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WTD: Main Street Cafe

Main Street Cafe offers a glimpse into Madison’s past

Main Street Café is known for its homemade desserts including peanut butter pie, lemon icebox pie and strawberry pretzel salad.

Story and photos by Aaron Tanner

It’s not every day you get to dine inside a jail cell.

Main Street Café is a favorite gathering place for lunch on Main Street in historic downtown Madison

But that’s exactly what you can do at the Main Street Café, which occupies the space that once housed the town’s city hall and jail in historic downtown Madison. First-time visitors are often surprised about the opportunity to have a meal inside a jail cell that is now a private dining room. “They walk in and say ‘we hear you have jail cells; can we see them?’” says Cindy Sensenberger, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Tony.

On the flip side, Sensenberger has had customers tell them about spending time in the same jail cells that are now the café’s centerpiece. “I’ve had some come in and say they have been in the jail before, and after hearing they were coming I decided to paint over their initials,” Sensenberger says.

Although Madison’s population has grown significantly over the past few decades, Main Street Cafe retains its small-town atmosphere where customers dine on Southern comfort food in a more relaxed atmosphere. “It’s not stuffy,” Sensenberger says. “It’s like your neighborhood restaurant.”

Main Street Café co-owner Cindy Sensenberger.

Many of the entrees are from old recipes, including Poulet de Normandie (chicken and dressing topped with melted cheese and mushroom sauce); Cheesy Meatloaf with

Marinara Sauce; and a chicken salad plate complemented by an English pea salad and a slice of pumpkin bread.

There are also daily specials that change based on the seasonal recipes hand-selected by the chef.

Even though Sensenberger’s goal is to rotate the specials, she loves her customers enough to make exceptions. If a prior special is not on the menu, the restaurant will personally make the special order. “Sometimes we have to have the same special for the whole week because someone will not be able to come the day we make it,” Sensenberger says with a smile.

Desserts are another staple of Main Street Cafe. Although the delights include Peanut Butter Pie, Coca-Cola Cake and Hummingbird Cake (spice cake mixed with bananas, pecans, and pineapple with a pecan and cream cheese frosting), it is their Strawberry Pretzel Salad made with a pretzel base and topped with cream cheese, Cool Whip and strawberry gelatin that customers often choose for their after-dinner course. “It is the most popular dessert we have,” Sensenberger says. “It has a sweet and salty taste.”

Preserving a piece of Madison history

Sensenberger was born and raised in nearby Huntsville. In 1981, she was vacationing in Canada where she met her husband. After a long-distance relationship that lasted a year and a half, the two got married and she moved to Canada and opened her first restaurant. When her mother fell ill in 1991, the couple moved back to Alabama, and Sensenberger opened her second restaurant in an old renovated Victorian home in Decatur.

After her mother died, she decided to move closer to Huntsville. The couple landed in Madison, which was experiencing tremendous growth during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The old jail cells inside Main Street Café now function as decorated private dining rooms.

While she and her husband were renovating several old homes and buildings in downtown Madison, Sensenberger heard that the old city hall and jail were to be torn down. “(The building) was an eyesore for the city,” Sensenberger says. She was eager to open another restaurant, and a contractor suggested using the old building as a cafe. “I had a gentleman come in and do a layout for me and said it would be perfect for a small, homestyle restaurant,” she says.

The chicken salad plate is one of the many favorite entrees on the menu

The Sensenbergers leased the property from the city of Madison and went to work to give the facility a second life. Extensive renovations were done on the inside of the building, including adding a walk-in cooler and freezer, kitchen, dining space and a bar while keeping the layout simple and convenient for future customers and staff. “There is not a lot of wasted space,” Sensenberger says.

After a year of renovations, Main Street Cafe opened to the public in December 2000.

Since opening, the community’s support for Main Street Cafe has grown, thanks to the revitalization of downtown Madison. During the Madison Street Festival, held the first Saturday in October, the restaurant serves as many as 400 to 500 customers. People can also rent out the entire building for private parties while the adjacent patio is perfect for watching trains pass behind the cafe.

Sensenberger enjoys talking with her customers, and those who visit for the first time eventually become regular patrons. Her goal is for those who walk into the door of her restaurant to feel at home no matter their status in life. “I treat everyone like one big happy family,” Sensenberger says.


