In Search of the Heart of Memphis

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Madison Avenue - The Town of Lenox

(Remember, with this blog, if you have any old pictures or stories you'd be willing to share of the street or block mentioned, please let me know!)

* * * * * * * *

Writers of blogs follow specific creeds, one of which includes momentum. And I’ve had to remind myself that with the Madison Avenue part of this blog, I will at times be slowed by the gathering of information. That’s a big problem for me, for I like to work at a certain speed but I am information-obsessed. The historical novelist in me has a hard time putting pen to paper, or fingers to keys, until I’ve gathered ALL the information I can because there’s always that one elusive, unknown fact sitting out there somewhere that could completely alter my perspective and change the entire course of my narrative. But! I have to strike a healthy balance between fact and speed with this blog and as I take you on this stroll down Madison, because it’s impossible to uncover every single historical fact within the confines of a self-imposed bi-weekly deadline.

Imagine walking with me down the street. I’m pointing out this neighborhood, what used to be here, when this house was built, and I stop. “Excuse me for an hour or a day, I have to check on some facts to fill in more details. Stay right here.” Why would anyone want to participate in the stroll with so many fits and starts? Therefore, in the interest of that thing called momentum, I will present the information that I have so far. I can always fill in more details later as I uncover more later. 

So you Memphis historical purists out there and those with the Memphis-history DNA, bear with me. You may be inclined to say “Yes he got the facts on the property correct, but he missed this other part of the story.” That’s going happen. Remember I have less than a year here to your lifetimes of knowledge. That is also why I will asking for your help here and there. Because part of my job will be to collect as many of your stories as I can and eventually incorporate them into what I hope this Madison thing will become. I may be starting the sketches in black and white, but you all will sometimes be supplying the crayons and will be coloring in the details - details that in some cases, no one knows but you.

And remember, I'm staying as close to Madison as possible. That’s also why I’m sticking to specific blocks. 

Ok, I’ve previewed the movie long enough, it’s time for the main feature. Time to put on those walking shoes and stroll down the avenue, in the present and back in time, to what Madison is and what it once was. 



Welcome to the Town of Lenox

Stand on the corner of East Parkway and Madison Avenue, and take a look around. 

E. Parkway and Madison, June 2016

Now turn back your clocks to any time between 1890 and 1909. And guess what? You’re not in Memphis. You’re standing on the eastern edge of Lenox, Tennessee, a little town of less than a square mile, somewhere around 230 acres (that’s an area smaller than all of Overton Park). 

If the Lenox name sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the old Lenox neighborhood south of Union, the Lenox Bayou that is part of the Overton Park soil, or the old Lenox School - now the Lenox Condominiums - on S. Edgewood at the corner of little Tunis Avenue. They all have origins in the town of Lenox. 


The borders of Lenox, after annexation:
Poplar to the north, Central south,
Trezevant (E Pkwy) east, Cooper to the west
courtesy Memphis Public Library

Flashback to a specific year, 1890, and if you’re still standing at what will later become East Parkway, you’re actually standing at a road called Trezevant (for the neighboring area of Trezevant), and to your west is the still unincorporated greater Lenox Subdivision of old forest, hardwoods, oak trees, brush, and a few new houses around dirt roads. The land had recently been opened up and parceled for development by the Equitable Land and Construction Company. The subdivision’s western border is at Cooper - it was still Cooper Avenue then - its northern edge is up at Poplar at the yet-to-be-completed Overton Park, and its southern edge runs down along Central Avenue.

This is Overton Park, but Trezevant Ave in Lenox may have 
looked like this in the 1890's.
Dogwood Drive, Overton Park, 1907
courtesy Historic Memphis


A photo around 1910, a section of now East Parkway
south of Poplar Avenue. Caption on back of photo reads,
"Parkway South of Poplar Avenue." c. 1910
courtesy of Digital Memphis, Memphis and Shelby County Room,
Memphis Public Library

Think about this as you stand at that Trezevant corner in 1890: Madison hasn’t been extended this far yet - it ends at Cooper. The land around you has only just been parceled and has yet to be fully developed. Almost four long miles away, Memphis - rebounding from the yellow fever epidemics, the population exodus of the 1870's and a repealed city charter - is busy addressing issues of sanitation, street-paving, and crime, and is still lobbying the Tennessee State Legislature to restore its charter to become a city again. Memphis the taxing-district stops at Dunlap Street, at what is now the Medical District. 

