Home » Salisbury » More than a name: street signs tell stories

Louis Bucceri, executive assistant and historian at the Salisbury Association, and Jeanette Weber, president, examine one of the featured road signs in a current exhibit, “What’s in a Name: The Origins of Geographic and Street Names in Salisbury,” running through September 23. Photo by Debra A. Aleksinas

More than a name: street signs tell stories

SALISBURY — There is more to a street sign than meets the eye.

 In addition to their utilitarian purpose as a wayfinding tool perched atop an iron pole, street signs tell stories.

Throughout the Northwest Corner, road names are reflective of the environment, landmarks, notable individuals, natural features and local historical events. In a few words, they capture the spirit of a town, its neighborhoods. Evoke a smile.

An insightful exhibit running through Sept. 23 at the Salisbury Association sheds light on the origins of geographic and street names in Salisbury. It explores the origins of some of the names given to streets and familiar landmarks, from the most familiar and obvious to the most obscure and unusual.

“We’d been kicking the idea around for a while,” said Louis Bucceri, the association’s executive assistant and historian. “It does seem to be a common interest among people. We opened on July 25th and since then up to today, we’ve had close to 300 visitors,” he said in early September.

Names of various roads and places developed over time and sometimes changed through the decades, as the exhibit points out. Some names have vanished.

For example, the portion of Sharon Road from Route 44 to St. Mary’s Church was originally called Montgomery Street, named for the Revolutionary general who died in the attack on Quebec. But it was abandoned in favor of a more clearly delineated location when the Emergency 911 System was launched.

Likewise, the section of East Main Street going east from the White Hart Inn was once called Hamilton Street, named for the patriot who helped author the Constitution and was the first Secretary of the Treasury.

While many of the Northwest Corner towns’ street names have obvious meanings— like Golf Drive in Sharon, which leads to the Sharon Country Club, or the many church, railroad, river and main or directional monikers — some road names’ etymologies are less clear.

Take Cooper Hill Road, for instance, not to be confused with Copper Hill Road. Bucceri said it is possible that it reflects a family surname, but it’s more likely named for coopers, or craftsmen who made wooden barrels after they arrived with early English settlers and set up shops along the street. Their work was essential to commerce and daily life, noted Bucceri. “Back then, barrels were the boxes of the time.”  

Is it Belgo? Bellgo? Belgo Hill?

One street marker in Salisbury carries three signs: “Private Road,” “Covered Bridge RD.” and “Belgo RD.” Private Road speaks for itself. At first glance so does Covered Bridge, except that it refers to a span that never existed. As for Belgo, Bucceri said that street’s history has garnered the most chuckles.

As the story goes, while the name of the hill appears on old town maps, the name of the road did not appear on a map until 1899 and then with two “ll’s.” It was the main road between Lakeville and the New York State line before 1800.

According to long-time Town Clerk Lila Nash, in the early days, the farms in the Belgo Road area had no fences for boundaries. All cows had bells on them so that the farmers could keep track of the livestock. People in the area were always saying, “There the bell goes,” Eventually, the road came to be called Belgo.

Placing second in the “chuckles” category, noted Bucceri, is the short street known as “The Lock Up.”  At one time The Lock Up was a small brick building to the east of the cemetery behind town hall where drunks were detained until they sobered up. When the state police barracks opened in Canaan, the Lock Up was no longer needed and was torn down in 1939, but the street remains.

Old Asylum Road, Butter Road: not what you might think

An important takeaway from the exhibit also emerged: you can’t always take a street name for face value. For example, Salisbury’s Old Asylum Road. It has nothing to do with a mental institution.

 “It was essentially a poor farm,” Bucceri explained.  Once a tavern run by Simeon Granger for nearly a century until 1927, the town housed a poor farm, then called an “asylum” in a house at the corner of Farnum and Dark Hollow Roads in Lakeville. Prior thereto, the poor were housed with those families willing to accept them at the lowest cost the town was willing to pay.

