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Madisonville, KY | 1900-1939


On Monday, January 1, 1900 the twentieth century began in Madisonville, Kentucky much as it did in many other Kentucky communities.  Madisonville was, at the turn of the century, a small county seat city with a population of 3,628 and served as the governmental and commercial center for the 30,995 persons living in Hopkins County. (Population statistics for Madisonville researched by Mr. Vernon M. Smith of KSDC in Louisville, Kentucky).  The promise of a new century may have been in the thoughts of some residents, merchants, professionals, and government officials as they prepared for the workweek ahead.  Who among them could have envisioned just what the next forty years would bring to their community.  Each of the next four decades would present the city with challenges and opportunities from within the region and state, as well as from national and international events.


In 1900 there were twenty-six passenger and freight trains entering and leaving the city every twenty-four hours.  (Our Town:  A History of Madisonville, Kentucky by Wallace M. Wadlington and David M. Sullivan, p. 19)

Limited telephone service dates from the 1890’s when a Madisonville businessman, J. T. Alexander, constructed a line from Madisonville to his store in Sacramento.  The Cumberland Telephone Company was in operation by 1900 and had expanded to over 650 subscribers in Madisonville by 1911. (Twelfth Annual Yearbook 1986 Historical Society of Hopkins County Kentucky “The History of the Telephone-Hopkins and Webster Counties” by Irene Priest pp. 33-39)

In 1907, Madisonville had four banks, eight churches, two grade schools and one high school.  There were two hundred stores, two ice plants, a canning factory, a spoke factory, three newspapers, two magazines, two wagon and carriage factories, four saw mills, two flour mills, a machine works, a foundry, a dye factory, and many other businesses. (Our Town, p. 19).  A reprint from Young and Co.’s Business and Professional Directory of Kentucky substantiates much of the above and lists a diverse array of businesses.  One of the listings will become significant in the early 1930’s:  Laffoon, R., attorney at law with Yost & Laffoon, S. Main. (Seventh Annual Yearbook 1981 Historical Society of Hopkins County, “Madisonville, Kentucky—1906-1907”, pp. 41-42)

Some of the other businesses listed include “The Planters Protective Assn., Tobacco Warehouse.”  This listing indicates the importance of tobacco for several Madisonville businesses.  The efforts of the Planters Association would result in the Black Patch War, 1904-1914.  The Association officially collapsed in 1914, but several Madisonville tobacco warehouses and related business suffered from the violence.

There were three businesses listed which are still in operation today (2006): (1) Wells Brothers Marble and Granite” is today Knight Monument and the Bear marks this business; (2) “Ruby Lumber Company, manufacturers and dealers” is now Ruby Concrete Company; and (3) “Pleasant View Greenhouses, T.L. Metcalfe, prop.” is Pleasant View Greenhouses, owned and operated by the Metcalfe family.  It is interesting to note that Madisonville began the new century with its first and only Republican Mayor, Dr. W. S. Ross.  Others to hold the office of mayor during the decade were J. W. Thompson (1902-1905) and Dr. I. N. Vickers, a dentist (1906-1909).


Madisonville, Kentucky in 1910 with a population of 4,966 was a fourth class city in need of progressive leadership.  “The city government had not kept pace with the city growth in population or the private enterprise of its citizens.  Its macadam streets were old and worn.  Many of the streets in the residential section had not been graded and were surfaced with mine refuse and engine cinders.  The sidewalks were dilapidated or non-existent on many streets.  Free delivery of mail was restricted to the business district and a few residential sections.  Surface and sanitary drainage was by open ditches and open sewers.  Its source of water supply was mainly from polluted wells and springs.  The offal from livery stables stored on the premises was as source of houseflies and infection.  Fire protection consisted of voluntary bucket brigades, and fire insurance rates were exorbitant.”

“Madisonville was under pressure from the State Board of Health for better sanitary conditions, and from the Kentucky Actuarial Board for fire protection.”

