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Posted on August 5, 2023 at 4:55 PM by Ken Kocher
In 1856, Joshua Hill, William Saffold, and Carter Shepherd chartered the Madison Town Hall Company for the purpose of “building and improving property for the purpose of renting the same.” The property was at the corner of Burnett and Main. As with nearly all downtown, this building was lost in the catastrophic 1869 fire. A new, two-story, brick building quickly replaced the burned one. It contained two ground floor storefronts and a hall upstairs for public meetings. The stores were occupied by Harris Bros., dealers in Dry Goods & Groceries, and Barber & Crawford, dealers in Dry Goods. Over the next decade, the spaces may have been occupied by Bill Matthews, also Dry Goods & Groceries, and J.G. Blair, Groceries. When the Alpha Company, Madison’s first volunteer fire department, was organized in 1882, the upstairs became known as “Fireman’s Hall.” With the acquisition of a Hook and Ladder Truck and a chemical engine, Alpha Company occupied one of the ground floor spaces. Next door was W.W. Leake’s confectionary shop – with his mother’s millinery and dress shop at the rear. Upstairs, E.A. Rice was printing his newspaper, the Advertiser.
Alpha Company in front of Town Hall c. 1885
These were the occupants when disaster hit again – the Charleston Earthquake of August 31, 1886. Yes, Charleston. This intraplate earthquake was massive and radiated seismic energy across the eastern United States. The shock was felt as far away as Boston, Massachusetts, to the north, Chicago, Illinois, to the northwest, New Orleans, Louisiana, to the west, and across water to Cuba to the south, and Bermuda to the east. Suffering the greatest damage in Madison was the Town Hall Building. The Madisonian reported, “The walls of this building are said to bulge, and great cracks in the same caused the city council [current owner of the building] to formally state to the tenants that the city would not be held for any damage done them by falling walls, which may occur at any time.”
Reported intensities for the 1886 Charleston earthquake. (From Bollinger, 1977.)Note: Morgan County = 7
The city council sold its condemned interest in the building to M.L. Richter and set about planning and constructing a new City Hall & Engine House. Meanwhile, Martin Richter was repairing the old Town Hall Building. By October 1887 he moved his jewelry store from across the street to the left half of the building “under the old town hall.” It appears that he may have widened the window openings of the storefront as the Madisonian noted that the building was much improved. They expounded, “He has the prettiest plate glass windows we ever saw in a town of our size, the glass cost $50.00 alone, and adds much to the appearance of that end of the street.” He initially named the business the Palace Art Store. N.C. Edwards of Sharon, Georgia, briefly had a general merchandise store in the right half, but otherwise the space remained vacant until around 1892 when a new occupant would bring steady traffic to the building. We will pick up that thread in a future blog post.
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