Madison is named for James Madison, the fourth president. The city grew up along a bustling railroad track in pre-Civil War Mississippi. It was 1856 when the Illinois Central Railroad opened its Madison Station, the forerunner of today’s city of Madison. Although nearby Madisonville, a settlement established along the stagecoach route of the Natchez Trace, boasted a race track, two banks, a wagon factory and at least one hotel, its residents could not resist the lure of the future. The newly established railroad community began to thrive, and Madisonville soon became extinct.
Like many railroad towns in the south, Madison Station fell victim to the Civil War. Just 10 miles from the state capital. Madison was largely destroyed after the July 18-22, 1861, siege of Jackson. Although no battles were waged on Madison soil, Major General S.D. Lee, who ordered the first shot of the Civil War, concentrated his command in Madison Station during the month of February 1864.
The railroad continued to serve as a magnet for business growth after the Civil War. In 1897, the Madison Land Company encouraged our northern neighbors to “Go south, and grow up with the country.” The Land Company’s interest in development prompted Madison to incorporate as a village, although the charter was later lost when regular elections were not held due to the failure of the “land boom.” The Land Company offered prime land for as little as $3 an acre, boasted that Mississippi had the lowest debt ratio in the nation and claimed that Mississippians were declared 1/3 healthier by “official figures” in comparison to people in New York and Massachusetts.
Fire almost completely destroyed the business and residential sections of Madison in 1900. Fortunately, a number of its earliest and most interesting buildings and churches survived, and many are in active use today. Among the most notable historic landmarks discovered throughout town include the old Methodist Church building on the corner of Main and Herron streets (now home to Pickenpaugh Pottery), the Montgomery House, the Boudousquie House, the Henry Rogers Home, Hoy House, the two-story Price-Cox building and the Norman Place (now home to Lee Hawkins Realty). Additionally, three churches on Main Street are classic examples of architecture from the 1930s – the Susan B. Montgomery Memorial Methodist Church, Pilgrim Rest M.B. Church which now serves as the Madison Welcome Center and chamber of commerce office, and St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church.
Until the 1930s, Main Street stopped at the railroad track. Across the track, town folks built a schoolhouse for grades one-12. The building was completed in the 1920s and the gym was dedicated in 1938. A yellow brick arcade was designed by the respected architect, Noel Webster Overstreet. These buildings, along with a red caboose at the corner of the old schoolhouse, now comprise the Madison Square Center for the Arts.
A reminder of Madison’s glory days as a major railroad-shipping center is Strawberry Patch Park. Before becoming Madison’s first park, it was one of many area strawberry fields. In the 1870s, local entrepreneurs L.T. McKay, his brother, Dr. H.E. McKay, Captain L. F. Montgomery and others encouraged the production of cotton and strawberries, developing Madison into a major shipping center. At one time, Madison was touted as the “Strawberry Capital of the World” and Dr. McKay as the “Strawberry King of the South.”
Madison remained a town until 1985, when Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler signed the order reclassifying Madison from a town to a city. Recently, Madison the city celebrated its 150th anniversary as a community with a rousing Fourth of July celebration including the traditional ceremonial speeches, a birthday cake and fireworks.
The city has flourished as it has grown from a small town into a carefully planned city. The charm and small-town quality of yesteryear remain a strong influence in the future of Madison. Strict ordinances pertaining to architectural controls, landscaping and building guidelines have preserved the integrity of one of Mississippi’s fastest-growing cities.