“The city had recently voted local option by a nominal majority and thereby sustained a loss of $13,000 per year in revenue from saloon licenses.  Enforcement of local option in an almost equally divided public sentiment confronted the new city administration.  Property was listed for taxation at less than one-fourth its value.”

Mr. David Walter Gatlin (1872-1975) served as mayor from 1910-1922.  His leadership would prove to be a defining era in the history of Madisonville.

“Not much could be done to remedy the conditions until remediable legislation could be gotten from the State Legislature. Such legislation was drafted and submitted to the House and Senate.  They in turn adopted it.”

“During his three terms in office, the city constructed a comprehensive system of water works with a wholesome supply of water from three reservoirs constructed in a watershed of 448 acres, which was held under lease but later purchased by the city.  A system of sanitary sewers was constructed with an outfall terminating more than a mile from the city limits.  Surface privies were abolished in the sanitary district.  Storms sewers were arched and enclosed.  The streets in the business district were constructed and paved with Kentucky rock asphalt.  Sidewalks, curbs, and gutters throughout the city were reconstructed with cement concrete.  Many of the streets in the residential sections were graded, macadamized, and oiled.  The city conducted annual “clean-up and paint-up” campaigns.”

“With these and other sanitary improvements and regulations, Madisonville met the requirements of the State Board of Health.”

“Under Mr. Gatlin’s leadership the city organized, equipped and motorized a paid Fire Department and secured a drastic reduction in fire insurance rates throughout the city.”

“A new unit was added to the Municipal Light Plant.  A “Whiteway” system of lighting the entire business district was constructed.  Better methods of record keeping and municipal accounting were installed.”

“To meet the needs of the growing municipality, a new code of ordinances was revised, drafted, and compiled.  This new code of ordinances was adopted by the Madisonville City Council December 5, 1917.”

“Its light and water franchise being the city’s most valuable assets, Judge H. F. S. Bailey and Mayor Gatlin drafted an amendment to the charter of cities of the fourth class, under which amendment these franchises could not be sold without the assent of two-thirds of the voters obtained in a referendum in a general election.  They took the amendment to the Kentucky Legislature and secured its adoption over the protest of the lobby for the private utilities of Kentucky.”

“When Mayor Gatlin voluntarily retired from office, January, 1922, the city was free of floating debt, with working capital in the General Fund and enough money in the Sinking Fund to retire ahead of schedule the balance of its water bonds.”  (Eighteenth Annual Year Book, 1992 Historical
Society of Hopkins County, “David Walter Gatlin” by Loyatte Ruth Carroll, pp. 13)

In 1972, just a few months before his 100th birthday, Mr. Gatlin was interviewed by J. T. Gooch and Timothy A. Cantrell.  The following excerpt from that interview confirms his accomplishments as Mayor of Madisonville and documents his remarkable leadership:

TC:           “How would you compare things today with things back in the time when you were mayor?”

MG:         “Well, there’s hardly any comparisons with the two periods.  There’s been considerable growth since I was first elected mayor.  We didn’t have any paved streets, concrete sidewalks, sewer systems, or any water works.  I started them all.”

TC:           “Did you?”

MG:         “Yeah.”

TC:           “Well, that was quite a project then to undertake and was very significant in Madisonville’s history!”

MG:         “Thirteen saloons, blasphemous saloons, closed the day I went into the mayor’s office and with considerable loss of revenue to the town.  And, our first summons was weaning Madisonville off the bottle.  But we finally succeeded in going prohibition…the first one in the United States.” (Editor’s note:  According to Ledbetter’s records, prohibition was voted on January 1912, 637 to 489.)(Just The Other Day, J. T. Gooch, 1981 pp. 54-55)


