Brave Little State’s 3rd Annual Brief History Of Vermont Road Names
Every summer, we drive all over Green Mountain creation to find the origins of the strange road names you’re wondering about.
Though we don’t always succeed.
Brave Little State is VPR’s people-powered journalism project. We answer questions about Vermont that have been asked by listeners, and selected in public voting rounds. Typically, our voting rounds feature three finalists, and listeners select one winner. But since we receive so many road name questions, we did something different for this episode: 10 finalists, and four winning questions.
Check out our first two Vermont road name episodes:
First up: Devil's Washbowl (hint: it's real spooky)
Reported by Lydia Brown
Our first question comes from Peter Langella, who wanted to know the “true origin” of Devil’s Washbowl, a single-lane dirt road connecting the towns of Moretown and Northfield.
“And the reason I said ‘true origin’ is because there are so many myths kind of surrounding what this road is,” Peter explains. “Stories about what’s happened there ... but I really want to see if your program could get to the true root of all of that.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer to a question about a “Devil’s Washbowl” turns out to be quite spooky. Because it’s nearly impossible to tell the story of Devil’s Washbowl without also telling the story of a legendary creature said to roam the woods here: “the Pigman.”
Few speak about the Pigman with more authority than Jeff Hatch. Jeff’s from this area, and per his request, we meet at a culvert along Devil’s Washbowl. It’s one of the few pull-offs along this road and it’s quiet here, almost otherworldly.
“I used to bring my grandsons up here at night,” he says. “And we’d stop right here.”
“Here” is beneath a canopy of deciduous trees. It’s daytime, but jagged shadows cast a sea of darkness around us. It’s the kind of atmosphere that beckons a spine-chilling story. And Jeff has one to tell.
It begins something like this: It was the early 1970s. And Northfield High School was hosting a dance.
“As 17-, 18-year-old boys, when we would have a dance we would hide our beer down in the sandpit behind the cemetery by the school,” Jeff says. “One night we were all at the dance, and a couple of the fellas headed to the sandpit — and these were normal guys, these weren’t little kids that were afraid of things. They came running back to the school, one of ‘em in tears, and scared stiff. They were really shook up.”
According to Jeff, his classmates had had a run-in with some sort of creature.
“They said it was all white, the size of a person, running on two feet, covered in white hair,” Jeff says. “They named it the Pigman, because it had the face of a pig and the body of a person.
“So that’s when the manhunt started.”
You might recall our question-asker, Peter, was curious about the “true origin” of the stories tied to Devil’s Washbowl. Well, if you continue along this road, in the direction of Northfield, you’ll eventually come across a seemingly important clue: the site of a former pig farm.
This place is storied among locals. And what better setting for a Pigman hunt than … a pig farm?
“We would come up here at night and go to the pig farm,” Jeff Hatch recalls. “And there was 600-pound pigs in the buildings, in the dark. There was no power. But we would go in there, looking.”
Before long, others began reporting encounters with the Pigman.
“Someone lived up on Turkey Hill, which is the other side of town. And they heard something in their trash cans,” Jeff says. “So they flipped on the light to see. And there was a figure at the end of their driveway. All white, covered in hair, rummaging in the trash can. So they yelled at it. And it turned and looked at ‘em. And it had the face of a pig and claws, and it made a horrendous noise and ran off.”
I ask: Can Jeff potentially reenact that horrendous noise?
“I don’t think I can potentially make the noise,” he says. “It was a snarl, kind of a growl. High pitched.”
Back at Devil’s Washbowl, Jeff says the creature began targeting young romantics.
“So one night there was a couple up here, and something jumped on their car. Clawed the sides of their car all up, scratched it all up, broke one of the mirrors off,” Jeff says.
He claims he later saw the car, too.
“Something obviously had happened. There was something that had come after them,” he says. “And that happened four or five times over the course of the next summer.”
So what propelled the legend of the Pigman? Andrew Liptak has a theory.
“If you look at the broader context of what was happening in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, you have a time of really big social upheaval around the country,” he says.
Andrew grew up in Moretown, just a short drive from Devil’s Washbowl. He’s a writer, journalist and sci-fi fan. And he’s given a lot of thought to the Pigman and the appeal of this local legend.
