This photo-history essay is part of an ongoing series exploring some of Memphis’ most important streets and avenues. Madison Avenue, the zero starting point of all Memphis’ addresses, runs over four miles west to east from Front Street in Downtown Memphis to just past East Parkway. It is one of the most iconic and important streets in Memphis lore and history.
Welcome to the Town of Lenox
The first stop on the Madison Avenue tour starts at East Parkway.
(Purists will note that Madison actually continues east for a few disjointed blocks and ends at North Bingham St. However for purposes of this essay our focus stays within the parkways.)
Stand on the corner of East Parkway and Madison Avenue, and take a look around.
Now turn back your clocks to any time between 1890 and 1909. And guess what? You’re not in Memphis. You’re standing on the eastern edge of Lenox, Tennessee, a little town of less than a square mile, somewhere around 230 acres (that’s an area smaller than all of Overton Park).
Flashback to a specific year, 1890, and what is now East Parkway is a road called Trezevant (for the neighboring area of Trezevant), and to your west is the still unincorporated greater Lenox Subdivision of old forest, hardwoods, oak trees, brush, and a few new houses around dirt roads. The land had recently been opened up and parceled for development by the Equitable Land and Construction Company. The subdivision’s western border is at Cooper – it was still Cooper Avenue then – its northern edge is up at Poplar at the yet-to-be-completed Overton Park, and its southern edge runs down along Central Avenue.
Think about this as you stand at that Trezevant corner in 1890: Madison hasn’t been extended this far yet – it ends at Cooper. The land around you has only just been parceled and has yet to be fully developed. Almost four long miles away, Memphis – rebounding from the yellow fever epidemics, the population exodus of the 1870’s and a repealed city charter – is busy addressing issues of sanitation, street-paving, and crime, and is still lobbying the Tennessee State Legislature to restore its charter to become a city again. Memphis the taxing-district stops at Dunlap Street, at what is now the Medical District.
Directly to your west is the Idlewild neighborhood, which will become an incorporated city in a few years, and after that the already-incorporated town of Madison Heights.
Early Transportation and Entertainment Feeds Growth
At the turn of the century Madison Avenue ended at Cooper, and after their trips east those same street cars made a right turn at Cooper and headed south all the way down to Young Avenue, where they turned left and again headed east, ending at Trezevant, dropping passengers off near the grandstand of the horse racetrack of Montgomery Park at the New Memphis Jockey Club (where the Fair Grounds are now).
To the south nearest Central, east of Cooper down near the rails of the Nashville-Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad, the J.W. Dickson Lumber Company ran a saw mill. Next door and to the west on Gaylord Ave sat the Dixie Match Factory .
Lenox was just wealthy and populated enough to have its own railroad passenger depot, the Lenox station, down on Cooper and just north of Central. From there Memphis and Lenox residents could take the L&N (Louisiana & Nashville) train all the way to Nashville.
Before 1900 the Memphis’ park later named Overton was still Lea’s Woods, but Memphis residents were making treks east on the dummy line to East End Park (at the site of today’s Prairie-Turner Dairy) and southeast all the way out to the club and for horse racing at the race track. The rails and factories to the south were starting to prosper and, with the streetcar line along Cooper, businesses there and along Madison were beginning to grow.
With that growth, more wealth was pouring into the unnamed, 230-acre subdivision east of Cooper. By 1896 residents began planning a school, and had enough resources and organization to incorporate into a city.
“Lenox was incorporated as a result of an election held September 21, 1896. Out of 65 qualified voters 51 voted for incorporation and none against. The Charter was filed for registration October 3, 1896, and is recorded in Corporation Record Book 8, Page 625 in the Register’s Office of Shelby County.” (“The Seven Cities Absorbed By Memphis,” by Judge Lois D. Bejach, 1954)
Some accounts say that the town was named for a local soap company called Lenox, which built a sign the town needed. But “standard” accounts say that it may have been named quite simply for the surrounding forests, a contraction derived from “Eleven Oaks.” Residents appointed a gentleman named A.W. Marchildon as their first mayor. According to city records, he may have lived down near Cooper and Union.
Into the years between 1904 to 1909, with the exceptions of fire and police departments, the little town was largely self-sufficient. Its population had grown to close to 350. The building of those water mains and sewers was complete – residents were required to make their own necessary connections to them – electric lights and telephones came next, and by 1909 there was enough residential wealth to pull together the bond moneys needed for the building of that school. Paved roads, more business, more carriage traffic and more people arriving by streetcar, followed.
Annexation, still on our minds today. The prevailing thoughts – or fears – in the early 20th Century was that annexing land was necessary to stop the spread of disease, to ensure that sewer systems could be built in those outlying areas that did not have the resources to build such infrastructure. Presumably, Lenox did not have those concerns, having the financing and resources to build their own sewer systems.
All of that would not be enough to fight off the inevitable annexation by the City of Memphis as the city continued to grow eastward. Against the wishes of many Lenox residents, in 1909 the Tennessee State Legislature repealed Lenox city charter and approved annexation. Memphis would agree to eventually pay off the $50,000 in bonds that were needed to complete the building of the school, and the annexation expanded Memphis’ footprint to Trezevant Street at the town’s eastern edge.
Now that Memphis’ city limits extended into Lenox, the 1910s, the “dummy line” now-electric streetcar (we can call them trolleys now), and new gas-powered machines called horseless carriages brought more people and more wealth into this idyllic woodsy area at the edge of the city. Between 1910 and 1925, in a trend that occurred in industrial cities all over the country, hundreds of new houses and businesses would crop up in the “streetcar suburb” neighborhoods around a Madison Avenue that now extended all the way to what would soon become East Parkway.
Subdivision plot numbers 85 and 86, on the north side of Madison at the Lenox (now Edgewood) corner, would be purchased by an attorney, a Mr. Caruthers Ewing. In extending the postal numbering system that started downtown, at Front Street at zero, plots 85 and 86 would become 2282 Madison.
The 32 to 36 subdivisions on the south side of Madison, between Cox and Edgewood, would be purchased. They’d become the houses we now see from 2219 through 2271 Madison.
Lenox After Lenox
3 Replies to “Welcome to the Town of Lenox”
Outstanding work. Fascinating. Thanks for the reliable research on Memphis history.
Thanks Tom. Memphis can always count on your spot-on posts as well. Thanks for all you and your team do.
Great article. Lived on Tunis for 10 years (1956-1966).