Welcome to the Town of Lenox

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.

East Parkway and Madison, June 2016, looking east

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). 

 If the Lenox name sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the old Lenox neighborhood south of Union, the Lenox Bayou that is part of the Overton Park soil, or the old Lenox School – now the Lenox Condominiums – on S. Edgewood at the corner of little Tunis Avenue. They all have origins in the town of Lenox.
The borders of Lenox, after annexation: Poplar to the north, Central to the south, Trezevant (East Pkwy) east, Cooper to the west. (Lenox Collection, Memphis Public Library)

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.

Dogwood Drive, Overton Park, 1907. This is Overton Park, but Trezevant Ave in Lenox looked a lot like this in the 1890’s. (from the website Historic Memphis)
A section of East Parkway that is south of Poplar Avenue. Caption on back of photo reads, “Parkway South of Poplar Avenue.” c. 1910. (Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library)

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. 

Standing here, you are in the country at the front steps of West Tennesee. If you climbed to the top of one of those oak trees and took a look around, within your view to the west the land would be staked out to people with names like Gordon, Davidson, Wilson, Collier, and Ammonett, later to be parceled or sold to the Simmons, Hastings, Richardsons, Treadwells, and Millers. A majority of the homes built so far (around 1890) are south of Union and contain less than 200 total inhabitants. The essentials of water mains and luxuries like sewers are in the works. To get your dry goods and other services, you put on your Sunday best and walk down dirt roads to the few family businesses up and down Cooper. Remember, there are no paved roads yet – although some will be filled with gravel in the next fifteen years – and automobiles are quite a ways off.
Williamson Map 1891. The curve in the center is the corner of Cooper and Madison, at what is now Overton Square; the red line through Cooper represents the “new” Memphis city limit. (Shelby County Archives)

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

The growth of Lenox was made possible in part by the building of the streetcar line of the East End Railway Company. It was known as the East End “dummy line,” and its horse-drawn street cars provided transportation into areas east, making its way along Madison Avenue, all the way from Memphis proper. After 1891 the railway company would fit or replace the train cars for steam-powered and later, electric cable-powered trolleys.
Courtesy Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum and Memphis Public Library

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).

1916 postcard of Montgomery Park (George Whitworth Collection, Historic Memphis)

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 .

A screen-shot of a Sanborn map, a huge resource for historians and researchers. Sanborn published these maps for fire insurance purposes. And these maps, produced every few years after the 1860s, had to be extremely detailed. The capture above shows the Dixie Match factory and the J.W. Dickson lumber yard at the end of Gaylord, right off the Nashville-Chattanooga & St. Louis RR railroad tracks that cross the trestle over Cooper, just north of Central. The “D” designation on the structures to the left, along Cox, denote dwellings. The house you live in today might be one of them! (Memphis Public Library)

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.

Old Press-Scimitar clipping, March 22, 1961 (Lenox Collection, Memphis Public Library)

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.

The Commercial Appeal clipping, 1950 (Lenox Collection, Memphis Public Library)

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. 

Meanwhile, starting in 1899 Memphis had begun expanding its borders, annexing Idlewild and Madison Heights, pushing its city limits east and all the way to Cooper. Potential Lenox annexation by the city of Memphis had been discussed as well (sound familiar?). R.J. Rawlings, their second mayor, would be part of the efforts to help fight off or delay annexation.

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.

Their last mayor, William Neville Page, worked with linotype printing machines for The Commercial Appeal newspaper and he (may have) lived somewhere along Cooper near where Courtland Place ends, a couple blocks south of Union. Under his leadership the town successfully completed the water main and sewer connections, installed fire hydrants, and completed the building of the two-story Lenox School – the first fire-proof schoolhouse in Memphis – on South Edgewood.
Cover of Page/Lenox Collection, W.N. Page pictured, Lenox School bottom right (Lenox Collection, Memphis Public Library)

Memphis Annexation

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.

During this period Memphis’ cotton and lumber businesses were booming. Bankers, lawyers, physicians, tradesman, carpenters and anyone with two hands and a few mouths to feed came from all over the country into Memphis. Even Canadians made the trek down into the Mid-South. And many would move right into the undeveloped land that was now owned by Cole’s Manufacturing Co. – one of the largest lumber manufacturers in the region. Dubbed Cole’s East End Subdivision, families would begin purchasing single or sometimes multiple plots of land on which to build their multi-family houses and mansions.
Cole’s East End Subdivision parcel map, c. 1902. Lenox Ave is now Edgewood, Springdale is now Cox, Madison is now an avenue. (Shelby County Archives)

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

In the post-annexation years the neighborhood grew and continued to blend into the greater Memphis landscape. Lenox the town became Lenox the Midtown neighborhood. The Lenox School would be converted into condominiums in 1981. Trezevant to the east was incorporated into the Memphis Parkway System and became East Parkway. East Parkway in particular, as the former eastern edge of Lenox and the eastern border of the City of Memphis until 1919 (when the city annexed Binghamton), would evolve and see many changes from its old dirt and gravel roads to what we see today.
Undated photo of an unpaved road presumed to be where the big “M” is located in today’s East Parkway median, where Madison and E. Pkwy meet today. View looking north, this photo is uncredited.
A bridge of the Union Railway, part of the old Missouri-Pacific Line, over the intersection of East Parkway and Central Avenue. View looking north along E. Pkwy. c. 1930s. Caption on back of photo reads, “Parkway & Central (Not in paving & viaduct project-to be improved later).” Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
View looking west toward Central Ave (top-right) after the dismantling of the railroad bridge over East Parkway. “From the May 1953 issue of Missouri Pacific Lines Magazine.” From Mike Condren’s excellent condrenrails.com site.
The intersection of East Parkway and Union Avenue Extension, 1960, before the 1963 construction of the overpass we are familiar today. View looking north on E. Pkwy, approaching Union Ave. Caption on back of photo reads, “E. Parkway S. & Union Ave. Ext. 6-8-1960.” Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Special thanks on this post to Wayne Dowdy, Memphis Public Library, for use of the Memphis Room, Frank Stewart at the Shelby County Archives, and Joe Lowry for helping with some finer details and footnotes.

Sharing is caring!

About Mark Fleischer 43 Articles
I was a career consultant and communications specialist in the payroll industry until moving from southern California to Memphis in late 2015. The Bluff City gave me a new start in the second half of my career, gifting me with a chance to return to my childhood fascinations with cities and my college passions in writing, theater, film, and storytelling, all the while allowing me to use my experience working with people, in consulting, teaching and communications, to bring a new voice to Memphis. This may be my first venture into multi-media publishing, but Life and Place - Memphis - gave me all the prep and tools I need.

2 Comments

    • Thanks Tom. Memphis can always count on your spot-on posts as well. Thanks for all you and your team do.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.