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Posted on June 17, 2020 at 10:27 AM by Ken Kocher
It was a new millennium and Stephen A. Turnell was on the hunt for a new business. He had just sold the Hotel Turnell, that grand Victorian edifice that once occupied the corner of Jefferson and Hancock Streets. His search was apparently both categorical and geographical as the March 16, 1900 Madisonian reprinted clippings from two Monroe newspapers heralding Turnell’s recent visit and his likelihood of relocating there to live and start a business. Yet on the same page it was reported that he had just purchased his brother’s grocery business at the corner of Jefferson and First Streets. The next week he advertised the opening of his store.
Was the Madisonian poking fun at their Monroe brethren by publishing these contradictory stories on the same page? We don’t know. What we do know is, that at the first of the year 1900, S. A. Turnell had signed a 99-year lease for the property where his brother’s store sat as well as neighboring property stretching toward Main Street. By July he had Daniel Towns tearing down the wooden buildings on this block of Jefferson Street much to the delight of P. V. Carbine, owner of the neighboring hardware store, who was “gratified that Mr. Turnell [was] tearing away these old eye-sore buildings to erect a handsome brick building.” Carbine noted this would improve both insurance rates and business activity. After demolition, Towns was contracted to excavate the foundation of the building.
Turnell hired Watson Contracting Co. of Athens to construct to two large, brick store rooms (currently Gussie’s, Gigi’s, and half of Morgan Stanley). The lower store room “cornering on Jefferson and First streets, with a spacious and well arranged cellar, [was to] be used for groceries and heavy staple goods.” Mr. Turnell would be in charge of this section. The other was to be “devoted to dress goods, notions, hats, caps, boots, shoes, etc., a large line of which [would] be carried.” P. S. Burney was to be in charge of this department. Late August 1900 saw the installation of skylights, awnings, sidewalks, and finishing touches to the building.
The Madisonian visited the store the week prior to opening and declared it one of the prettiest in Madison. They went on, “the interior has been arranged in the most approved methods making it an exceedingly attractive store.” And they mentioned it was big. Everyone mentioned it was big. An ad for a nearby business gave their location as, “opposite S. A. Turnell’s Mammoth New Store.” Eventually Turnell would come to call it The Big Store. Of course, the Grand Opening for The Big Store would itself need to be big. It lasted the entire week of September 17, 1900 with Baldwin’s Orchestra “discoursing sweet music” every afternoon from four to seven o’clock and remaining open until 10 p.m. each night. Everyone received a souvenir.
Big wasn’t big enough. Less than six months after opening, Turnell closed the gap between his store and the Atkinson Building with an “annex.” This explains why the tall parapet is not centered on the building. The Madisonian trumpeted that he was “a hustler from hustlerville and [was] selling stacks of goods.” You could buy just about anything at the store which Turnell described as an “Emporium of Style and Fashion”: everything to eat, shoes, ladies ready-to-wear, gent’s furnishings, and of course the “Famous Mallory Plow” (Turnell was part owner of the company that manufactured the plow).
For several years ads for The Big Store appeared in the Madisonian hawking the myriad of goods to be found there. It all came to an end in the Spring of 1909 when Steve Turnell filed for bankruptcy. The stock of goods was sold to Macon Salvage Co. for 45 cents on the dollar and the fixtures were sold to George Coates of Atlanta for 35 cents on the dollar. This would not be S. A. Turnell’s last enterprise in Madison, but there would no longer be a Big Store. Not unlike abandoned big box stores of our day, the building was divided into several spaces to become several smaller stores – two of which S. A. Turnell would occupy for his next enterprise.
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