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Thursday, January 3, 2013

What's In A Name Part Two

January 2, 2013

Journal Opinion

“He sought the mountain of Vermont,
Upon a railroad train.
Cow Meadow, in the Green Mountain state
Was his first stopping place
And the Skunk’s Misery displayed
Its sweetness and its grace
By easy stages then he went,
To visit Devil’s Den,
And Brimstone and
Zion Hill by the way,
Did come within his ken.
Then via Goose Green and Sawney Bean,
He travelled through the state.”

This is an 1871 poem entitled “The American Traveller” by humorist R. H. Newell. In bold print, I have substituted four local names so that all the place names are local. It seems to be an appropriate opening for this the second part of a two-part column dealing with the place names we use for the political divisions, neighborhoods, roads, buildings and physical features of our region.

Last week’s column explained the origin of place names for the states of Vermont and New Hampshire and our local counties and towns. In addition to the influence of Native Americans on local names, that column explained the role of New Hampshire royal governor Benning Wentworth. In providing the names for many of the local counties and towns, he used the opportunity to honor and influence members of the British aristocracy. Other towns and counties were named by the Vermont General Assembly in the years after independence.

Sources for this column include Vermont Place-Names, Footprints of History by the late Esther M. Swift and local town histories. Swift was the Vermont Director of the Place-Name Survey for the American Name Society. There are hundreds of place names in our local area. This column only deals with the most unusual and prominent as well as those that are good examples of categories in naming. I have attempted to select examples from every corner of the region.

A village often took its name from the town in which it is located and its location within that town, for example East Corinth, Haverhill Corner and Thetford Center. Some other villages struck out on their own with distinct titles. In Newbury, Wells River took its name from the river. The river, according to village historian Horace Symes, may have been named by Wentworth for Captain Jonathan Wells who explored the area in 1707. Waits River in Topsham also took its name from the nearby river, named for Joseph Wait, a member of the Rogers’ Rangers.

Other villages took their names from an early entrepreneur or settler. In Thetford, Post Mills got its name from Eldad Post who built the first grist mill and saw mill there after 1779. Beanville is named for Alvah Bean who came to West Fairlee in 1839 and opened four businesses.

About the same time John Woods, a mill and store owner, gave Woodsville a reason for its name. Pike in Haverhill took its name from its role as a company town for Pike Manufacturing.

Some small villages underwent name changes. Union Village was originally called Lockes Mills after an early mill owner, but the name was changed “to signify the unity” between the towns of Norwich and Thetford. At various times East Corinth has been called Slab City, Hemlock City and Taplin Mills. Ely in Fairlee has been known in the past as South Fairlee and Wares Crossing. George’s Hill in Topsham became Galusha in 1811 because so many voted for a candidate for governor by that name.

Some locations, populated in the past, are mere shadows of their former selves. Quinttown in Orford, Charleston on the Warren-Piermont line, Pike Hill in Corinth and Tinkhamtown in Lyme are examples of this decline. No longer are geese exported from Goose Green in Corinth. Some names, such as Cilley Flat between Bradford and Corinth, have just disappeared. Arthur Pease of Orford suggested that Gilman’s Corner in East Fairlee seems to fit that last category.

Roads and highways are given titles based on their location and direction. While Main Streets are common, Woodsville’s principal street is Central Street. River Road was the main north-south road through the area until 1922 when it became known as Route 2 and finally renamed U.S. Route 5 in 1927.

I-91 was named, under a system developed in 1957, because it is a north-south interstate highway in the eastern portion of the nation. The advent of the 911 system required many individual names to be given to local byways that had previously gone unnamed.

Some local landforms still retain names given by natives or have titles that signify the names and beliefs of early European residents. Mt. Moosilauke gets its name from the Abenaki words for bald and place, a description of its bare summit. At some times in the past the name was corrupted in publications and local usage as Moose Hillock.

The Ammonoosuc was so called because it was the “narrow fishing-place” and the Ompompanoosuc comes from “mushy, quaky land.” Known as “water of the mountain place,” the Asquamchumauke River in Warren was renamed for Captain Thomas Baker who led his men in skirmishes against local natives. He is also remembered in the naming of Upper and Lower Baker Ponds in Orford.

Along came British settlers with biblical names for places such as Zion Hill, New Jerusalem and Brimstone Corner in Corinth, Mt. Moriah in Fairlee (later renamed Sawyer Mountain), Goshen in Bradford and Bible Hill in Newbury. In Orford, Sunday Mountain got its name from the tragic tale of a man who was skipping Sabbath service and was torn apart by bears on its slopes.

Early settlers and later families, knowingly or unknowingly, lent their names to local sites. Those titles that still exist include Dame Hill in Orford, Wallace Hill and Leighton Hill in Newbury and Wright’s Mountain, Chase Hallow and Sawyer’s Ledge in Bradford. Lakes and ponds bear family names such as Baker, Ricker, Tarleton and Morey. Rather than being named for a local, Mt. Pulaski in Newbury has the name of the Polish general who assisted the American cause in the Revolution.