So in effect you are way out in the country. If you climbed to the top of one of those oak trees and took a look around, within your view to the west the land would be staked out to people with names like Gordon, Davidson, Wilson, Collier, and Ammonett, later to be parceled or sold to the Simmons, Hastings, Richardsons, Treadwells, and Millers. Many of the homes built so far (c. 1890) are south of Union and house a little less than 200 residents. The essentials of water mains and luxuries like sewers are in the works. To get your goods and services, you walk down the road to the few family businesses up and down Cooper.

Williamson Map 1891. The curve in the center is the corner of Cooper and Madison, at
what is now Overton Square; the red line through Cooper represents the “new” Memphis city limit. Courtesy Shelby County Archives

Directly to your west is the Idlewild neighborhood, which will become an incorporated city in a few years, and after that the already-incorporated town of Madison Heights. 

Remember, there are no paved roads yet - although some will be filled with gravel in the next fifteen years - and automobiles of course are quite a ways off. So the growth of your neighborhood has been made possible in part by the building of the streetcar line of the East End Railway Company. It was known as the East End “dummy line,” and its horse-drawn street cars (after 1891 they’d be steam and electric cable-powered trolleys) provided transportation into areas east, making its way along Madison Avenue, all the way from Memphis proper. 

Courtesy Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum and
Memphis Public Library

Since your subdivision has not extended Madison yet, after their trips east those same street cars make a right turn at Cooper and head south all the way down to Young Avenue, where they turn left and again head east, ending at Trezevant, dropping passengers off near the grandstand of the horse racetrack of Montgomery Park at the New Memphis Jockey Club (where the Fair Grounds are now).

1916 postcard of Montgomery Park
George Whitworth Collection, Historic Memphis

To the south nearest Central, the J.W. Dickson Lumber Company has a saw mill east of Cooper down near the rails of the Nashville-Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad, and there's The Dixie Match Factory right next door to the west, on Gaylord Ave. 

A screen-shot of a page of the Sanborn maps, a mother-lode-like
resource for historians and researchers. Sanborn published these maps

for fire insurance purposes. And these maps, produced every few years 
after the 1860s, had to be extremely detailed. The capture above shows the 
Dixie Match factory and the J.W. Dickson lumber yard at the end of
Gaylord, right off the railroad tracks that cross the trestle over
Cooper, just north of Central. The "D" designation on the structures
to the left, along Cox, denote dwellings. The house you live in
today might be one of them!
Courtesy Memphis Public Library



And your little subdivision also has its own railroad passenger depot, the Lenox station, down on Cooper and just north of Central. And from there you can take the L&N (Louisiana & Nashville) train all the way to Nashville. 

Old Press-Scimitar clipping, March 22, 1961
courtesy Memphis Public Library

A soon to be historic park (Overton) to the north, rails and factories to the south, businesses and a streetcar line along Cooper, and a club and horse racing to the southeast adds up to some wealth within your 230-acre subdivision. So much so that in 1896 you have enough wealth to begin planning a school, and enough resources and organization to incorporate into a city. 

Some accounts say that your town was named for a local soap company called Lenox, which built a sign y’all needed. But “standard” accounts say that it may have been named quite simply for your surrounding forests, a contraction derived from “Eleven Oaks.” You’ve appointed a gentleman named A.W. Marchildon as your first mayor. He (maybe, according to city records) lives down near Cooper and Union. 

