At the core of this grand home is the original 1850 structure that did, in fact, look a good bit like a boat. The prow-shaped front of the ground floor was replicated in a setback second floor that was suggestive of a ship’s cabin, and the chimney rose up in the middle like the funnel of a steamboat – hence the name “Boat House.” The lore of Boat House is further enhanced by its possible association with “Commodore” George Nelson Dexter, who moved to Madison in 1851 and worked as a carriage maker until going off to the Civil War. Dexter’s meritorious action in the course of capturing a Union ship led his superior officer to address him as “Commodore;” and the honorary title remained with him the rest of his life. Dexter is buried in the Madison cemetery. County records show two other owners in the later 1850s.
The most illustrious few years in the history of Boat House came in the mid-1860s. After serving as a Confederate chaplain during the first two years of the Civil War, Samuel Edward Axson came to Madison as the Presbyterian minister and teacher in the newly established Madison Male and Female Academy, which met in the Boat House where he lived. Axson’s bright four-year-old daughter Ellen was one of the students. Shortly after the war ended Axson was called to a larger congregation in Rome, Georgia, where Ellen grew into a fine lady. When an aspiring Atlanta attorney, himself the son of a Presbyterian clergyman, came to visit relatives in Rome, he became smitten with the artistic young Ellen. Soon she became Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, and upon her husband’s inauguration in March 1913 she became First Lady serving until her untimely death from kidney disease six months later. The significance of her time at the Boathouse is explained by the National First Ladies Library which declared, “Ellen Wilson appears to be the first First Lady to have received a formal pre-school education.” (www.firstladies.org)
About two decades later, Boat House again served an educational role when Miss Viola Toombs opened the short-lived Select School for Young Ladies. Toombs taught Latin, French, and German. An 1886 newspaper advertisement touted “instruction thorough, and discipline mild but firm.”
One can best appreciate the structural evolution of the house by viewing it from the 4thStreet side. The original 1850 boat-like structure is now lost in the middle. Around 1900, a two-over-two addition with a front porch was added on the front by the Furlow family. C. M. Furlow, who served as Madison’s mayor in the mid-1920s, had his insurance office on the square in the Atkinson building above today’s Zeb Grant Flower Shop. Furlow proudly installed what was reputedly the first indoor bathtub in town. His family owned Boat House well into the 20thCentury.
The next major addition to Boat House came in the 1980s when the Erwin family added over 2,500 square feet to the rear of the structure and converted it to a bed and breakfast inn. Many of the historic materials (windows, mantles, tiles, and lumber) used in this renovation came from the demolition of a large Victorian house in Monroe, but the mantle in what is now the breakfast room came locally from “The Anchorage,” a mansion that once stood near the railroad on Madison’s west side. This careful attention to detail means that the newest part of Boat House blends almost seamlessly with the old inside and out. The pool and garage were added in the 1990s, but the other two outbuildings are original to the property. Boat House has been featured in several home and travel publications and programs including a 2007 episode of HGTV’s “If Walls Could Talk.”
The Pugmire family, who acquired the home about two years ago, has done considerable work to the interior and the landscaping. Most notably, they completely remodeled the kitchen moving it closer to the center of the home and creating a cozy breakfast room in front of a fireplace. They also reconfigured the back porch to facilitate smooth transition between the house and backyard. In the course of this most recent renovation, workers discovered a board from a large wooden crate labeled for shipment to “C. M. Furlow, Madison.” Could the crate have delivered that brand new bathtub?