By Lynette Norris
“My daddy and granddaddy had always lived in Madison,” said Martha Waring Smoak, 68. Her parents moved down to Pahokee for a short while, where she was born. Then they moved back to Madison when she was three. Madison is what she remembers of her childhood, one that was spent either on roller skates or “climbing like a monkey” as her mother put it. Whenever she walked down the sidewalks with her mother, she would climb the poles that held up the awnings in front of the stores. “I thought I had to climb all of them,” she said, recalling how she would go up one pole after another along the streets of Madison.
Her uncle, Chick Williamson, was a fireman at the time; Uncle Chick and Aunt Janie Belle lived in one of the two apartments over the firehouse (City Manager Jesse Hughey lived in the other one), now the present-day Madison Police Station. It was a “big ole place,” Smoak recalls, with a hallway, a kitchen, bedroom, bath, and, of course, a big brass pole that led from the middle of the apartment down to the firehouse below. She has no idea how many gleeful hours she spent climbing up and sliding down that firehouse pole.
She attended school at Madison Elementary School, a two-storey brick building where CVS is now; her sixth grade class of 1961 was the last to graduate from there. Behind the building was a huge hole, known as “the dust bowl,” where the children loved to play; it was large enough to accommodate a volleyball game. She also remembers hearing about a bonfire or two, but never attended one.
The school’s second floor fire escape fascinated her; it was a large round tube that was basically like a huge pipe that people could slide down to safety, but it was never used; the school never even had a fire drill that she remembers. She often longed to slide down that big old pipe, but there were rules against playing on the fire escape.
When she wasn’t climbing up and down poles or yearning to slide down forbidden fire escapes, she was wheeling around town on roller skates.
“I’ve skated all my life,” she says, beginning when she was about six years old; she remembers that the “big thing” with many children after school was to take their skates and go skating around and around and around the courthouse. Sometimes, a portable skating rink would come to town and set up for two or three months. When the rink moved on, it was back to skating around the courthouse.
In front of the courthouse was also where the town celebrated the annual May Fete. Both the sixth grade and the senior class chose a May King and Queen, and then the sixth graders danced around two maypoles set up on either side of the courthouse entrance. Smoak recalls how they had to “practice and practice and practice” the over-and-under weaving, so as to wrap the May poles properly.
For indoor entertainment, there was the old Swan Theater, across from the Dial House. It used to be attached to the present-day Mail Room, which Smoak believes may have been a gas station back then.
But what she remembers best about the Swan is not the movies, but the live performance of one Lash LaRue, master of the bullwhip, who could do all sorts of amazing things.
“(Lash LaRue) was probably the most famous person that had ever come to town back then,” says Smoak, who was about eight or nine at the time. It was fascinating enough watching him on the stage area in front of the movie screen, doing amazing things like snapping that whip around himself and wrapping himself up in it without getting hurt, or tossing things up into the air and “popping them in two.” Then, he called Smoak and young Jim Stanley up onto the stage; they held up newspapers between them while LaRue cut them in half with his whip, or held newspapers in their mouths while he popped the papers out without hurting the children.
The big thing in the 40s and 50s was everybody going to town every Saturday to visit and shop. Behind present day City Hall (which was Wells Furniture back then) was a vacant lot with hitching posts at one end, where families on mule-driven wagons would hitch their mules, while families with cars vied for “good” parking spots along the street – “good” being any spot with a great view of who was out and about in town that day. Smoak’s family would take their old Ford and go out early to get a good spot, where they would sit in the car and watch people go by; when they saw somebody they knew, they would get out and visit.
That was a big deal for everybody in town on Saturdays; either sitting in their cars and watching people, or standing around on the sidewalks chatting, or wandering up and down in front of the stores while catching up on all the news and maybe stopping in at Roberts Drug Store in the middle of town. There, Smoak remembers, you could get a small coke for a nickel, and a large coke for a dime, and, “if you really had a lot of money,” a milkshake for a quarter.
“Parking meters ruined all that about ‘55,” she recalls. Suddenly, there was no parking the car all day and wandering around town to see folks and visit. It was some three or four years later, she believes, that the meters were finally taken out, but by then people had gotten out of the habit of spending most of their Saturdays socializing downtown. It had changed Madison forever, said Smoak, and she believes it is one of the worst changes that ever happened to the town.
Also in the 40s and 50s, she remembers “about seven or eight” small family-owned dairies, including Waring Dairy, which belonged to her family. Others she can recall are Sales Dairy, two Hitchcock Dairies that were owned by brothers, Hadden Dairy and Goolsby Dairy. One by one, they were all sold, or went out of business. Her family’s dairy, Waring, was the last to go in ’68.
Before O’Neal’s was O’Neal’s, it was the Hillcrest Dairy Bar, which her brother John owned and operated until the late 90s. At first, it was just soft-serve ice cream, but it eventually included “the best slaw dogs in town.” Smoak remembers several people coming up to her after her brother passed away in 2004, telling her how great his slaw dogs were.
A lot of other things have changed as well; the road around Lake Frances used to be a dirt road where she would go to look for little turtles. When she asked what had happened to the old brass pole in the fire house, she discovered it was now serving as hand rails at the front entrance of the First Baptist Church of Madison.
But looking back, she does have one regret – that she never slid down that fire escape at the old Madison Elementary School.
“It would have been worth getting caught,” she said.
Anyone interested in being interviewed for this article can call 973-4141 and make an appointment with Kristin Finney, or may drop by Greene Publishing, Inc, any day before noon. Those interested must have lived in Madison for a large portion of their life, and be able to recall a few things that have changed since then.