“You have UFO sightings. You have Bigfoot,’ Liptak says. “There’s a lot of social anxiety, and I think people are looking for scary things that are sort of intangible to latch onto, that you can’t quite explain away.”
Some even connect this area to the devil itself — which takes us back to our question-asker and the “true origin” of Devil’s Washbowl.
“My wife’s grandfather, he would tell stories about hearing that’s where the devil washes his dishes,” Peter told us.
An alternate version has it that it’s where the devil would go to wash his feet.
“Go there to wash something!” says Kay Schlueter with a laugh.
Kay has lived in Northfield since the mid-1980s. She spent more than a decade as curator for the Northfield Historical Society. And after hearing Peter’s question, she began her own investigation into the origin of the name Devil’s Washbowl, which led her to a book we’ve referenced extensively in our previous road name episodes: Vermont Place Names: Footprints of History, by Esther Munroe Swift.
(By the way, everyone should keep an eye out for this book at yard sales and the like, because it is out of print and very expensive used. If you happen to have a spare copy lying around, get in touch.)
While there’s no direct reference to Devil’s Washbowl in Swift’s book, she does cite other locations with “devil” in the name.
“They all have to do with an area of land, or a hill, or something that’s difficult,” Kay Schlueter observes. “And so people associate that sometimes with ‘devil.’”
An inhospitable landscape.
Andrew Liptak takes me for a distanced walk back to the place where I met Jeff Hatch: the culvert. It’s located in a basin, said to be the “washbowl,” and the temperature immediately drops here.
“So, you’ve got the trees coming up above you and they arch over the road. And they’re old — like you can see they’re big and they’ve been here for a long time,” Liptak says. “And, you know, right now it’s midday, but like October, November, the sun sets really fast over the mountain. The light will just vanish. And as you go down this hill, that’s when the shadows really come out. The idea of ghosts and monsters isn’t quite so implausible.”
Popple Dungeon (but no dragons)
Reported by Angela Evancie
Our next question-asker lives in the town of Grafton. When he and his family moved here from Georgia five years ago, Patrick Spurlock says he learned about his new home by, well, driving around. It was on one of these trips that he discovered a curious road name.
“We were just driving around with our young daughter, trying to help her get some sleep,” he recalls. “And we were driving from Grafton to Chester, and we noticed a road called Popple Dungeon Road.”
Patrick says the name immediately brought him back to his childhood.
“I grew up in the ‘80s, and there was a cartoon show and a corresponding stuffed animal line from Hasbro called ‘Popples.’ And obviously there was a separate thing for older kids called ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ So I see a road called Popple Dungeon Road — the mental imagery is just crazy. So I’m like, where did this name come from?
So is there any connection between these entities and the Popple Dungeon Roads in Vermont?
“Would that it were so,” says Ethan de Seife. “I wish! [But] my research suggests that there is no connection.”
Lucky for us, the answer to Patrick’s question was already out there — thanks to some sleuthing that Ethan did several years ago, when he was a writer for Seven Days. (He now lives in California, where he’s a lecturer in communications and media studies at Sonoma State University.)
In 2014, Ethan published a piece called WTF: Why are streets in two Vermont towns named Popple Dungeon Road?
Those two towns are Chester and Charlotte, which are in totally different parts of the state.
We should note that our question-asker Patrick knew that some sort of answer to his question existed, but he said that he purposefully avoided it, because he wanted Brave Little State to answer it. Which, Patrick, that is such a compliment. Thank you! But Ethan de Seife really does get all the credit for this one.
“In this context, ‘popple’ is … an old New England term, not used much anymore as far as I know, that can refer to any number of trees,” Ethan explains. “One would suspect that it has a close relationship with a poplar tree — and it can … and often does refer to poplar trees. But it’s not specific to poplar trees.”
So that’s “popple.” What about “dungeon”? What’s the connection there?
“The dungeon part was the weirdest part. And that was the part that I remember being most puzzled by,” Ethan says. “But then I found this book called The Source: Popple Dungeon, Vermont: The settlement, farms and genealogy of a small community in Vermont.”
