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Strawberry fields forever.

Madison's Strawberry Patch Park is bustling with activity. A retired couple strolls along the park's walking trail, while children, sans socks and shoes, cast their fishing lines into the small pond. A century ago, the site of Madison's first park was just one of thousands of acres of strawberry fields which stretched as far as the eye could see. By the early 1900s, the tiny hamlet on the Illinois Central Railroad had become known as the "Strawberry Capital of the World."

"It's nice to have a place that you can call home," said 76-year-old Hugh Montgomery, scion of a pioneering Madison family. In fact, Montgomery and his wife Faye open the doors to their historic home on Main Street, The Montgomery House, several times a year for wedding receptions, family reunions, and other social functions. Like many Madison residents, Montgomery and his wife left for a time, but like a lot of other retired couples, found Madison's quiet suburban life and close proximity to Jackson irresistible. A certified retirement community, Madison boasts several retirement communities like the sprawling St. Catherine's Village, nestled on former farmland near the city's newest recreational complex, Liberty Park.

Madison in the 21st Century has been transformed from a once small country town to a residential mecca for thousands of new residents flocking to the city from across the country and around the world. Major businesses have come calling as well. Nissan's new $930 million automotive plant is just up the road. Montgomery just shakes his head at the growth Madison has experienced. Now a city of 15,000, Madison had less than 300 people when Montgomery was young. And, just like today, in the Old Madison shopping district, nearly everybody came to town on Saturday.

"They didn't go to Jackson because they didn't have that many cars," mused Montgomery. "People came on mules and in wagons, and close to dark you couldn't drive through town because there was a mob on the streets," said Montgomery, as he sat in the cluttered office of his family's rambling Victorian home, which dates to the early 1850s and is located on the National Register of Historic Places. No less than six homes in Madison are listed on the National Register, including the nearby Hoy House which dates to 1840, the two-story Price-Cox building on Main Street, and the Dorroh House, which was recently saved from the wrecking ball by a preservation-minded city board.

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler said preservation has been the key to Madison's success as one of the South's premiere cities. Strict zoning codes were enforced. Main Street's tree-shaded avenue and historic district were protected from urban sprawl. "More than twenty years ago, a group of citizens met at the auditorium of what is now Madison Station Elementary School to plan for a future that would always preserve the heart of Madison's hometown identity," said Hawkins Butler, who is now in her sixth consecutive term of office. "From the beginning, we knew that our first commitment would be to the families and homeowners of Madison," she said. "We would protect property values through planning and zoning ordinances. We would build an emerging city with family as its foundation and quality of life as its cornerstone."

Elbert Hilliard, state director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and a longtime Madison resident and Sunday School teacher at the Madison Methodist Church, said Madison is unique because of its preservation efforts. Hilliard credits Hawkins Butler and other city officials. "The cornerstone of the Mayor's vision has been the preservation and enhancement of Madison's historical ambiance," said Hilliard, who moved to Madison in 1960 to join the faculty of the local school system. "Madison was still a rural community and things moved at a very leisurely pace," said Hilliard. "During the past forty years, we have witnessed the growth and development of what has become one of the State's most livable communities and unique cities."

Hilliard said Madison's efforts to prevent the five-laning of Main Street, or State Highway 463, through the heart of Old Madison, and persuade the Mississippi Department of Transportation to construct a scenic bypass boulevard, was a crowning achievement. "Had this not been done, we would have ended up with another County Line Road-type development that would have destroyed the historic town center," Hilliard said matter-of-factly. "Madison's plan and vision could well be emulated in every municipality throughout the state."

Ronnie Davis, owner of The Inside Story at 2081 Main Street, a gift shop and ladies' clothing boutique, agreed. Had Main Street been widened, Davis would have lost her building.

