 1920 census gave his occupation as a farmer, but his son Harry, who lived next door at 303 Church Street, was listed as cashier in the bank. Thomas lived at 301 Church Street, and he had built the adjacent house for Harry in 1920. Harry had graduated in 1913 from Madison Training School (where Thomas was Principal from 1902), and he married Mary Steele in October 1919.

A 1913 newspaper described Riddle's impact on what later became Madison Elementary and High School. It stated that when he came to Madison, the school was a two-room building with two teachers and a two-month school term for only 30 pupils and little school spirit. Riddle elevated school spirit and increased enrollment to about 200 pupils, with a nine-month term taught by five teachers. The article credited the school's success to his ability and untiring energy plus getting the town and people to supplement the public funds. A 1968 issue of the Madison County Record newspaper stated that “Professor Riddle was a most colorful educator and ruled Madison Training School with an iron hand.” Students were not allowed to leave school, even with parent's permission. Those living in the countryside rode mules or horses to school. When necessary for them to buy supplies from town, they couldn't go. Riddle would make the purchases. If a pupil did slip away to town, the punishment was severe. Punishment for girls consisted of standing in the corner for a long length of time and reading aloud from the Bible. Boys were given a severe whipping. Though strict on discipline, Riddle's primary concern was education. Graduates from his tenure included lawyers, physicians, bankers, and other highly successful persons. Riddle's approach to life was not enigmatic. It was effective.

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