An entire book about Popple Dungeon. Sometimes you just get lucky.
“And so, basically there was a stretch of road in Chester that locals referred to as the dungeon
because there were a bunch of tree branches that hung over the road, so that it apparently cast dark shade. It was a shadowy stretch of road. And so by association with a dungeon being a dark place, that road was the “popple dungeon” road.
How, then, did Charlotte pick up this eccentric name? Ethan heard this story from a Charlotte resident named Ed Amidon:
“I remember him telling me that … originally, people moved into a street, it was unnamed, in Charlotte. And the family who lived there, according to Ed Amidon, had a ‘mischievous son,’ I think is how he put it, who stole the road sign from the Chester Popple Dungeon Road and put it on the street sign, or nailed it to a tree or something like that, and declared this new street also to be named Popple Dungeon Road. Why? I don’t know if we’ll ever know.”
Whatever the reason, the name stuck. And eventually it got recorded as the official name of the road, after a 1993 statute that required every road in Vermont to have a name, for E-911 response.
“That’s just what locals got to calling it,” Ethan says. “And so when it was time to declare a name, there was one name that was ready — and so, there we go, Popple Dungeon Road. What else are we gonna call it?”
What else indeed.
It's really hard to find answers about Lost Nation
Reported by Nina Keck
When you, our dear audience, voted for this question, I don’t think you knew what I would be in for.
Ellen Read of St. Albans is mostly retired now, but she used to spend a lot of time driving for work.
“Traveling in rural Vermont, I've come across roads that are named Lost Nation Road,” Ellen tells me. “I wonder, what does the name ‘Lost Nation’ refer to? I found them in Essex, I found them in Fairfield, Bakersfield, Enosburg [Falls], and they seem to be remotely located.”
Ellen’s right: According to the state’s 911 emergency mapping system, there are five separate Lost Nation roads that cross eight different towns. All are in northern Vermont.
Ellen says the name has always made her wonder.
“I think it conjures up images of mystical things,” she says. “Was it the 12th Tribe of Israel, or was it Indians? Or was it a settlement that didn't make it? I don't know.”
In Vermont, if you’re thirsty, you can pour yourself a Lost Nation beer. Drama or comedy are on tap at the Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier — or they would be if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic. Firepower? That’s available at Lost Nation Guns and Ammo in Swanton.
But the stories behind this phrase? That became a bit of a goose chase.
According to Esther Swift’s book of Vermont place names, the Lost Nation Road in East Fairfield was probably a nickname since it was an area far from the more-settled section of town. Swift’s entry on the Lost Nation Road in Essex was equally bland: Seems someone got lost in the area, and when he was found, he announced that he had been at “lost nation.”
It’s not much to go on. And to try to answer this question, I made a lot of calls. Town clerks, librarians, long-time residents and historical society members.
But I struck out. I did not find any solid answers or fleshed-out theories on the Lost Nation roads in Bakersfield, Berkshire or East Haven. Which Craftsbury resident Dave Linck nicely rubbed in.
“So you’ve still got a mystery,” he said.
But Dave said we’re not the only ones curious about the name. He said the Craftsbury Historical Society, which he’s a member of, discussed this very topic back in 2015 during one of their meetings.
I was able to listen back to a recording, and one gentleman remembered a hippy colony in North Wolcott that called themselves Lost Nation Farm. They’d previously lived in Craftsbury. Maybe they named the road? he wondered. Others weren’t sure.
I can’t see the moderator at this meeting, but I imagine he’s shrugging his shoulders at this point as he looks around the room and hears no clear consensus.
“Well there’s another of history’s mysteries,” he says. Then he moves on to the next quirky road name.
Russ Spring has a family business on the Lost Nation Road in Craftsbury. His parents founded the Craftsbury Outdoor Center back in the 1970s, and he’s heard several theories about the road name.
“The most interesting one was a story told by Earl Wilson, who is an old-timer, who many years ago actually plotted the route of the Bayley-Hazen Road as it went through Craftsbury,” Russ says.
Russ mentions the Bayley-Hazen Trail like I should know what it is… but I don’t. And it’s worth explaining.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army needed a shorter route to Canada to help in their siege of Quebec. So in 1776, George Washington ordered this new road to be cleared and built between what is now Newbury, Vermont and St. Johns, Quebec near Montreal.
