“THRILLS TO MARK STATE ST. LIGHTING JUBILEE THURSDAY!” shouts the full-page announcement in the Tuesday, June 2, 1931 edition of The Wisconsin State Journal.
Thursday was the day “a flood of midnight sun would literally bathe State and Fairchild streets” as the new “State Street Bright-Way” was turned on. Up and down State Street’s eight blocks there would be “2,160,000 lumens released from the rows of shining electric suns” of the 72 new ornamental street lights.
Although Madison’s premiere shopping area had long been the stores fronting on the Capital Square, the new streetlights on State Street helped to shine a bright light on another booming retail area in Downtown Madison: State Street. As David Mollenhoff notes in his book “Madison: A History of the Formative Years,” State Street was primarily residential in 1900, “but by 1914 the first six blocks were nearly solid stores.”
The State Street Association expected at least 50,000 people from Madison and “farms, villages, and cities throughout the Madison trading zone” to attend the June 4, 1931 jubilee and noted that, “Practically every member of the police force will be on duty that night to handle the throngs.” The association boasted the jubilee would muster “one of the greatest peace-time crowds ever assembled in the Capital City of Wisconsin.”
Several decades before the tremendous retail growth on State Street, the Capitol Square experienced its own huge growth surge. Mollenhoff reports that, “Between 1880 and 1885, the number of businesses fronting on Capital Square increased by forty percent – from 82 to 124 – a clear indication that the area had become a mature regional shopping center.”
One of the retail businesses opened during that period of rapid growth was O.M. Nelson and Sons, Inc. a jewelry store founded in 1882 and located at 21 N. Pinckney St. In 1947, The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Nelson’s, now 65 years old, was the Madison’s oldest jewelry firm and “it has always been located on or near the Capitol square.”
In 1885, three years after it opened, Nelson and Sons was among the 124 businesses fronting on the Capitol square. “Never before or again would the Capital square have so many stores,” reports Mollenhoff. “A shopper walking around the Square in 1885 would have found one furniture store; two hardware stores and book dealers; three restaurants; four china stores and tobacco shops; five bakeries; six drug stores; seven candy stores and grocery stores; eight women’s clothing shops and jewelry stores; nine shoe stores, and no less than ten saloons.”
In addition to State Street, other streets near the square were also home to retail stores. There’s an advertisement for Huegel Shoe Co. (104 King and 111 East Main) in the 1917 Tychoberahn, the Madison [Central] High School yearbook. In 1917, two other businesses that have left lasting legacies in Madison were also located on King Street. In December 1967, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Capital Times, Lowell Frautschi, president of Frautschi Furniture at 219 King Street, ran a congratulatory ad in the newspaper in which he noted, “The Frautschi family had already operated its furniture business in Madison for 48 years (14 of them on King Street) when the presses of the Capital Times began to turn in an old building on the block above us on December 13, 1917.”
By 1915 there were only 75 stores remaining on the Capital square. Madison’s retail shopping focus was now on State Street.
Even before its great growth spurt in the early years of the 20th century, State Street was home to some of Madison’s oldest retail businesses. In 1881, Henry Lewis opened a drug store in a building on the corner of State and Gilman streets. According to Madison historian (and longtime Capital Times reporter) Frank Custer, for over 80 years, Lewis Prescriptions served as a hangout where students from the University of Wisconsin, the old Richmond Academy, Central High School, and the nearby Groves-Barnhart business school, serving them sodas, sundaes and other treats.
Lewis Pharmacy closed in 1961, by which time, Custer noted, it was, “Madison’s oldest business in length of service to the community, as well as the oldest one-family operated firm.” Although the business shut its doors, the building at 501 State Street that was once its home is still there: Its current occupant is the Stop & Shop grocery.
In 1931, the State Street Association boasted “State Street is a great department store under many adjoining roofs – and that its seven business blocks are the ‘sweetest’ seven business blocks in Madison.” Furthermore, they wanted it known that people “CAN BUY EVERYTHING ON STATE STREET, from a load of coal or a diamond ring, to a ‘hot dog.'”
Today, while you may no longer be able to buy a load of coal on State Street, or indulge in a slice of hot apple pie with cinnamon ice cream in the tearoom at Manchester’s department store on the Capital square, Downtown Madison continues to be one of the city’s brightest most exciting retail and dining areas.
Note: A slightly different version of this post appeared in the November 9, 2008 edition of Around Downtown (a Capital Newspapers Advertising supplement) under the headline “Downtown area a hubbub of energy for a century.” The images in Around Downtown were different from the ones used here.