Madison Monday: Random Madison History

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I’m doing some research for something I’m writing; I won’t call it a novel because it’s too much of a mess just yet. But someday it might become a historical novel set in a town like Madison during the 19th century. So if you’re looking for all the Madison history books from the library, I have them. Here are some totally random things I’ve learned. Forgive me those of you who grew up in Madison and absorbed all this history through your skin; I was not so fortunate.

Prince of Peace historical

The Prince of Peace (formerly St. Mary’s) church spire

– Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to Madison on May 4–a Thursday. Can’t tell what year from the picture, but I like knowing it was a Thursday.

– There was a country hotel just outside of Madison called Winterwold.

– Wakefield was Madison’s first name.

– The first brick house was built in 1818.

– The first high school class to graduate in Madison was made up of four students. That was 1855.

– The first train ran in 1838. The first shipyard was built in 1835.

– In 1823, it took 2 days to go from Vevay to Cincinnati. But by the 1850s, Madison was just hours from Louisville and Cincinnati.

– The Vails (of Vail-Holt Funeral Home) started out as cabinetmakers. Cabinetmakers often made coffins as well.

– There was a town called New London on the river south of Hanover that disappeared. It had 5,000 residents, and then 50-75 years later, it was gone. Some believed it was populated by counterfeiters who fled. Others that the town was so harassed by river pirates that they gave up and left. Another theory has it that yellow fever wiped out the town; so many people died that they dropped the bodies down the well. Most likely, New London flooded so often everyone gave it up. Its under the river now, kind of like an Indiana Atlantis.

– Very few stone houses were built in Madison–most were brick or wood. But Lonesome Hollow was made of stone and had a door on the second floor that led nowhere. It name might have come from the fact that it was built on sacred Indian ground.

– The Lanier House property used to extend all the way to the river and included two greenhouses–one for citrus fruits and one for cut flowers.

Lonesome Hollow

Lonesome Hollow

– I believe there may be some embellishment of the historical record here but I’m too lazy to find out. There might have been a man named Right Rhea. Right was a sheriff who tracked down runaway slaves, which is great, but does not equal the fact that his name was Right. Rhea.

– In 1850, Madison and Indianapolis had about the same population–around 8,000. Ten years later, Indianapolis had 18,611 people while Madison was only 8,103. Thank god, because I would rather live in Madison than Indianapolis any day.

– The Ohio River doesn’t move very fast, or at least it didn’t historically. About 3 miles an hour; 6 during a flood.

– On Christmas Eve 1856 the river froze and didn’t un-freeze until Feb. 7.

That is the current sum total of my random knowledge about Madison’s history. More to come.

Later this week, another lesson from the Midwest Writer’s Workshop. Appropriately enough, it will be Barbara Shoup (Indiana author) on writing historical fiction.


  1. I believe his name was Robert Right Rhea and he planted the oak tree on the Jefferson St. side of the courthouse. When they were talking about expanding the courthouse, I sent an email to all the commissioners asking to please leave that tree.
    Haven’t seen you for a while – hope all’s well!

    • I like Right Rhea better, though if that’s his full name, we are initial twins (RRR). Is that the tree that’s still there? That’s creepy. We’re good. Knitting weather in August? Weird.

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