Jacob Bayley and Moses Hazen were the key instigators of building it – so that’s where that road name comes from.
If only Lost Nation were as easily explained.
Anyway, work on the Bayley-Hazen Road proceeded in fits and starts for several years during the Revolution, until it was eventually abandoned. According to Earl Wilson’s theory, that Revolutionary War trail may help explain the Lost Nation Road in Craftsbury.
Here’s Russ Spring again:
“When they were kind of clearing that trail, they came across a pre-existing trail, and they decided, well, this must mean we're gonna call this a Lost Nation road after the lost nation of Israel, that must have made it. But in fact, Earl thought it was more likely a trail that was made by Native Americans along the side of the lake. And it just intersected the route of the Bayley-Hazen Road. That is how he told the story.”
This Native American connection comes up a lot and not just in Vermont — there are actually Lost Nation Roads all over the country.
I asked Rich Holschuh about this. He lives in Wantastegok, better known as Brattleboro Vermont, and he’s a spokesperson for the Elnu Abenaki tribe in southern Vermont.
Rich is a researcher of local Indigenous culture, and he doesn’t know of any corresponding Abenaki references in the Vermont towns with Lost Nation roads. He thinks the name reflects a broader story of the erasure and displacement of Native people, a story that he says has been cloaked in mystery and fantasy.
“Americans love to romanticize Native heritage,” Rich says. “We name our athletic teams. We name our butter after them, all different things. It becomes a romantic thing. And it’s got very little to do with truth in that the building of this country is founded on displacing all that and exploiting it.”
Rich says a road sign with the name Lost Nation helps sustain a stereotype that Native American communities are gone. That, of course, is false.
“What they don't realize is that the Native person might be standing right next to them and looks exactly like them,” Rich says. “And the reason that they don't see that is because they weren't taught that, they’re ignorant of that. And if one does not recognize or know about something, you don't care about it.”
Native people are still here, Rich says. They haven’t vanished. But what happened to them — the occupation, the colonization, the reality of that — is hard to face.
“And so it's a lot easier to have lost nations,” he says.
Tim Jerman was doing his own sleuthing on the history of Lost Nation Road where he lives in Essex. Here, he thinks the name recalls a different kind of community.
I meet Tim on a rainy Monday, when he drives me to northwest Essex — a part of town historians refer to as the Lost Nation area.
“There’s not much you can see on it now,” Tim says. “It’s just a dirt road in the country.”
Tim’s been researching early 19th century homesteads in this area.
“All of this road and especially out here, the names — Wood, that’s an Irish name,” he says. “Shanley is an Irish name, and all these people I found in the census, they were all born in Ireland.”
We get out of the car to hike in nearby Indian Brook Park, which backs up on the Lost Nation Road. Tim points to a spot that used to be a cellar hole.
“You’ll see how rocky and hardscrabble it is,” he says.
Using historical records, Tim’s been able to identify a large number of homesteads. Some, like this one, are now nothing more than echoes: rocky holes covered with sticks and brambles, hidden alongside the trail.
“And then you come to find out that there's at least 30 families, and then as time goes on, more than that, that are moving in, and they're very Irish, and they're in the poorest part of town,” Tim says. “And as you start to think about even a hike here in the fall or the winter and you start, ‘Oh, my God, winter here before any amenities.’ But this was a difficult, difficult life, so I just started to think, ‘Lost Nation, Lost Nation is their homeland.’”
I tell Tim there’s something poetic — almost sad, a little mythic — about the name Lost Nation.
“It is very poetic,” Tim says. “Yeah, it is sad. It's evocative of something that was there before. You know, there were people living here and there was a community here. And then over time, it just became too hard.”
Good luck sneaking through Smugglers' Notch
Reported by Angela Evancie
Now for our last question (for this year). On a recent afternoon, I hopped in the backseat of Barbara Baraw’s Subaru, wearing a mask, for a tour of Route 108, a.k.a. Mountain Road, in Lamoille County.