"I'm afraid I would not be here," said Davis, who was one of the first to open a business in the newly designated Old Madison District 16 years ago. Now Davis has added on and doubled the size of her business. "I think the city offers so much to people of all ages, even retirees," said Davis, although she has no plans to do that anytime soon. "I love Madison. I am delighted my two married daughters are living in Madison and that they are raising their children here. It just has that special hometown feeling, even though we've grown tremendously."

Just down the street from Davis's shop is the gothic-style historic Susan L. Montgomery Chapel of the Madison Methodist Church. Erected during the Great Depression as a tribute to his mother, Arthur Montgomery's beloved chapel is the site of countless weddings. The exquisite stained-glass oval window featuring the Madonna and Christ Child looks like it belongs in a European cathedral. Late afternoon sunlight streams inside the quaint, intimate chapel brilliantly illuminating the dozen other windows as Tudor-style beams arch overhead.

Although the choir loft and church organ are silent, memories fill the place. For nearly a quarter century, Frances Rose Price Cox played the organ and directed the choir. Her father, Roy Byrd Price, owned the town's only store for many years. Her late husband, L.H. Cox, was a former mayor. Price Cox made a little history herself as a member of the first all-women board of aldermen in the nation in the early 1950s. Fox Movietone News paid a visit to Madison to learn how the all-women board ran for election after the men in office wouldn't do anything about the town's water supply which left white linens stained with rust-colored water. Price Cox said Madison has always been a forward-looking city. As alderman, Price Cox helped bring an airport to Madison, on the site of a World War II training facility at Bruce Campbell field.

"We were just a little country town until the war came," said Price Cox. "Madison was one of the first communities its size in Mississippi to get its streets paved because the cadets needed hard surface streets to march on," she remembered. Social functions were held inside the airport's main hangar. "We used to have square dances in there."

Price Cox, an accomplished musician in her own right, said Madison has always had an eye for the arts. "One of the nicest things was the close proximity to Jackson. We were able to take advantage of plays, ballet, and the symphony."

Today, that appreciation for the arts in Madison continues. The old Madison-Ridgeland High School where Price Cox taught music and Hilliard coached basketball has been turned into the Madison Cultural Arts Center. The Cultural Center is home to the Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet Company and offers a yearlong series of theatrical events as well with its new repertory company. Blues concerts at twilight are held under the stars as well as classical concerts. Madison's Freedom Fest celebration in July and "Swing into Summer" series held every Thursday in May are other festivities to be enjoyed.

One event not to be missed is the annual "Day in the Country" at the historic Chapel of the Cross, located in the Mannsdale community, which is held the first Saturday in October each year.

"We get a lot of visitors, mostly local people," said M.L. "Lee" Dewees, whose family has lived near the Chapel of the Cross for nearly 140 years. The legendary ghost of Annandale, said to be the spirit of Helen Johnstone, whose fiance was killed on the eve of their wedding in 1859, is a draw for some history buffs. However, Dewees said it's mostly the good food and arts and crafts on the picturesque grounds of the chapel which continue to bring in tourists and local sightseers. The Chapel of the Cross is about a half mile from another major tourist attraction, the Jack Nicklaus designed championship golf course, Annandale, named after the Johnstone plantation, and home to the Southern Farm Bureau Golf Classic which draws golf's top professional players each year.

Annette Clark, 81, a longtime Madison resident and beauty shop owner, said Madison would continue to be a destination that draws families. As evidenced by the recent tornado which left hundreds homeless, the people of Madison have a caring spirit. Within minutes of the tornado, a relief effort was set up at the gym of the Methodist Church.

"Madison has a small-town closeness that some towns don't have," Clark said. "The most special thing about Madison has always been the people," said Clark, who still styles hair in her home on Clarkdell Road as she has done for the past half century. "The people of Madison have always been so friendly and generous. Even though the town has changed, the people are still friendly. I don't believe that will ever change."
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Title Annotation:Madison, Mississippi
Author:Long, Robert Lee
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:May 1, 2002
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