It is believed by some that this area might have been explored by French trappers, perhaps the Mollet Brothers (1739) who worked the rivers in Nebraska, or by James McKay (1795), just before it became U.S.Territory in 1803.
A town, located at the junction of Union and Taylor Creeks, was founded in 1867 by Henry Mitchell Barnes and 20 German families from Wisconsin. It soon became a prosperous community. Civil War veterans, looking for a place to establish new homes, chose the fertile lands found along the Elkhorn River. Madison, named for President James Madison, became a post office address in 1869.
The building of a railroad greatly influenced Madison's growth. The settlers were determined to obtain one! At that time, the nearest railroad was Columbus, 30 miles south. To prove their faith that a railway would eventually be built to their town, they broke sod for "the future depot" at the Fourth of July celebration in 1874. Train service did eventually come, but not until December 30, 1879.
In the meantime, Madison became the seat of government for Madison County in 1875. A three-way race developed between two towns in the northern part of the county, Battle Creek and Norfolk, and Madison in the south half. In addition to its prospects of a railroad, the reasons given for choosing this location included its geographic location, and "lower taxes."
Instrumental in winning the election was the fact that Madison had a newspaper. The "Madison County Review" was unique, and quite an accomplishment for its founder, T.M. Blakely. After being printed in Chicago, the newspaper was shipped to Columbus by train and carried to Madison on the mail route. Later the paper became the "Madison Chronicle," owned for a time by J. H. Slater. The present local paper is the "Madison Star Mail."
Madison became a principal shipping point between Columbus and Norfolk once the branch line of the Union Pacific was completed. Farmers and merchants prospered from having rail connection, that allowed their goods and products to be shipped quickly and more economically than by wagons.
The population grew to 300 in the late 1800s. New businesses were established; hotels, banks, general stores, law firms, and churches, in addition to the blacksmiths, lumberyards, and implement dealers of the early years.
A large race track was established and, for a short period, Madison also had a college. A new Union Pacific depot was opened on May 27, 1910.
Although Madison is not well known for its rare natural resources, both gold and oil were reported to have been discovered nearby. Gold nuggets, enough to fill a water glass to overflowing, were allegedly found on the J.F. Maurer farm in the green Garden precinct in 1931. At the same time, "prospects of oil" were said to be near the southeastern section of Madison County. However, the farmers declined to sign over the 20,000 acres of land that were necessary for doing the search.
Madison's economy is largely tied to agricultural industries, the production of corn and hogs, and a large pork processing plant. Other farm-related businesses include grain elevators, feed and seed stores, and a creamery.
The city still uses the original city hall and library. Even though Norfolk's population is more than 12 times greater, the county courthouse has remained in Madison. This is reflected in such businesses as a weekly newspaper, law firms, real estate offices, two banks, and a medical clinic. There are also a variety of stores that serve the population, currently estimated to be 2,060.
Like the early pioneers' efforts, the present town-leaders continue to work toward community improvement and growth with dedication and determination. Madison, still many years away from a bicentennial celebration, looks forward to providing a good place to live and work for the future generations of its citizens.
By Susan Schmidt, Rte 1, Madison, NE 68748
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: A Short History of Madison , 1960, by Modern Problems Class, Madison High School, Sheldon Brown, instructor; and information from Helen Henry, Art Lee, McKibbon's Phamracy, and the "Madison Star Mail. Pictures provided by Mary Schmidt and Penny Frazier.