Main Street Café

101 Main St.

Madison, AL 35758

256-461-8096

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday

mainstreetcafemadison.com

Growing history:

Celebrating 200-plus years of gardening

This photo, circa 1900-1909 and used with permission from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, shows students working in the garden behind the Fifth District Agricultural School in Wetumpka, which later became Wetumpka High School.

For thousands of years, gardens have been essential parts of our state’s life and culture. As Alabama commemorates its 200th anniversary of statehood this year, here’s a quick snapshot of our gardening history and the plants that have become part of our landscapes and lives through the centuries.

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, southeastern Native Americans — Alabama’s first gardeners — began growing crops of local plants (lambsquarters, sunflowers, other seedbearing plants and possibly squash) some 3,500 or more years ago to supplement their wild food sources.

During the Mississippian Era (1000 to 1500 AD), indigenous Alabama tribes started gardening and farming in earnest, a practice that may well explain our state’s name. Though historians debate the exact origin of the name “Alabama,” many credit it to the Choctaw words alba amo, which translate into “those who clear the land.” Clear the land these early Alabamians did, replacing forests with fields where they grew a variety of crops including monocultures and companion plantings of the “Three Sisters” — beans, squash and corn.

When the first European settlers arrived in Alabama in the 1500 and 1600s, they seized Native American cropland, and seized upon their cropping practices and plants. But they also brought with them an array of plants from the Old World. According to the late Montgomery County Cooperative Extension agent and Alabama garden historian George R. Stritikus, those introduced plants included oranges, oleanders, figs, peaches and possibly wisteria and canna lilies.

During the early 1700s, gardens became status symbols of wealthy Alabama plantation owners and businessmen who created the state’s first “fine” or “pleasure” gardens. These plantings typically contained both food and ornamental plants, many of which mirrored those of their homelands.

By the early 1800s — one of our state’s most tragic historical eras — the importation of slaves from Africa was under way. Along with the slaves came plants of their homelands including okra, kidney and lima beans, black-eyed peas, yams and watermelon.

About this time, those affluent landowners were also importing huge numbers of ornamental plants primarily from France and England, but they soon realized that many of these plants could not survive in the South’s climate. According to Stritikus, the need for new varieties suited for southeastern growing conditions kick-started Alabama’s still-thriving nursery industry.

The science of gardening and farming took a leap forward in the mid 1800s as Alabama developed its land-grant education and research system (Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Experiment Station systems), which helped identify the best plants and planting practices for home gardeners and horticultural professionals alike.

During this era, horticultural and garden societies were also forming. Among the first of these in the South and in the nation was the Chunnenuggee Ridge Horticultural Society, founded in 1847 near Union Springs in Bullock County. By the early 1930s, the Federated Garden Clubs of Alabama was also organized to conserve and expand the state’s woodland environment and increase awareness of landscape beauty.

Through history, our gardening practices and trends have changed — and continue to change — with each new generation of gardeners. As we begin our third century as a state, consider recording your own gardening history with a journal to chronicle your gardening successes and failures, and perhaps someday help add your own story to Alabama’s gardening history.


Garden history resources:

To learn more about the history of gardening, spend some time researching it on your own, or look to the list provided below.

  • The Southern Garden History Society (http://southerngardenhistory.org) is an exceptional resource for information on historic gardens, cultural landscapes and horticultural history.
  • The Alabama Department of Archives and History (www.archives.state.al.us) and other state archival resources offer gardening history records and also educational programs and exhibits on gardening history.
  • Many public gardens (a list can be found at https://alabama.travel/garden-trail) offer educational programs and resources on gardening history and practices.
  • A number of historical societies offer gardening histories and also tend historic gardens that are open to the public.  Check with your local historical society to find out what’s available in your area.

 

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.

 

Beware of scammers pretending to be from Social Security

In the digital age, frauds and scams are an unfortunate part of doing business online. During the holiday season, Social Security has traditionally seen a spike in phishing scams, and we want to protect you as best we can.