Old Asylum Road is the continuation of Dark Hollow, running between Farnum and Wells Hill Road, and was once part of the main thoroughfare to Sharon from Salisbury. In 1928, Salisbury acquired a new “Town Home” for the poor on Lincoln City Road and the Town Asylum Farm was purchased and renovated as a private home, the exhibit points out.

Another road sign that’s not what it seems, is Butter Road in Sharon, according to Marel Rogers, a volunteer for the Sharon Historical Society & Museum. “It was supposed to be named Zutter Road, since Albert Zutter lived on the corner of that road and Sharon Mountain Road. Richard Carley, in his memoir, ‘Growing up on the Farm,’ noted that when he was a boy, everyone called it Zutter Road.”  Over the years it turned to Butter.

A sampling of other road names worth clarifying: Race Track Road has roots in horse harness racing, not auto racing. In the language of early Dutch settlers, the word “Kill” in Salmon Kill refers to a creek, and Bird Peak was named for a family of Birds. Not the avian variety, but the human variety, namely Joseph Bird and his descendants, who moved to Salisbury from Litchfield in 1749 and for generations were farmers and missionaries.

Abe never slept here, honestly

According to the National League of Cities, a large majority of streets are named for trees, which is especially true in the rural Northwest Corner, as well as former landmarks, famous people who were born in the area, and former presidents. But don’t be fooled by Lincoln City Road in Salisbury. 

Nash, who served as Salisbury’s town clerk for 36 years and unofficial town historian, once reported that “Men and women of three nationalities – Irish, Italian and Polish – came to work in the Davis ore mine. They never could agree on anything and always had to settle differences with their fists. Most of the time the settlement on the hill above Lakeville ‘looked like the battle at Gettysburg.’ It later became known as Lincoln City.

By contrast, some street names are right on point. Gallows Hill in Salisbury, located south of Brinton Hill Road and east of Forge Mountain. According to the Salisbury Association exhibit, “One source traces the origin of the name to the body of a Black man found hanging from a tree on the hill, another reports that an Indian hung himself at the top of the hill.”

Then there is Between the Lakes Road which does indeed run between two bodies of water.

War heroes and distinguished citizens

The road to the Town Grove in Lakeville was named after the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, whose homestead was located opposite the Lakeville train station. In 1762, Allen and his partners built the Northwest Corner’s first blast furnace. It was the future location of the Holley Manufacturing Company and where Pocketknife Square is today.

In Sharon, Gay Street is named for the Gays, an old and rather renowned family in town, Rogers noted. “Ebenezer Gay fought in the Revolutionary War and his home now serves as the town’s historical society.”

Also in Sharon, Jackson Road and Jackson Hill Road are named for the Jackson family, who farmed extensively on Sharon Mountain. Rogers explained that the Jacksons and Jewetts had several members of the respective families marry each other, “so it is fitting that Jackson Hill Road and Jewett Hill Road intersect.”

In Lakeville center, several streets honor beloved local citizens. Bissell Street was named in honor of Dr. William Bissell who practiced medicine in Lakeville for 63 years until 1919. His son, also named William, joined his father’s practice in the 1880s and served as town doctor until 1928 when he, too, passed away. 

The younger William’s house stood on Main Street where Salisbury Bank and Trust (now NBT) currently stands. When the new bank building was built the house was moved back from the street and became the Trust Department. The street created for the new bank building was named in honor of the Bissells after a 1972 naming contest sponsored by Salisbury Bank & Trust. 

So how do streets get their name?

How street names are chosen and approved depends on the town or city. Typically they are requested by the developers of new subdivisions. Normally roads are named, and properties on them numbered, by local land use and planning boards. But not necessarily.

 In Salisbury, Michael Klemens said during his tenure as chairman of the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, “It hasn’t come up. I can’t remember us ever accepting a new road. It seems to not be something that is regulated.”


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