Madison's Map of Lost Treasures
By Elizabeth Leighton | Photos by Angelina Bellebuono | Historical photos courtesy of City Planning
May marks National Preservation Month and with it the shiny debut of 27 new historic markers in and around Madison (and which brings the tally up to 31). Think of them as landmarks on the treasure map of lost Madison. Instead of dotted lines leading down a mine shaft to a rich vein of ore, or to a desert island and a chain-bound chest under a skull-shaped rock, the trail of fresh-minted markers lead to 24-karat gold stories of the past – once buried in old archives and shrouded in the mist of time.
Gyp isn’t the only one who is susceptible to the lure of gold in “them ‘thar hills.” Imagine finding a map walled up in a secret cupboard of one of Madison’s antebellum homes – a map that promises to lead to a hidden stash of loot? You’d be out the door in a flash. And when it comes down to it, the lion’s share of the fun is in the actual hunt – interpreting mysterious symbols and clues, talking to ancient mariners in dank waterfront pubs, triumphantly finding landmarks obscured by time, accurately measuring the leg lengths (does a peg leg make a difference in stride length?), and finally, hearing the shovel thunk into the top of something metal.
Historical marker “collectors” (consider them the professional treasure hunters of the historical marker world) share the same love of the chase and a passion for the past. These avid hounds of history plan trips, map locations, research history, travel all over the United States (and the world), and “collect” visits to historical markers. But you don’t have to be a collector to join the hunt. All you have to do is walk into the Chamber of Commerce in downtown Madison and they will get you started.
Are you a newcomer to Madison and want to map out the history of your new town? Have you just moved back after years building a professional career elsewhere and you want to re-discover your home town? Are you an African-American who wants to pinpoint critical events in your personal genealogy or cultural history? Or do you want to plot a scavenger hunt and create a playful way to pass on your love for Madison to your children and grandchildren?
Newcomers, genealogists, educators, tourists or those returning home to raise a family, reconnect with their roots, or retire will find these markers a wonderful boon. You just have to dust off your walking shoes or start up the car. At the end of the day, you might have 7 or 27 markers to add to your collection; but either way, you’ll certainly have a wealth of stories to share over the dinner table.
A Treasure Chest of Lost Stories
The historical marker project came into being during Madison’s Bicentennial preparations. Though the Town Park was the cornerstone of the Legacy Project, the Bicentennial committee also raised funds for historical markers that would identify important sites in and around the city. At the time, Madison had only 4 city markers, mostly in the downtown area. The group proceeded to write and win a Preserve America matching grant from the federal government of $34,000 dollars. That was the easy part; then began the herculean task of choosing 27 sites out of over 650 resources that existed in the historic district. To do this, the committee began to talk about telling stories versus marking sites.
So, the Cemetery marker doesn’t just identify the location of historic gravesites in the city graveyard, it tells the story of segregation. If your family is buried in what was once Segregated Burial Grounds (Marker 5), it is an important piece of your story and connects you to this place in a unique way. But say you are a newcomer with no overt links to Madison, you will find yourself connected to the town and to the larger story as they engage your imagination. You will come to know and understand the living community through its history. And that is one of the things that helps you put down roots.
“Attachment to place is important,” says Monica Callahan, Planning Director for the City of Madison. “It’s the thing that keep us in a cohesive society. It’s the thing that make us care about one another. History plays a role in that. It shows us achievements, it shows failures and mistakes. It gives us a connection to the past. It grounds us, informs where we want to go, helps us mark our place in history. It makes us call a certain place, our home, our town.”
The result to this focus on telling a story is that Madison’s markers are grouped around eight themes or stories - of life in Madison from its settlement to the middle of the twenty-first century: civic, religious and cemetery, education, museums, commerce and industry, landscape, minority, and lost Madison. You can discover them all at once, as a large nugget, or take on a bite-size 30-minute walking tour based on one of those themes. The map or brochure also tells stories that you won’t find on the markers themselves.
Often markers show an “X marks the spot”– the spot being a physical building or object. Though most of the new markers do identify physical location(s) still in existence, five sites do not.
Extracting The Ore
A one-panel cartoon shows a group gathered around a historical marker. Immediately to their left sits a curmudgeonly old man in a lawn chair. A sign hangs over his scowling head and read: What Really Happened. One of the immense challenges to creating historical markers is faithfully telling What Really Happened.
Historical markers may seem benign, like the page out of a school textbook or a Wikipedia entry, but they can open the door to painful and poignant moments right alongside the victorious and celebratory. The raised golden letters on their dark brown background spell out cautionary tales and tales of hope. They are a treasure chest of chosen reminders of places, people and events that can attach us to the present and hopefully, impact the future in positive ways, but they also have a dark lining.
In the end, you don’t have to choose the impasse of “either/or” represented by the cartoon; and the Madison markers manage to extract the gold from the massive rock of the past and condense it into 250 words or less (the word limit for markers) as faithfully as possible. And that meant the inclusion of the good parts of the story such as economic prosperity and civic achievements, along with the parts that you would really rather hide or gloss over such as slavery and segregation.
Of course, the limitations inherent in markers also mean leaving out a wealth of information. But, in the end, the marker is just a signpost. The choice to hunt down more information – to dig up the rest of the story – and to integrate it into everyday life, is ultimately in the hands of the map holder.
Along with other city-wide events during the month of May, the up-coming Preservation Ice-Cream Social on May 26th at 5:30 p.m. will provide the perfect opportunity to discover the new signs and explore the “lost” people, places and events that shaped the town. Load up the old station wagon with friends and family, grab a cone of Ken and Monica’s homemade ice-cream, and drop in to the Chamber of Commerce. The old brick building, which once housed the City Hall & Firehouse (1887 – Marker 16 “Civic Advancement”), is the starting point of your treasure hunt.
Our town has stories to tell. Now, you can take a walk back through time, discovering some of the lost and quintessential stories that make up the place called Madison, Georgia. The images, the words, the tiny snapshots of life during its settlement, during the Civil War, during the recovery, and more, will hopefully whet the appetite for finding the real treasure: knowledge, understanding, consideration, humor, perspective, forgiveness, perhaps a voice for justice and peace.
Of course, it’s also fun just to collect all 31! Who knows what you’ll discover as you hit the treasure trail of Lost Madison?
Printed in the May 19, 2011 edition