Madisonville is a pretty city…with its asphalt and macadamized streets, fine business section at the center of which is the county courthouse…electric lights, good hotels, fine residences, [and] churches…Electricity for lighting and power purposes is purchased by the city from Kentucky Utilities, and is distributed and sold by the city.  Industries [and businesses] in active operation in and near Madisonville include twelve large coal mines…, drain tile and building block plant, brick yard, crushed limestone works, stone quarries, two planning mills, sawmills, two flour mills, ice plant, three bottling works and an American Cigar Company factory….The city is very much alive and will continue to increase in population and prosperity.”  Geography of the Western Coalfield by Wilbur Greely Burroughs, 1924 pp. 141-143).  Unfortunately, Mr. Burroughs does not identify the many industries and businesses by name.  “All streets within the city limits are paved.  It has four banks.  It has 2,001 students in its schools.  It is a city of churches, and has beautiful homes, surrounded by lawns.”  Some of the known businesses in Madisonville at this time were: “Chero Cola Bottling Works, Hodge Tobacco Co. of Ky., Inc., Kentucky Bridge Co., Long’s Bakery and Ice Cream Co., Madisonville Milling Co., Madisonville Publishing Co., Perkins and Oats (bakery), Ruby Lumber Co., Williams Cleaning Co., and Trade Water Grocery Co.” (Kentucky Resources and Industries, Bureau of Agriculture Bulletin 34 c. 1927, p. 225). Both of the above sources chronicle the prosperity of the twenties and each projects a continued population growth and a booming economy for Madisonville.  The October 29, 1929 stock market crash and ensuing depression could not have been foreseen.


“Even before the 1929 collapse, business had begun to decline.  After the crash, the country sank steadily into the most acute depression in its history….Banks failed, factories shut down, stores closed and almost every business seemed paralyzed….Local governments could not collect half their taxes.” (The World Book Encyclopedia, “The Great Depression” Vol U-V, p. 115).  The following is an excerpt from an interview by Timothy Cantrell with Mr. D. W. Gatlin in 1972:

                  TC:           “What effect did the depression have on banks?”

MG:         “All of them but one closed…that was Kentucky Bank. The Farmers National Bank issued                new capital stock.” 

TC:           “What about the other conditions during the depression? How were things around here?

MG:         “Well, business was paralyzed. There was no investments made.”

TC:           “Were there soup lines in Madisonville? Giving away food?”

MG:         “Yes…yes…”          

                                  (Just The Other Day by J. T. Gooch, p. 55)


It was in 1931 when a Madisonville attorney and politician, Ruby Laffoon, would be elected governor of Kentucky by the largest margin of victory of any Kentucky governor.

“Governor Laffoon was confronted by a failing economy and declining revenues.  While he talked of making improvements in the usual areas, money was not available from existing sources.  When Laffoon proposed a sales tax in the 1932 legislative session, it was blocked by Ben Johnson, whom Laffoon had made highway commissioner, and by Lieutenant Governor A.B. Chandler.  The governor vetoed a proposed reduction in the state property tax, along with several appropriations bills.  In efforts to deal with the economic crisis, he closed both the banks and burley tobacco markets in 1939.  New Deal programs held some promise of badly needed assistance, but Kentucky was often unable to raise the required matching funds.  Laffoon’s continued effort to get a sales tax split the Democratic party with Chandler and Johnson leading the opposition.  By cutting state property and automobile taxes, Laffoon hoped to force acceptance of the sales tax.  After a lengthy struggle, the legislature approved a three-cent sales tax in a 1934 special session.  Before leaving office (1935), Laffoon set new records for the number of pardons granted and the number of Kentucky Colonels commissioned.  Party factionalism and a sick economy left Laffoon with a meager record as governor.” (The Kentucky Encyclopedia, John E. Kleber, Editor in Chief, 1992 “Ruby Laffoon” by Lowell Harrison, pp. 529-530).

It was during this period of depression that many of our public buildings were erected.  The W.P.A. helped build our beautiful city park, the high school, public tennis courts, the courthouse, and the hospital.  It also helped to remodel City Hall, paved miles of streets, sidewalks, and gutters, and built storm sewers.  Madisonville also had the housing projects built at this time.  (Our Town, Wadlington and Sullivan, p. 20)

On September 1, 1939, Hitler declared war on Poland and it was only a matter of time before Madisonville and the nation would encounter one of the greatest threats of our way of life…World War II had begun!

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