Commercial Appeal clipping, 1950
Courtesy of Memphis Public Library

Into the years between 1904 to 1909, with the exceptions of fire and police departments, your little town is largely self-sufficient. The building of those water mains and sewers is complete - you residents are required to make the necessary connections to them, and soon - along with electric lights and telephones, and many of you and your neighbors are wealthy enough to have pulled together bond moneys for the building of a school. Paved roads, more business, more carriage traffic and more people arriving by streetcar, followed. 

Meanwhile, starting in 1899 Memphis had begun expanding its borders, annexing Idlewild and Madison Heights, pushing its city limits east and all the way to Cooper. Potential Lenox annexation by the city of Memphis had been discussed as well (sound familiar?). R.J. Rawlings, your second mayor, would be part of the efforts to help fight off or delay annexation. 

(Annexation, still on our minds today. The prevailing thoughts - or fears - on it in the early 20th Century was that it was necessary to stop the spread of disease, to ensure that sewer systems could be built in those outlying areas that did not have the resources to build such infrastructure. Lenox did not have those concerns, having the means to build their own sewer systems.)

Your last mayor, William Neville Page, worked with those linotype printing machines for your Commercial Appeal newspaper and he (may have) lived somewhere down along Cooper near where Courtland Place ends, a couple blocks south of Union. Under his leadership your town successfully completed those water main and sewer connections, installed fire hydrants, and completed the building of your two-story Lenox School - the first fire-proof schoolhouse in Memphis - down on S. Edgewood. 

Cover of Page/Lenox Collection, W.N. Page pictured,
Lenox School bottom right,
courtesy of Digital Memphis, Memphis Public Library

But all of that would not be enough to fight off the inevitable annexation by the City of Memphis as it moved eastward. Against the wishes of many of you Lenox residents, in 1909 the Tennessee State Legislature approved annexation. Memphis would agree to eventually pay off the $50,000 in bonds that were needed to build your school, and the annexation expanded Memphis’ footprint to Trezevant Street at your town’s eastern edge. 

Now that Memphis’ city limits extended into Lenox, the 1910s and the “dummy line” now-electric streetcar (we can call them trolleys now) and new gas-powered machines called horseless carriages brought more people and more wealth into this idyllic woodsy area at the edge of the city. Between 1910 and 1925, in a trend that occurred in industrial cities all over the country, hundreds of new houses and businesses would crop up in the “streetcar suburb” neighborhoods around a Madison Avenue that now extends all the way to what would be soon become East Parkway. 

During this period Memphis’ cotton and lumber businesses were booming. Bankers, lawyers, physicians, tradesman, carpenters and anyone with two hands and a few mouths to feed came from all over the country into Memphis. Even Canadians made the trek down into the Mid-South. And many would move right into the undeveloped land that was now owned by Cole's Manufacturing Co. - one of the largest lumber manufacturers in the region. Dubbed Cole’s East End Subdivision, families would begin purchasing single or sometimes multiple plots of land on which to build their multi-family houses and mansions. 

Cole’s East End Subdivision parcel map, c. 1902.
Lenox Ave is now Edgewood, Springdale is now Cox, Madison is now an avenue.
Courtesy of Shelby County Archives


Subdivision plot numbers 85 and 86, on the north side of Madison at the Lenox (now Edgewood) corner, would be purchased by an attorney, a Mr. Caruthers Ewing. In extending the postal numbering system that started downtown, at Front Street at zero, plots 85 and 86 would become 2282 Madison. 

The 32 to 36 subdivisions on the south side of Madison, between Cox and Edgewood, would be purchased. They’d become the houses we now see from 2219 through 2271 Madison. 

And the east-side plot of subdivision 40, on the north side of Madison, would be purchased by a blacksmith from Canada, a Mr. L.J. Turcott, and he would build a house on 2234 Madison Avenue. 


Next time, we explore the 2200 blocks, featuring 2282 and 2234 Madison Avenue.


(And I promise not to make y’all wait four weeks for the next entry)


Special thanks on this post to Wayne Dowdy, Memphis Public Library, for use of the Memphis Room, Frank Stewart at the Shelby County Archives, and Joe Lowry for helping with some finer details and footnotes.