Hens, Horses, Hills? The Elusive Origin Of Putney's Hi-Lo Biddy Road

Sep 6, 2019

Brave Little State got a funny question a while back from Michael Hudson, in Putney. He wrote, “For the love of God, please tell me the origin of Putney’s Hi-Lo Biddy Road!”

Editor’s note: Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered podcast, is made for the ear. As always, we recommend listening if you can! You can hear the “Hi-Lo Biddy Road” segment beginning at 11:45.

Hi-Lo Biddy Road is in Putney, Vermont and, as far as name road origins go, is a tough mystery to solve.
Credit Michael Hudson, Courtesy

Michael’s question is one of a bunch that Brave Little State received after an episode last summer, when we tried to decipher the origins of perplexing road names. In an attempt to establish a new tradition, we’re taking another road trip of inquiry to bring you more answers.

You can explore along with us on our various journeys – from Mad Tom Road in Dorset, to Star Pudding Farm Road in Marshfield, to Sawnee Bean Road in Thetford Center – or you can learn from Paul Gillies, our favorite road history expert and the author of Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History.

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Independent producer Bianca Giaever takes Michael's question about Hi-Lo Biddy Road. Bianca spent this summer studying at the Bread Loaf School of English, in Ripton, so that’s where her story starts.

Bread Loaf is a place where people think about words all day, so I’m excited to see if they have any thoughts about “Hi-Lo Biddy.” Everyone’s noses are in books right now…

Me: “Hello!”

Sam: “Hi!” 

Me: “I’m doing a story about the history of Vermont road signs, and I got assigned Hi-Lo Biddy Road. Do you have any guesses what that might mean?”

Sam: “I don’t know why I think this, but it feel like it might have something to do with a cow.”

Mac: “My first thought was about like, a dance, kind of like, a diddy. But now that ’m thinking about it, it’s kind of like, little biddy?”

Me: “Like a little bit of a diddy?”

Mac: “Like a little biddy diddy.”

Ellie: “Maybe it’s a person?”

Me: “Who is the person?”

Ellie: “Hi-Lo Biddy Road.”

Me: “First name ‘Hi-Lo,’ middle name ‘Biddy,’ last name ‘Road?’”

Ellie: “Yeah.”

I walk across campus, to see if there are any more clues about “Hi-Lo Biddy.” I go to the adorable library. It’s a white house, filled with books. They happen to have the book Vermont Place Names: Footprints Of History by Esther Swift.  

It doesn’t talk about Hi-Lo Biddy Road, but it does talk about Biddie Knob, in Rutland County, which is a peak about 2,000 feet high.

"No one can explain the origin of its name," Swift writes. "Biddy ... means a chicken or a hen; the word can also be a diminuitive of the girl's name Bridget; and it is sometimes used as a disparaging slang term for women."

I do some more research about definition of the word "biddy," first in the dictionary and then on the internet’s Urban Dictionary. Among other things, it’s used to refer to: an elderly woman "regarded as annoying or interfering," an Irish maidservant, a coupon for two Big Macs in Australia and a girl who wears short skirts even when it’s really cold out.

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Our intrepid road expert, Paul Gillies, has another idea:

“’Hi Lo's Biddy’ was the name of a very famous harness horse that was born in 1953. …Was the horse pastured there? Or was it born there? I don’t know.”

A horse? I clearly have a lot of work to do. My next step is to see the Hi-Lo Biddy Road for myself. So I drive to Putney, singing a song I make up along the way:

Hi-Lo Biddy, Biddy, Biddy, Hi-Lo Biddy, Biddy-Biddy Road…

There I meet Michael, our question asker.

Michael: “My name is Michael Hudson. We’re in my home in Putney, Vermont, and my question is: Who or what was the ‘Hi-Lo Biddy,’ and why did they name a road after he, she, or it? It doesn’t make sense to me. Someone said, ‘I know what we’re gonna call this road, the Hi-Lo Biddy Road.’ And someone else said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’”

We walk out of his house, turn right, and within 100 yards we are on Hi-Lo Biddy Road.

Me: “This is the road?”

Michael: “This is it!”

Me: “This is barely a road!”

Michael: “Yeah, I know.”