Bridges also have names attributed to important families and individuals. Baldwin Bridge in Bradford was named for surveyor Benjamin Baldwin and Bedell’s Bridge between Newbury and Haverhill for Moody Bedell. In 1937 the newly constructed bridge between Orford and Fairlee was named in honor of inventor Samuel Morey who had lived in both towns.

Other names can be attributed to characteristics of the landform. Those characteristics are easily recognized in Roaring Brook, Middle Brook, South Fork, Mud Turtle Pond, Burnt Mountain, Eagle Ledge, Bear Notch and Pine Mountain. But Mt. Cube in Orford does not speak to its winter weather. It was originally known as Mt. Cuba, a name it took, according to local historian Alice Hodgson, in memory of a hunting dog that lost its life on that mountain in a battle with a bear.

Ticklenaked Pond does not get its name from skinny dipping, but rather its name comes from the native word tickeneket or “little beaver.” Perhaps Cape Moonshine refers to its nighttime reflections rather than any illicit activities. There is no longer a fairground on Fairground Road. Pout Pond in Lyme gets its name from the hornpout found there not from any attitudes of unsuccessful anglers.

While the reason for names such as Mosquitoville, North Road, Cow Meadow and Potato Hill may be obvious, other names are more elusive, their meaning lost in the vocabulary of earlier residents. Wormwood Hill in West Fairlee may, according to Swift, get its name either from the thistle-like weeds that may have grown there or from the expression “bitter as wormwood,” describing how someone might react to a bad land deal.

Copperas Hill in Strafford gets its name from the iron compound found there in the 19th century. South America in Corinth, located on the road to West Fairlee, got its erroneous designation from a teacher who tried to tell her students they lived on another continent. Skunk’s Misery in West Fairlee may have referred to a “low-lying swampy” area. Sawney Bean in Thetford and West Fairlee may get its name from the earlier term for foolish or silly.

Likewise boundaries between locations in a town may be elusive. I have wondered how an outsider would know where on Snake Road the boundary between South Newbury and West Newbury is located. Even without a road sign, folks who live along that road seem to know which side of the invisible line they live on. That may be true in other towns with multiple named locations.

Local names are sometimes corrupted with time. Garden Hill in Corinth was originally named for the Gardner family who lived there many years ago. One name that seems to be most complex is Sawney Road and district. In Thetford’s recently republished history Fifty for 250, Jessie Baldwin’s 1979 article on the subject comments on other spellings, pronunciations and origins. It is often spelled Sawmee and misprounced Swan-ey. Baldwin was unsure if it referred to a Bean family that lived in nearby West Fairlee or Strafford, but does mention that the old English word referred to a silly or stupid fellow.She doesn’t mention that early settlers would have been familiar with the Scottish tale of Sawney Bean, notorious murderer.

Naming buildings for individuals has usually followed the rule of avoiding those who are still alive. The Woods School Building and Woods Library in Bradford are named for John L.Woods who left significant bequests to finance their construction. The Peabody Library, Patten Library, Tenney Memorial and Blake Memorial, among other area libraries, derive their names from individuals or families who provided significant funds for their support.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, one-room schools were usually named for the district they served and secondary schools for the town in which they were located. Naming union schools offered a challenge as several towns were involved. When Oxbow High was being created dozens of names were suggested, and many, including the obviously incorrect “Western Vermont High,” were quickly dismissed. When faced with names such as Cohase Country or Abenaki Regional, students asked that the name chosen omit words like regional or union.

Waits River and Blue Mountain were titles chosen for those schools from nearby natural features. Westshire Elementary School, serving West Fairlee and Vershire, and Samuel Morey Elementary School, serving Orford and Fairlee, reflect the names and histories of the communities they serve.

Despite the general reluctance to name a facility for a living person, those who have performed exemplary duties have been chosen to receive that honor. The Mona Garone Gym, the Shirley Beresford Library, Martha Jane Rich Theatre and the Raymond S. Burton Bridge are all named in honor of such individuals.

What if there is a need for a name change? In 1890 the U.S. Board of Geographic Names was established in an attempt to deal with the “complex issue of domestic geographic feature names during the westward expansion following the Civil War.” It now oversees name changes as they apply to modern usage. That Board was recently in the news when it approved the request of voters in Mont Vernon, NH to change the pejorative name Jew Pond to Carleton Pond after the person who donated the pond to the town.

In both Vermont and New Hampshire a town or city that, by vote of its citizens, expresses the wish to have a name change must get the approval of the state legislature. In 1999 the Vermont General Assembly voted to rename Sherburne as Killington, a name it had previously held.

In 2013 New Hampshire legislators will be asked to consider the sale of naming rights for bridges, roads and similar structures. The idea, which has received consideration by other states, is being suggested as a new revenue source for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

This column has shown that names of locations are often given after deep thought and just as often, casually. Either way, they give direction to our lives in more than one way. They help to identify who we are as residents, voters and landowners. They allow us to honor native culture and outstanding citizens and recall hardy forebears. They are a guide to a stranger seeking directions and to first responders providing assistance. That’s what’s in a name.