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Community History

Residents, officials join forces to revitalize Madison’s Walnut Street

Project includes effort to explore
Underground Railroad history

MADISON, Ind. (April 2013) – For much of Madison, Ind.’s history Walnut Street stood as a hub of industry and the home of community leaders. Cornerstone Society President Jan Vetrhus has been researching the history of Walnut Street in order to provide context for the street’s importance throughout Madison’s history.

W. P. Johann Grocery

Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library

W.P. Johann Grocer once occupied the building on Walnut Street that is now the site of Northside Liquors.

“I was going through the old business directories, and it was just striking how much of Madison’s lifeblood was on Walnut Street,” she marvels.
She explains that at the time of the Civil War, many “German and Irish immigrants had moved onto Walnut Street. They opened a variety of businesses, making saddle trees, barrels, wagons, clothing, boots and shoes. There were bakeries and grocery stores. Most of its buildings are still intact, and many descendants of those immigrants still live in Madison.”
Now residents are working to share the special history of their neighborhood and use this past as way to build energy for the future. Vetrhus explains the importance of revitalization: “For me, it’s also personal. My parents live on Walnut Street, and there is a real sense of neighborhood. People care about each other. After years of neglect, the residents began urging the city to clean up Walnut Street. They formed a neighborhood watch. The old firehouse was restored. New sidewalks poured. It’s already making a difference.”

Northside Liquors

Photo by Lela Bradshaw

Northside Liquors is pictured
in its current location.

The Walnut Street Initiative has been formed to explore ways of making the past work for the future of the neighborhood. Described by City Preservation Planner Camille Fife as a way “to pull everyone who has a love, an interest in this area, together.”
The Walnut Street Initiative group began meeting in September as a way to coordinate people working on a variety of community projects. The gatherings have been drawing 20-30 people, Fife says.
The group has been meeting at the restored Fire Hall Museum on Walnut Street, thanks to the hospitality of building owners Frank and Charlotte Taff. Fife explains that, “As part of my job as Preservation Planner, I have been given a challenge to use preservation for economic development.” She sees the revitalization of Walnut Street as providing “real potential to increase tourism and commerce.”
At the group’s November meeting, 12 specific points for neighborhood revitalization were presented for discussion and consideration. These included projects such as returning part of the street to a brick thoroughfare and bringing back a horse-drawn trolley for special occasions, the development of a Georgetown Memorial Park to honor Underground Railroad conductors, and to bring back the mix of commercial and residential spaces that proved so successful for much of the street’s life. Group members also hope to find ways for residents to get more involved in the Underground Railroad Walking tours listed in the brochures provided by Historic Madison Inc. In addition to outlining ideas for future plans and developments, the Initiative also works to publicize existing resources available for community residents, including trash collection and information on safety codes.

Winters Cafe

Photo courtesy Jefferson Co. Historical Society Research Library

Winters Cafe operated at
613 Walnut Street.

Vetrhus explains that, “This initiative adds more energy and excitement to a neighborhood with a very rich history. The more people know about their house – who lived there and what they did – the more pride they have in taking care of it. They want to share the story with visitors and other residents.”
The group is currently exploring grant options to provide funding for future projects and planning. 
Cornerstone Society member Connie Partington has been a driving force behind the Initiative, and her special project of interest is the potential for a Georgetown Memorial Park. “I felt that because Walnut Street was an important player in the national Underground Railroad movement – and because of people like George De Baptist, George Chapman, Elijah Anderson and William Anderson, (who were not related), we needed to do something to acknowledge their contributions. Many of the current histories have acknowledged how important Walnut Street was in the scheme of things. I thought a park, adding to needed green space in town, where visitors could rest, or eat lunch even, would be a great way to honor their contributions to American History. These Railroad ‘conductors’ as they were called, worked hand in hand with the white abolitionists in Madison. It’s been only in the last few years, that historians have recognized the free black contribution to the Underground Railroad – that it was not just abolitionists who got people to freedom.”
Partington eloquently describes Walnut Street as “an active, vital place with a number of young people. You have all kinds of people living here, from artists, teachers, social workers and retirees to mulch-generational working-class folk, who love their street so much they don’t want to leave. The energy is here, and now that we are getting more activity because of places like the wonderful Fire Hall museum, this brings Walnut’s history front and center again. I love it.”
As Partington looks to the future of Walnut Street, she is encouraged by what the group has already accomplished. She is pleased to see “that our neighbors and city officials have come together in a problem solving mode, for one thing, and learned more about their history that they can be very proud of. I think people are feeling more empowered now to start to solve the problems of the street together in a positive way.”

• For information on upcoming meetings or to get involved, contact Camille Fife via email at: cfife@madison-in.gov.

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