There’s a dead-end sign. It’s unpaved, its gravel-y. It’s very overgrown.

Michael: “There aren’t many homes down here.”

Me: “Right now we’re going ‘Lo Biddy,’ we’re walking downhill?”

Michael: “I don’t know, this might be ‘Hi!’”

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Me: “It is very fun to say.”   

Michael: “Oh, it is fun to say! It really is.”

Hi-Lo Biddy Road runs alongside a brook, called Sacketts Brook. In the late 1700s and the 1800s, this brook was the bustling home to at least seven mills, manufacturing everything from flour to paper to flannel. Today, the ruins of these mills are still present.

Michael: “Over there, you’ll see – I think it’s called the Twinings Mill. There’s another old mill down here…”

We get to the bottom of Hi-Lo Biddy Road and cross a bridge over Sacketts Brook. 

Michael: “It’s too bad this is overgrown so much. This is the bridge, it’s a stone arch bridge. It’s really cool, it’s one of those dry-laid stone bridges that are, I believe, held together by gravity.”

This is called Sacketts Brook Stone Arch Bridge, and it was built by a stonemason named James Otis Follett in 1906. The stones are perfectly placed together, without any mortar holding them. Today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

We continue down the road, where we meet a Hi-Lo Biddy Road resident. He doesn’t know the origin of “Hi-Lo Biddy,” but he tells us that his neighbor, Tim Ragle, is the person to talk to. 

So we walk up to Tim’s house.

Me: “’Hi-Lo Biddy’ house, and there’s horses on the sign! It’s a clue.”

We knock on the door… and are told that Tim is in the shower.

Me: “Is he at the early end of the shower or the late end?”

Tim finally emerges from his shower. After seeing the horse sign, my hopes are high. But Tim says no one really knows why the road is named “Hi-Lo Biddy.”

Tim: “It’s one of those stories that’s really lost in history.”

But he does have his own theory about the name.

Tim: “It’s an itty-bitty road. It's a very, very short road.”

And as for the horse on his address sign, that's just a coincidence. Tim collects and restores horse drawn carriages that he sells to museums.

So I bid our question-asker, Michael, farewell, and I go home to do some more research. I crack open a digital copy of The History of Putney, Vermont, 1753-1953 by Edith DeWolfe. The book was published in 1953 — 66 years ago — and even back then, DeWolfe wrote: “… the origin of High Low Biddy is not known.” 

This book does resolve one thing, though. Remember that horse that Paul Gillies mentioned? Given the timing of this book’s publication and the birth of the horse in the same year, I'm able to conclude that the road was not named after the horse.

Meanwhile, after I've left town, Hi-Lo Biddy Road has become the historic question of the week in Putney. The town Facebook group is alive with chatter about the road. So I begin calling the families who had lived on the road, and anyone who might know something about the origin of the name. I talk to the historical society, the current town clerk, the previous town clerk and the Vermont State Archives. And I keep getting the same answer: No one knows.

The closest I come to discovering the origin is talking to Jim Dunham, who grew up on the road. He claims that when he was in fifth grade, his teacher, Inez Harlow, told him the origin of the name… but then he forgot.

Jim: “I wish I could remember. I really do wish I could remember. [But it went] in one ear and out the other.

Most of the residents I speak to say they think the “Hi-Lo” comes from the road starting high and dipping low. As for the “Biddy,” a majority believes that it was about the old women who lived on the road. Some think there was a biddy at the high end of the road, and another at the low end.

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Edna Turner, who used to live on the road, says old women would get together, make their dandelion wine and talk about the neighborhood. Others remember, too, the three older women that lived on Hi-Lo Biddy Road: Eva Turner, Elvira Rhodes, and Sara Doyle.

Jim Dunham, for instance, remembers Elvira.

Jim: “She always gave us homemade donuts for Halloween. We always looked forward to it.”

Around 10 years ago, the town changed the road name to Thwing Road, after a mill that was located on the brook. But the residents missed the old name. They organized and petitioned to change it back to “Hi-Lo Biddy.” The name was just too fun to say, and too beloved by all.

Bianca Giaever is a filmmaker and independent radio producer. Support for Brave Little State comes from the VPR Innovation Fund. Additional credits for this story here.