Second annual Volksmarch brings focus on Madison’s 150th birthday

Story by JOHN FEW

Standing at the corner of Church Street and Arnett Street in downtown Madison, Ava DeMartino told her story to anyone who cared to listen. Well, not her story exactly, but that of Elizabeth Gooch, a woman who lived in a world 200 years away in what would one day become Madison. Dressed in period clothing from the early 1800s, DeMartino, a local Girl Scout, portrayed Elizabeth as she told the story of the Gooch family for the second annual Volksmarch of Madison, held Nov. 2.

The event, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Madison, included a leisurely three-mile stroll from Madison City Stadium into the heart of downtown, meandering through streets lined with beautiful old homes that once belonged to the area’s early residents. The day was filled with stories of Madison’s past as volunteer actors, stationed at various points in front of the historic houses and landmarks, wove a fascinating tale of the town’s early days and the families that lived here.

For DeMartino, the story of Elizabeth Gooch is one that can be seen today in two distinct landmarks in Madison. She told the story from Elizabeth’s perspective of how perhaps the most significant namesake of the Gooch family in Madison never happened.

Today’s Dublin Park was a part of a land purchase by Elizabeth’s husband Roland. It passed into Dublin hands when his daughter Eleanor married James Dublin. Since Roland was the original landowner, the park could well be known as “Gooch Park;” however, it was Dublin descendants of Roland Gooch who donated the land to the city for a park, with the stipulation that it be named as it is today – something that would have likely irritated Elizabeth, since she supposedly did not like her daughter’s husband.

Keeping in character, DeMartino also told how Elizabeth and her husband donated an acre of land to the Madison United Methodist Church in 1837. It was originally located at the site where a convenience store and the Regions Bank are now located, near the junction of Hughes Road and Old Madison Pike. In 1873 that church was put on logs and pulled by mules to its present location on Church Street in Madison.

It was stories such as this and many others – like the tales of James Clemens, the founder of Madison and namesake for James Clemens High School, and that of Doc Hughes, another founding father of Madison – that brought the people of the early 1800s to life for a generation accustomed to booming construction and rapid city growth.

In Old Madison Cemetery, members of the Balch, Gooch, Clemens, Palmer and Sturdivant families were brought back to life as reenactors detailed the lives of the city founders buried there. 

For 18-year-old Langley Polk, standing in the middle of the historic cemetery along Mill Road in a period costume her mother made, the day brought back fond memories of her childhood. She moved to Madison with her family four years ago from Virginia, where as a child she participated in living history reenactments with her father. “This is very cool. It reminds me of being in Virginia because I used to do this when I was younger, except we portrayed the 1700s,” Polk said.

A senior at Bob Jones High School, Polk portrayed James Clemens’ wife, Minerva Mills Clemens. Her father, Allen, portrayed Capt. John Buchanan Floyd, a Civil War veteran and early mayor of Madison. She said it was her father who first got her started in re-enacting when she was 8 years old. “I really like the living history stuff, but it’s not really popular among my age group, so it’s very cool that I get to be involved in it here,” she added. “I moved here my freshman year in high school, and I didn’t know a lot about Madison. I thought, ‘There’s no history here. It’s too new.’ People told me, ‘Oh, there is history here. You just have to find it.’ So I thankfully found it, which is cool.”

At the main downtown square, a group of Boy Scouts gave Volksmarch walkers a humorous look into an event that was not so funny in its day – the 1928 bank robbery. The old bank no longer exists, but the building still does, along with the original bank vault. It is now Noble Passage Interiors on Main Street.

In the reenactment, the robbers were carted off with much fanfare to a makeshift jail built by the Madison Historical Preservation Society at Main Street Cafe’.

Pauline Childers and Jennifer Moore watched the reenactment with amusement and keen interest in the city’s past. “Learning about the development of the area, how Madison started and grew, is extremely interesting,” Moore said. One aspect she observed during the reenactments in the cemetery was how many of the founding families of Madison came and settled here from the same areas as many of the families who reside in Madison today. “When you hear about the histories of the people in the cemetery, they were not brought up here – they were brought here. That’s what is happening now.”

“I did not know Madison had this kind of history,” Childers added. “I have never really seen the roots of Madison, mostly all of the construction and new growth. The heart of Madison is amazingly interesting.”

They were equally impressed with the recent upgrades to the downtown area, agreeing it is “very quaint and nice to visit.”

Originally scheduled for the previous Saturday, Volksmarch was pushed to Nov. 2 to avoid the heavy rains Oct. 26. The move meant several volunteers who had planned to reenact other historical scenes could not make it because of prior obligations, but organizers and participants alike said they were very glad Volksmarch was postponed and not completely canceled for this year.

“It was a beautiful day – not a cloud in the sky. Over 100 people came out to celebrate with us, and it was great, said Madison Historical Preservation Society president Debbie Overcash. “From the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to the Rotarians and actors, we had a big time.”

Volksmarch chairwoman Bailey Erickson agreed. “Today was wonderful,” she said after the event. “So many people enjoyed learning the history of Madison, particularly the re-enactors who were in front of the homes on Church Street. They loved the girls in the cemetery, along Buttermilk Alley. Mostly they just loved being outside on such a beautiful day and learning about Madison.”

History, agreed those who participated as walkers and volunteers, is something we should never forget. “If we do not appreciate and remember the history and enjoy it, then it could one day be turned into something else, and that history would be lost to future generations. We won’t have it anymore,” said Jennifer Moore at the end of her walk.

An act of preserving modern history for a generation 50 years from now wrapped up the day. Madison Mayor Paul Finley joined Overcash, Erickson, Rotary Club president Larry Smith and Madison historian John Rankin in burying a time capsule for the Madison residents of 2069 to unearth during the city’s 200th anniversary celebration. In it were items representing the current world of Madison, such as city coins, a program from the 2019 Madison Street Festival, a proclamation by the mayor and city council, a signed banner from the participants of Saturday’s Volksmarch and other memorabilia from the 150th celebration of the city’s founding.

“If you think about it, 50 years ago, the city buried a time capsule, and we got to open it a couple of weeks ago,” Finley said. “We always recognize that we stand on the shoulders of others, and we want to continue to build a positive community, and this brings it all home. As we bury this one today, to be opened 50 years from now, our goal is to make it better for this generation and hopefully for the next generation that opens this one up. As elected leaders, that’s what your goal is: to improve quality of life that makes your community better.”

One aspect that hit home to Finley was that the same atmosphere and mindset that propelled Madison to become a town 150 years ago still exists today. “Every city starts off as a small town,” he said. “The great thing about Madison is we continue to have that small-town feel as we now have grown into a medium-sized city. It is managed differently, but yet it is managed the same – focused on the people.”

Erickson said the Volksmarch of Madison is an event that is here to stay. Organizers are already looking ahead to next year’s walk through time. All the proceeds from the event will benefit the Rotarians’ local projects.