On December 4, 1792, the General Assembly passed the act forming Madison County from Culpeper County, which became effective on May 1, 1793. The new county was named in honor of James Madison, then an opposition leader in Congress who had played a major role in the adoption of the Federal Constitution.
In June 1793, the gentlemen justices of the Madison County Court gave consideration to the establishment of a permanent county courthouse. Favoring a site conveniently located in the center of the county, the court decided to purchase a two-acre lot, which was part of a420-acre tract known as Finnell’ Old Field. This field was situated on the ridge of Courthouse Mountain which runs southwest to northeast and which affords the Town spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and northwest.
On January 6, 1800, in response to a petition signed one month earlier by one hundred citizens of the county, the General Assembly established a town at the courthouse on fifty (50) acres of land. Calling the new town Madison, after the new county of which it became the county seat, the Legislature ordered all of the fifty acres to be laid off in lots with convenient streets. The Legislature also appointed seven (7) men, including two (2) county justices, as its first trustees. The trustees were empowered to make rules for the regular building of houses and to settle all boundary disputes. In 1801, the General Assembly established within the Town of Madison the county’s first post office.
In 1804, an English visitor to the Town noted that, “In addition to the public buildings on the courthouse square and two taverns, there are ten or twelve houses in the village, among them the resident of a doctor, a lawyer, and a gentleman justice – but no parson or parsonage.”
In 1818, the General Assembly passed two measures relating to the town, each indicative of Madison’s growing maturity as a community:
· The first extended the town’s limits to include fifteen (15) acres of land on either side of Main Street south of the courthouse and Carpenter’s Tavern.
· The second provided for the popular election of town trustees, who were now required to meet at least once every six months and were authorized for the first time to pass town bylaws and to lay an annual tax on inhabitants and their property not to exceed fifty dollars.
Between 1829 and 1830 the architectural character of the rural Town of Madison changed dramatically with the completion of the present brick courthouse building by former University of Virginia workmen Malcolm F. Crawford and William B. Phillips and builder Richard Boulware.
Joseph Martin in his 1835 Gazetteer of Virginia gives a detailed description of the buildings of the Town:
“The Village, besides the ordinary county buildings, contains 34 dwelling houses, 6 mercantile stores, 2 taverns, 2 houses of public worship, of which one belongs to the Episcopalians, and the other is free for all denominations. There are in the vicinity 5 (five) manufacturing flourmills. The town is healthy and improving. It has 2 (two) resident attorneys and 4 (four) practicing physicians; whole population 290.”
Handicapped by having neither a railroad in the county nor an adequate system of roads, citizens had to send the county’s two major commercial crops (flour and corn) to market in Fredericksburg by horse and wagon. In the 1840’s, with the development of the railroad in the Piedmont region, Gordonsville became the major market for crops. A group of citizens saw the opportunity to tap the produce market of the Shenandoah Valley by constructing a toll road that connected New Market in Shenandoah County to Gordonsville in Orange County, via the Town of Madison. Organized in 1850 with its office in the Town, the Blue Ridge Turnpike Company accomplished this remarkable engineering project in 1857. Each phase of construction brought greater wealth to the Town as it became a major stopping place and exchange point for stagecoaches and carriages. Some of the Town’s most distinguished residences were built during the era of the Blue Ride Turnpike.
During the ear of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the most prominent leader to emerge from Madison was state legislator, Confederate major general, and Governor of Virginia, James Lawson Kemper (1823-1895). Kemper served in the legislature during five sessions, the last as Speaker of the House. In 1865 Kemper returned with his family to the Town of Madison, taking up permanent residence on the northern end of Town in 1868. Soon a major figure in the rise of the Conservative Party in Virginia, Kemper served as Governor of Virginia from 1874 to 1877.
By the turn of the century, the Town of Madison had become a thriving, busy place of five hundred (500) inhabitants. In 1898 its citizens included four attorneys, two carpenters and builders, two coach and wagon builders, two dentists, eight distillers, one druggist, one furniture dealer, five general merchants, on grocer, one ironworker, one tobacconist, two undertakers, one wool dealer, two academy headmasters, and one maker of agricultural implements.
Two of the most famous and frequent visitors to the Town of Madison from 1929 to 1932 were President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover. President Hoover was involved in the selection and development of Hoover Camp in western Madison County as a presidential retreat and fishing lodge. For Madisonians, the social highlight of the 1920s was the celebration of Madison County Day on August 16, 1929, which drew 10,000 people to hear addresses by President Hoover and Governor Harry F. Byrd.
Since the 1990s, a crowd of 17,000 people is not unusual on the Saturday before Labor Day when the Town of Madison, population fewer than 300, is the location for the “Taste of the Mountains” festival sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. This event was first held in 1993. “Taste of the Mountains” 2008 included historic and educational displays, artisans and crafters, entertainment by musical groups, and food booths.
A popular event with many visitors to the Town is the Walking Tour sponsored by the Madison Historical Society. Over 45% of the structures within the Town are 100 years or older. Many of the Town’s historic structures have identifying plaques with additional information contained in a booklet published and available through the Historical Society.
Since 1991 the Visitor’s Register notes the Town has had visitors from 42 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with travelers from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, England, France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Scotland, and Sweden. Virginia residents representing many of Virginia’s cities, towns, and counties are frequent visitors to the Town.
The Town of Madison (the only incorporated town in Madison County) is governed by a mayor and a four (4) member council, all of whom shall be qualified voters of the Town and are elected for a four (4) year term from the Town at large. The Mayor is the chief executive officer of the Town and votes only in tie-breaking situations. The Town Clerk, appointed by the council, oversees the daily operations of the Town.
The Planning Commission is composed of five (5) members who serve staggered four-year terms. The Commission serves as an advisory board to the Council on matters relating to zoning and development of land/buildings and is responsible for drafting, reviewing and updating the Town’s comprehensive plan.
The Town of Madison is part of the Rappahannock Rapidan Planning District, a five county area composed of Culpeper, Fauquier, Orange, Rappahannock, and Madison counties. The Town is centrally located within Madison County and is approximately 78 miles southwest from Washington, D. C., 50 miles west from Fredericksburg, 30 miles north of Charlottesville, and 80 miles northwest of Richmond.