We urge you to always be cautious and to avoid providing sensitive information such as your Social Security Number (SSN) or bank account information to unknown individuals over the phone or internet. If you receive a call and aren’t expecting one, you must be extra careful. You can always get the caller’s information, hang up, and — if you do need more clarification — contact the official phone number of the business or agency that the caller claims to represent. Never reveal personal data to a stranger who called you.

Please take note; there’s a scam going around right now. You might receive a call from someone claiming to be from Social Security or another agency. Calls can even display the 1-800-772-1213, Social Security’s national customer service number, as the incoming number on your caller ID. In some cases, the caller states that Social Security does not have all of your personal information, such as your Social Security number (SSN), on file. Other callers claim Social Security needs additional information so the agency can increase your benefit payment, or that Social Security will terminate your benefits if they do not confirm your information. This appears to be a widespread issue, as reports have come from people across the country. These calls are not from Social Security.

Callers sometimes state that your Social Security number is at risk of being deactivated or deleted. The caller then asks you to provide a phone number to resolve the issue. People should be aware the scheme’s details may vary; however, you should avoid engaging with the caller or calling the number provided, as the caller might attempt to acquire personal information.

Social Security employees occasionally contact people by telephone for customer-service purposes. In only a few special situations, such as when you have business pending with us, a Social Security employee may request the person confirm personal information over the phone.

Social Security employees will never threaten you or promise a Social Security benefit approval or increase in exchange for information. In those cases, the call is fraudulent, and you should just hang up. If you receive these calls, please report the information to the Office of the Inspector General at 1-800-269-0271 or online at oig.ssa.gov/report.

Remember, only call official phone numbers and use secured websites of the agencies and businesses you know are correct. Protecting your information is an important part of Social Security’s mission to secure today and tomorrow.

 

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at kylle.mckinney@ssa.gov.

Co-ops cooperating

Illustration by Dennis Auth

Hurricane season is over.

Officially at least.

If you were where a storm hit, the season was a bad one.  If the storms missed you, it wasn’t.

If you were a lineman working for an Alabama rural electrical co-op, where a hurricane hit was not the issue.  That one hit at all was what mattered.

I first became aware of this in late September 2004.  I left my home in North Alabama to check on our coastal cottage.  Hurricane Ivan had roared ashore at Gulf Shores the week before and since we were on the west side of the storm, the worst side, I was afraid of what I would find.

As I drove south on the Interstate, I passed scores of bucket trucks, driven by linemen from parts of the state that had not been hit.  They knew what was needed and were there to provide it.

They were putting the co-op in cooperation.

Until you have been through a coastal storm and seen what one can do, it is hard to imagine the magnitude of the destruction.  And until you have been without power for a few days, it is equally hard to imagine how you ever lived without it.

Recently Hurricane Michael reminded the Florida Panhandle and some of South Alabama just what nature can do.

Mexico Beach, east of Panama City, was described as a “war zone.”

Carrying the analogy further, the response to the disaster was not unlike the way our military responds in wartime.  Get boots on the ground, equipment and supplies in place, do the job you are trained to do, while back at headquarters, the coordinators decided who goes where, what resources are needed, and how best to repair what has been damaged and destroyed.

It is a massive undertaking.

We were down on the coast when Michael hit.  Though the worst of it was east of us, our power went out like everyone else’s.

Then the “first responders” arrived and went to work.

In the past I thought of first responders as police, firefighters, rescue workers and such.  After Michael I put linemen, right-of-way crews, engineers and mechanics in that category.

While the first responders were doing their work, we repacked frozen food in ice we had laid up when the storm approached. We fired up the grill to cook what we could, and set out the candles, flashlights, and lanterns that we kept in the “hurricane box” that we hoped we would never need.

The sunset was beautiful.  The storm had churned up all sorts of atmospheric clutter and the red rays bouncing off the bits and pieces were a delight to the eye.

Then it was dark.

Really dark.

Except for an occasional flashlight beam or the glow of a lantern in a window across the way, there was nothing.

It was a long night.

The next day we sat around, listened to the battery-operated radio, and waited for the dark.

It came.

And after that, the dawn.

Then another day of waiting until, just before sunset, electric lights flickered, then came on and held steady. Refrigerators and air conditioners began to hum.

Civilization restored.

The co-ops, cooperating, had done the job.

 

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist for Alabama Living. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.