State of the Arts
Many place names in Vermont reflect the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that give our state its colorful character. This summer series has examined a few of them , showing that Burlington, for example, may have gotten its name because of a clerical error, and that a 19th-century PR campaign resulted in its neighboring city being called Winooski rather than Onion.
Other installments have considered whether Rutland’s name causes self-esteem issues and whether Brattleboro deserves to brand itself “The One and Only.”
Is Swanton named for its swans? Why does the mountain go by Mansfield and not Mozodepowadso? Has John Dewey gotten his due in his hometown? And who, exactly, were Lyman Hunt, Lawrence Barnes and H.O. Wheeler?
Summer is a good time to pursue such trivia. But now summer is ending, and so is “What’s in a Name?” As a grand finale, we offer a collection of oddities that most assuredly does not exhaust the stockpile of Vermont’s quirky identifiers.
Blissville. You can, like, totally chill in this corner of Castleton, dude. And don’t let your mellow be harshed by the knowledge that it’s named for the Bliss family. Back in the day, they’d be digging a quarry in that part of the Rutland County town.
Brimstone Corners. You might expect a conservative state to limit to one — or none — the number of places with such a hellacious association. Independent Vermont, however, has liberally applied this Luciferian label to two locales: one in Vershire and another in Pawlet.
Esther Munro Swift’s ever-helpful Vermont Place-Names notes that brimstone is an old name for sulfur and may hence designate a stinky rather than a devilish intersection. Alternatively, historians could one day discover that Delta bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul at a crossroads in Vershire ... or Pawlet.
Hero, North and South. No, the name is not derived from the term New Yorkers use for what New Englanders call a sub or a grinder. That supposed discovery of the remnants of a 14-mile-long sandwich on the Champlain Islands? It didn’t happen!
In fact, the towns are named in honor of the two Vermont heroes who helped vanquish the Brits: Ethan and Ira Allen. It should also be noted that Ethan spent his last night on earth on the southern tip of South Hero Island in a tavern owned by his cousin, Ebenezer Allen. The Green Mountain Boy is said to have literally fallen off the wagon on his way home to Burlington in the early, icy hours of February 12, 1789.
Lazy Lady Island. Swift is stumped by this one. She says there’s no record of how this piece of land in St. Albans Bay got its name. The best her book can do is suggest that “folk etymology” produced an Anglicization of les îles.
But here’s our theory: The name comes from a particularly lethargic performance that Crosby, Stills & Nash gave here of their 1969 song “Lady of the Island.”
Mosquitoville. You’d figure this would be somewhere in the Sudbury/Whiting/Lake Dunmore area, which is notorious for its buzzing pests. But it’s actually a “local nickname,” Swift informs us, for a swampy area around Harvey Lake in Barnet. Vermont Place-Names makes no mention of the fable (you heard it here first) that the Jimmy Buffett tune’s original lyrics were “Wastin’ away again in Mosquitoville.”
Satans Kingdom. What? More Vermont devil worship? Yes, and in Leicester, no less.
Repeated denials by the Vermont Department of Tourism did not prevent Swift from confirming that Satans Kingdom is indeed situated in this Addison County town. But her book shies away from a full-on exposé, saying only that it was “thought to have been named by someone who had expected fertile, rolling acres and had received rocks and hills instead.” The cover-up continues.
Skunks Misery. As is the case with Brimstone Corner(s), there’s apparently more than one of these in Vermont. That could be the result of misery, or skunks, loving company. In regard to the location in West Fairlee, Swift notes that the term indicates “a place where even a skunk would be miserable.”
Smutty Corners. Not what you’re thinking. This former name for Northfield Center is reportedly derived from a charcoal-burning plant once situated there.
Sodom. “The most flamboyant postal name the government ever sanctioned for Vermont” got changed to Adamant in 1905, Swift tells her readers. She speculates that the original name was likely derived from the behavior of some of the miners who partied carnally in a village boarding house. The name was changed at the behest of local quarry owner Clarence Whittier, who wanted something suggestive of the hardness of granite, Swift explains. Local residents readily agreed.
What Swift doesn’t report, however, is that Whittier also insisted on giving a similarly rough-and-tough name — Calais (pronounced “callous”) — to a neighboring town that used to be called Gomorrah. Whittier seized this other rebranding opportunity after the Lord rained down fire and brimstone on that sinful Washington County community.