Thomas Jefferson Clay, A Vintage Vignette

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Thomas Jefferson Clay
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
April 26, 2009

Thomas Jefferson Clay was the second merchant to open a store in Madison. On March 6, 1857, Clay purchased Lots 14 and 15 in the newly platted town from its founder, James Clemens. However, the first merchant to purchase a lot and open a store in the village was George Washington Martin, who got a title bond for Lots 12 and 13 from Clemens on February 13, 1857. These two men were the only storeowners in Madison until after the Civil War. Martin’s lots were on Main Street, corresponding to 110 and 112 Main Street today. Clay’s lots were on the other side of the railroad tracks, along Front Street today, corresponding to house numbers 23 and 25.

Quite different from today’s custom, the 1857 town lots measured 66 feet wide and 198 feet deep, based upon the standard surveyor’s chain length of 66 feet. In other words, each lot was one chain wide and three chains deep. That’s a little over half as wide but twice as deep as today’s average lot measurements. Clemens selected those dimensions when he had the town site surveyed in order to fit typical owner’s needs of that time and to provide for “storefronts” along the railroad track. The idea was that a lot would provide suitable space for a house that contained a store in the front (thereby the name “storefront”), facing the street, with living quarters arranged in the same building immediately behind the storefront. That portion of the lot would account for the first chain of depth in the lot. The next chain of depth would allow for a cistern, a garden space, and a chicken coop, because back then even townspeople raised most of their own vegetables and chickens to provide the basic necessities. The last chain of depth provided space for a horse or cow, perhaps a hog or two, and definitely for the “outhouse” toilet facilities in the days before indoor plumbing.

Old newspapers printed in Huntsville contain ads by both Martin and Clay. Martin’s ad ran in the May 7, 1857, issue of The Southern Advocate. It announced a “new firm” in “Madison Station” (the original name of the town). George Martin was named as the senior member of the firm, with the junior partner being Thomas Martin, a cousin. They specialized in “Dry Goods and Family Groceries” according to the ad. They had operated an earlier store a little over a mile to the south before the town was laid out, but they relocated their business toward the tracks when the railroad became operational. Clay’s ad in The Huntsville Independent of January 14, 1870, followed his name in large print with the line “Auction and Commission Merchant”. Smaller print stated that he offered his “…services to the citizens of the county as an auctioneer, with consignments of goods and country produce solicited”. It further stated that Clay held “regular auction sales” at his store every Saturday. In fact, the 1870 census listed Clay’s occupation as “auctioneer”, whereas in 1850 and 1860 the censuses listed him as a merchant. His 1850 business was in the New Market area, in partnership with his brother Silas Webb Clay. This was the place where their father Thomas Clay Sr. (died in 1838), had done business as a grocer before them. Thomas was listed in the “Village of Madison” at age 61 in the 1880 census, with his occupation shown as “retired merchant”.

Madison’s Thomas Clay married Sarah Armisted Green in Madison County in 1850. When his father’s estate entered probate in this county in 1838, the Clay children were listed as John (born 1814), Henry (1816), Thomas Jefferson (1819), Fannie (1823), Silas Webb (1825), Angeline (1826), Theodorick (1827), Andrew (1830), and George (1832). Their mother was Nancy Webb from Virginia, and all but the last two children were born in that state. Apparently, the family moved from Virginia to the New Market area of Alabama before 1830 when Andrew was born. During their adult lives, Thomas and Theodorick lived across Buttermilk Alley (then called Clay Street and later Hobson Alley) from one another, while Andrew’s widow lived on Madison’s Main Street. It’s a wonder the town wasn’t called “Claysburg”.

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