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John Madison, River Street businessman

When people decide to go into business for themselves, it is often a genial mix of experience, service, and product that sustain their business in the long run. In November 1954, well-known Manistee entrepreneur, John Madison, passed away leaving behind a legacy as one of the longest running records of any businessman on located on River Street.


On October 12, 1874, John Madison was born in Manistee to the parents of Peter and Sine Madison. After attending local schools, John went to work at the age of 14 at the Canfield salt block heading salt barrels. After a short period of time, John decided to find work elsewhere and became employed at J. & L. Wellman’s Famous 99 Cent Department Store, formerly located at 358-360 River Street. Wellman’s at that time was considered a fairly popular department store in Manistee and sold clothing, toys, and various dry goods. Beginning to work with the public at such a young age and being short in stature, it was reported that a six-inch-high step had to be built for Madison to allow him to wait on customers.


Over the years Madison rose in the ranks of Wellman’s Department Store, eventually becoming the store manager as well as the official buyer, which meant he was often “on the road” purchasing various products for the store. An article on John Madison was published on June 16, 1936 in the 1936 Forest Festival Edition in the Manistee News Advocate and briefly describes his employment at Wellman’s:


“For 34 years he was employed by the Wellman’s, helping to build the ‘Famous 99’ to one of the city’s outstanding establishments; building for himself a reputation of being a shrewd buyer and an excellent judge of materials. Knowledge and experience gained in the management of this store was put to good use when he established his own store.”


In 1921, Madison ended his long association at Wellman’s. After a brief vacation, he decided to open up his own store at 343-345 River Street, simply called, Madison’s. After spending time and money renovating the building, all was in place for the new store to open on March 17, 1922. An article published in the Manistee News Advocate on March 15, 1922 touts the opening of Madison’s Department Store:


“Madison’s have been enjoying a successful business during these latter years and even when the ‘depression’ hit the city and employees were forced to be let out in order to cut expenses, none of the employees of this store was taken from the payroll, and of the eight employees now on the payroll, only two have not been with Mr. Madison throughout the entire 14 years.


“Spick and span in newness of appointments and fixtures, and with attractively arranged displays of merchandise, John Madison’s new store at 343-345 River Street, the building formerly occupied by the Vincent-Wolters Hardware Company, will open its doors to the public on Friday, day after tomorrow.



“The first floor of the big double store will be ready on that date for the anticipated invasion of shoppers and promise is given that it will present a tempting array of new goods calculated to please the most capricious feminine fancy, including complete lines of dry goods, notions, boys’ and girls’ clothing, women’s ready-to-wear garments and a complete infants’ department.


“The finish and fixtures are certain to evoke admiration of visitors. The main floor is finished in English walnut and French ivory and is a tribute not only to the taste of Mr. Madison, who designed the scheme, but to the carpenters, Messrs. Johnson & Kempf, well-known local contractors, and the decorators, The Nelson Paint & Wallpaper Company. The elaborate French windows were also designed by Mr. Madison. Thirty 200-candlepower lights will shed their radiance over the first floor, making it in Mr. Madison’s opinion, the best lighted store in Manistee.


“The new store is a fine token of the faith Mr. Madison in Manistee’s business future, backed up by his 31 years’ experience in merchandising the city.”

In March 1940, John Madison celebrated 50 years of being employed on River Street, a designation he shared with one other man. Acknowledging his golden anniversary, the Manistee News Advocate published an article on his many years of being in business as well as his personal life. Portions of that original article, published on March 29, 1940, follow:


“Grover Cleveland was president and Manistee was a roaring lumber town when John Madison, owner of the store bearing his name, entered the business life on River St., John isn’t sure of the exact date when he first went into business here, but he does remember that it was in the spring 50 years ago.


“His activities have not been confined to Manistee, for Mr. Madison is almost as much at home on Fifth Ave. in New York as he is on River St. here. He has been a buyer for Manistee stores for the last 37 years and on his buying trips has visited every state “‘his side of the Mississippi.’


“Although he observes his golden anniversary in business this year, John is far from being an old man. He is still very active in managing his establishment, and he still makes buying treks to New York about every six week. He is only 65 years old and first went into business when a boy of 14.


“John has had many varied and harrowing experiences on his many buying trips to all parts of the country. Three times he has been in bad train wrecks and once he narrowly escaped death when a train he was supposed to have taken was wrecked and 22 people killed. He has also been in three serious automobile accidents.


“Despite the fact that he has been selling women’s clothing for 50 years, John is a bachelor. He declares that he has always been too busy to consider matrimony. With Frank W. White who recently completed 50 years in business here, Mr. Madison jointly holds the title of dean of Manistee businessmen. The two men are still running their businesses after a half century on River St. and it is rare if either of them miss a day’s work.”

In addition to his prowess as an owner and manager of a large department store owner John, also constructed for himself a hunting lodge on the Little Manistee River near Nine Mile Bridge, which was called, “The Talk of Town”. In 1935, the lodge was constructed at 64 feet in length and 22 feet wide and had sleeping accommodated for 12 people with twice that amount accommodated for dinner guests. From May through December, John made his residence at the hunting lodge where he also employed a full-time chef and caretaker.


For the next ten years, it was business as usual at Madison Department Store as clothes and sales of various fashions were sold year in and year out. Things changed however, on the night of June 13, 1950 when a fire spread throughout the store, causing a hefty amount of damage to the interior of the building as well as destroying most of the stock. Details of the fire were published in the Manistee News Advocate on June 14, 1950:


“Manistee suffered its second large and disastrous fire of the year last evening, when a blaze that started in the basement partially gutted the John Madison Drygoods Store, 343 River St., while hundreds of persons stood by as firemen battled flames and heavy black smoke.


“The fire followed three months after the courthouse fire, which occurred on February 23.


“Heavy brick walls at the Madison store prevented the flames from spreading to the adjoining buildings, with the result that the fire was pocketed in the store basement. According to Chief Stanley Bachinski, the cause of the fire is still unknown.


“Although no exact figure of the total damages was given, it was estimated that it will be upwards of $100,000 depending of course on the amount of merchandise that was completely destroyed.


“The fire began sometime between 6 o’clock, when the clerks left, and 6:55 when the fire department was summoned. The first trail of smoke which spiraled out of the rear store door was detected by the janitor who asked neighbors on Filer Street to call the fire department.


“In a matter of a few short minutes, smoke was pouring out of the back and front of the store.


The three Manistee fire trucks arrived on the scene and eight lines of hose were laid. 25 firemen and extra men remained at the building until 3 a.m. today.”


After the fire, the building was repaired, but Madison decided to retire after working for nearly 60 years on River Street. On November 1, 1954, John Madison passed away at the age of 80 from a cerebral hemorrhage and at the time of his death had (and still has) one of the longest running records of being a businessman on River Street.


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