As you dine at the Key West Shrimp House in historic Madison, Indiana, you have an unsurpassed view across the Ohio River into the forested hills of Kentucky.
Here, in this timeless setting, it is easy to let your mind turn back to days gone by….. and to realize that you are indeed directly in the mainstream of history itself… because
the Key West Shrimp House now occupies a building that was once part of the old button factory.
No changes have been made in the basic original structure built around the turn of the century. On the lower level of the west side of the building, the old original foundation may be seen. Built up with narrow, flat river stones mortared together with cement and clay-like mud. It is very much like the construction of old Roman walls that still stand from pre-Christian days.
The roof beams inside are the original timbers …. Staunch and strong.
To make the old “pearl” buttons of a bygone era, mussels were fished out of the river by the tons and brought in by light barges and railroad from miles away, up and down the river to the button factory. Mussels were piled high in nearby vacant lots as reserve supplies to keep the factory going during the winter “run”.
First, the mussels were separated into their two halves … washed and cleaned… and then sent off to the rows of clacking and buzzing button-cutting machines.
Here the button “blanks” were sawed out of the mussel shells, the holes drilled in the “blanks “ and countersunk. Beveled and polished, the finished buttons were hand sewn upon cards and were ready for the market.
The hand-sewing onto cards was an important “cottage” industry in those days because it was largely done by women of the town in their spare time in their own homes. Small boys made pin-money by delivering the buttons and cards back and forth from factory and homes.
The old button factory the old trolley that ran from one end of town to the other….. most of the old shipyards… and other …. Have long since faded away into the colorful history of Madison. Few people nowadays realize that the bustling teeming Rivertown was once the largest city in Indiana.
It all started back in 1809 when the Revolutionary War veteran, Colonel John Paul, purchased the entire peninsular tract at a public land sale in Jeffersonville. He platted the town and named it for President James Madison, and generously of his means for public use in the development of the new town.
In those days the great rivers were the lifelines of transportation commerce and trade…. And Madison was strategically located at the nearest port for the interior of Indiana. Its growth was steady and by 1850 its population exceeded 5,000 …. Making it the largest city in Indiana.
Within a few years, however, it was stripped of this honor when new, direct routes to Eastern markets were developed from Louisville and Cincinnati.
While in Madison you may want to step back into history by visiting two old homes that reflect the grace and beauty of past glories. Both are National Historic Landmarks.
Old Captain Shrewsbury came to Madison from Virginia and made a fortune operating a fleet of Ohio Riverboats. He built his house in 1846 at First and Poplar Streets. His home was known along the rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans and was the scene of many of the most brilliant social gatherings of its day.
The brightest star of all in the galaxy of Madison’s romantic history is the famed Lanier Mansion.
Built-in 1844 by James F. D. Lanier, it is an elaborate structure of great dignity and elegance. It’s 50-foot portico, with 30-foot pillars, commands the same panoramic view of the great river and the Kentucky hills beyond that you see from the Key West Shrimp House.
Many other points of interest are located throughout downtown Madison.
But now… close your eyes… and listen very hard. Perhaps you can hear the throaty moan of a steamboat whistle from around the bend… and hear the muffled “chunk……chunk” of the mighty paddlewheels that churned on those long past days when the rowdy river-queen city of Madison was the beautiful belle of Ohio.
And today, in many she is still a river-queen … swishing her skirts of historic brilliance about her… she is still the beautiful belle of majestic Ohio.
Her charms grow upon you and she may woo you back again to take in the vast panoramic view across the great river into the green hills of Kentucky …. From the old button factory.