History in towns: Madison, Georgia


In letters to his family in Connecticut, written in December 1864 from a camp near Savannah, Rufus Mead Jr. (1836-1922) described the exhilaration he experienced on the march from Atlanta to Madison. "We had a glorious old tramp right [through] the heart of the state, rioted and feasted on the country...in short found a rich and overflowing country filled with cattle hogs sheep & fowls, corn sweet potatoes & syrup but left a barren waste for miles on either side of the road."12  When the Union troops reached Madison they burned the depot and some commercial properties, and according to Mead, the officers and men were "appointed to see that no cotton, gin, or press is left behind"; but, perhaps due to Joshua Hill's persuasiveness, none of the houses were destroyed. To his surprise, Mead was charmed by the town. "Passed through Madison. Found it the prettiest village I've seen in the state. One garden & yard I never saw excelled even in Connecticut," he wrote.

The twelve years of Reconstruction were a difficult time for both white and black citizens of Madison. Exacerbating the town's postwar problems, a fire in 1869 destroyed much of the commercial district around the central square. In the 1870s most of the businesses and offices were rebuilt in brick, giving downtown Madison a picturesque late Victorian aspect. It was during this period that Joshua Hill bought a commodious house on the Old Post Road (Fig. 14). Popular despite his anti-secessionist convictions, in 1868 he was elected to the United States Senate.

Two striking edifices built in the 1870s and 1880s attest to Madison's reviving economy (see Figs. 1, 17). With the help of the Freedmen's Bureau the black congregation of Calvary Baptist Church acquired property previously occupied by the white congregation at the Madison Baptist Church, and about 1873 built a handsome three-bay brick structure with a wooden steeple (Fig. 17). Over the years the church has hosted many revival meetings, the spirit of which are captured in Revival Meeting by the masterful artist Benny Andrews, who grew up on a farm near Madison (Fig. 15).

The grandiose Hunter house on South Main Street is a product of Madison's post-Reconstruction mercantile wealth (Fig. 1). Built about 1883 for John Hudson Hunter, whose fortune accrued from a furniture emporium and a drugstore, it is an example of late nineteenth-century eclecticism at its most flamboyant. The asymmetrical plan accommodates congeries of wings, porches, and gables that protrude in all directions. Hunter was obviously house-proud: his initials are carved on the three round arches on the downstairs porch.

Although the vast seignorial cotton plantations were no longer feasible after the Civil War, cotton was still the principal crop in Morgan County and prices rose steadily. At the turn of the twentieth century Madison was again a flourishing community. Two impressive public buildings were constructed during these palmy years: the Madison Graded School, built on South Main in 1895, exemplified the Romanesque revival; and the monumental neoclassical Morgan County Courthouse was built in 1905 (see Fig. 18).

The influx of the boll weevil in the early twentieth century deposed King Cotton more effectively than the Civil War had done, but in the 1940s and 1950s the county again demonstrated its resilience. There was a shift from labor-intensive crops to dairy farming, which was more profitable, and a number of new enterprises provided employment. In recent years Madison has become increasingly protective of its architectural treasures, and many of the early houses have been sensitively restored. The elegant town has attracted collectors of art as well as preservationists. In 1954 Henry D. Green (1909-2003), a scholar as well as a collector, and his wife Mary Frances acquired an 1815 farmhouse near Madison and filled it with an exceptional collection of antique furniture, most notably Georgia pieces.

Today Madison is a cultural hub as well. In 1976 the capacious building that once housed the Madison Graded School reopened as the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, accommodating a history museum, an art gallery, and an auditorium for musical and theatrical performances. Native son Benny Andrews served on the board and was instrumental in promoting the center.

This year Madison celebrates its bicentennial. Shaded by the leafy branches of ancient oak trees, a visitor today strolls where stagecoaches once stopped at the inns and taverns. Contemplating Madison's two-hundred year history, he savors the beautifully maintained gardens and glorious architecture, walking slowly in order to delay his departure from this gracious old town.

Among the many people in the friendly town of Madison who were helpful to me, I am particularly grateful to the distinguished Madison historian Marshall Williams; Jane Symmes, co-author of Madison, Georgia, an Architectural Guide (1991); and the staffs of the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, the Morgan County Archives, and the Uncle Remus Regional Library.
 

 1 George White, Statistics of the State of Georgia (Savannah, 1849), pp. 435, 437.  2 John Melish, Travels in the United States of America, in the Years 1806 and 1807, and 1809, 1810, and 1811 (Philadelphia, 1812), p. 377.  3 Ibid., pp. 378-379.  4 Quoted in Jeannette Mirsky and Allan Nevins, The World of Eli Whitney (Macmillan, New York, 1952), p. 66.  5 Ibid.  6 Henry Hilsabeck's will is in the probate records in the Morgan County Archives in Madison.  6 Walker's plantation book is in the collection of a descendant.  7 Medora Field Perkerson, White Columns in Georgia (Rinehart, New York, 1952), p. 55.  8 The furniture and draperies are now on view in the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison.  9 Quoted in Louise McHenry Hicky, Rambles Through Morgan County (Wilkes Publishing, Washington, Ga., 1971), p. 105.  10 William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, 2nd ed. (D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1904), vol. 2, pp. 137-138.  11 The quotations of Rufus Mead Jr. published here are from "With Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas: Letters of a Federal Soldier," ed. James A. Padgett, Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 33 (March 1949), pp. 55-58.

WILLIAM NATHANIEL BANKS writes and lectures widely about old towns and houses.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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