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Revisiting Old Times

The Madison Historical Society and the Charlotte L. Evarts Memorial Archives have hundreds of photographs and postcards that illustrate how much — and sometimes how little — town life has changed since the early 1900s. In these vintage images, clothing styles seem peculiar, the cars are all “antique,” and a trolley runs down the center of the Post Road. Although many of the buildings in these images are both recognizable and existent, some are gone forever.

Looking at these old photos, one can’t help but wonder what changes people a century in the future will see in the digital images we take downtown with our cellphones and cameras. Will they laugh at our peculiar clothing and hairstyles? Will they look for familiar buildings and have trouble identifying our cars?

“Hmmm ... , ” they might ask, “What’s that? A 2018 Honda Civic? That’s from back in the days when you actually drove the car yourself, and it ran on gasoline!” Or, “Why is everyone wearing T-shirts and jeans?” And, of course, “Look at those people staring down at those ‘phones’ in their hands!” Just think! Any of us who survive 100 years will be considered experts on these daily scenes we all know so well.

One of my favorite old photos was taken around 1918 in front of the Madison.Airdome. One of the first outdoor movie theaters in the state, it likely was also the first use of a ‘dot’ in a business name, like those we use now in email addresses. It stood across the street from the current firehouse, and it wasn’t enclosed until the 1920s.

The silent movies shown on the marquee in this image include “Liberty,” with Marie Walcamp (billed as “a modern Joan of Arc”); “The Smashing Smoke,” called “a thrilling drama of love and war featuring Jack Conway”; and “The Fighting Gringo,” with Harry Carey. But the most fascinating detail about this photo is the crowd of people in front of the movie house. It’s a true cross-section of society. I especially like the youngster near the center, smiling at the camera and pulling up his knickers as his buddies stare defiantly. Nearby are grandmothers, mothers, fathers and small children, all enjoying a trip to the movies. On the door, a dance is advertised along with the admonition, “No Chewing Gum.” It’s one of those scenes that draws us back in time, while simultaneously showing how similar we are to those long-gone residents.

We even have an update to movie culture in Madison: an image of the Madison Theater, now the Madison Art Cinemas. That marquee boasts the Technicolor movie “Three Little Words,” with Fred Astaire, produced in 1950. Look at those classy cars!

 Another interesting snapshot shows the East River Post Office, likely taken in the late 1890s. The man in front — probably postmaster Ichabod Lee Scranton Jr. — poses formally in a fedora, shirt, tie and jacket. From sometime before 1871 until 1959, Madison’s East River District had its own post office in a small red building on the Post Road. The building was sold and moved nearby for reuse as a real estate office, and now, newly expanded, is a private home. The sign and post office boxes from this building were saved and are displayed at the Madison Historical Society’s Allis-Bushnell House annex. (
The photo of Main Street looking east in the 1920s shows how much life has changed in Madison. Vintage cars line the road, and the trolley track runs right down the center. The Shore Line Electric Railway served the town from 1910 to 1919, and then the New Haven & Shore Line cars took over until 1929, when the tracks were paved over. A few years ago roadwork required their removal, and the society was gifted two small pieces of the rail, also now displayed at the Allis-Bushnell House. The photo includes views of the Scranton Memorial Library archway and the Monroe Building across the street. How different will this scene be in the future?

As we travel about town on our daily rounds, it may be difficult to imagine that people a century from now will find our life and times as fascinating as we do when considering our predecessors of 1918. Yet, as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare John W. Gardner once said, “History never looks like history when you are living through it.”