“To me this is coming into the Notch proper, because we don’t have any center lines, and the road does get narrow,” Barbara says. “Can you see through those trees? There’s one of the more recent landslides.”
This steep and narrow road winds through the area that Jericho resident Mischa Tourin asked BLS about:
“How did Smugglers’ Notch get its name, and what kind of legends and folklore still exist about treasure hunting in that area today?”
Smugglers’ Notch — not exactly a road name, but, you know.
“Like, I know a little bit about the history: I know that the name of Smugglers’ Notch comes from the trade embargos with Great Britain and Canada, and I know that there was some smuggling that happened during Prohibition,” Mischa said. “But I’ve also heard that there’s these tales of, like, treasure that has been hidden in the caves there, and then in the rock walls and different things like that, and I’m curious what treasure-hunter type things there are there.”
According to a song by Rockin’ Ron the Friendly Pirate, the Smugglers’ Notch treasure is, well, honey. From a honey bee. A bit tangential, but it’s a delightful earworm:
As for the origin of the name, perhaps you’ve heard of the history that Mischa mentions, that the notch was used for smuggling goods and cattle around the War of 1812, and then later booze during Prohibition. That smugglers used the rocky pass for hiding out, or stashing contraband. It’s compelling.
“We’ll pull in and I’ll show you the caves, and we’ll start the myth conversation,” Barbara says with a laugh.
My tour guide Barbara Baraw happens to be the president of the Stowe Historical Society. When we get to the top of the notch, we stand by some stone outcroppings, and she tells me that the stories of smuggling here, particularly in the 1800s, seem to be just that: stories.
“I don’t need total written documentation. But I need more than just a comment or two,” Barbara says. “And I’ve read a lot of the local town meetings, letters, and I can’t put it together. I mean, if it’s true, I’d love somebody to put it under my nose. I really would. ‘Cause then I wouldn’t have to go looking anymore.”
Barbara doesn’t put much stock in another genre of stories, which is that people fleeing slavery used the notch to move north.
“There were other ways to go,” she says. “Just going up and down the major highways, like Route 7, or 100.”
The first road through the notch for automobiles was surveyed in 1917. For this reason, Barbara thinks the stories of Prohibition smuggling during the ‘20s and ‘30s are more plausible.
“But I don’t believe that it was part of the big movement that’s been written about [smugglers] coming across the border and going down into Albany or the Boston area,” she says. “It comes back to that same question…”
That same question being: Why would you take the path of most resistance? The notch road isn’t easy going, even today. Plus, this area’s been known as Smugglers’ Notch since at least the late 1800s. Isn’t that a little… predictable?
“If you’re smuggling booze during Prohibition, probably the last place you want to go is where it’s named Smugglers’ Notch,” says Brian Lindner, another historian of this area. “Because that’s where the cops are gonna be waiting.”
“In my opinion as a historian, it’s much more likely that there wasn’t really any smuggling going on through Smugglers’ Notch,” he tells me. “This is probably where the smugglers that were active over in the Lake Champlain Valley came to hide. Because this was a perfect hiding spot. But it’s a terrible place to smuggle products back and forth through the notch itself.”
Brian grew up in Stowe, right at the entrance to Smugglers’ Notch. Until he was 10 years old, he literally lived in a ski lodge.
“My dad was the forest ranger here, for the Mount Mansfield State Forest, and our apartment was in the north end of the Mount Mansfield Base Lodge,” he says. “So that’s where we lived.”
Brian is retired now, and calls himself an unofficial historian at Stowe Mountain Resort. He’s full of stories about this area — but they’re true stories, not legends.
Stories of the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, which constructed the first ski trails in Vermont. And of this area’s connection to World War II, and the 10th Mountain Division, which waged battle on skis.
“In World War II, Minnie Dole, who was a member of Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol, founded the National Ski Patrol,” Brian says. “He convinced President Roosevelt to form the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. So you can trace the 10th Mountain Division routes right back to Stowe.”
Brian even told me the story of a Bonnie and Clyde-style shootout that happened here in the notch.
“July 1931, a fellow deserted the Army at Fort Ethan Allen, committed murder over in the Jeffersonville side of the notch, and as he was driving through, people in Jeffersonville, Cambridge, called the Stowe side and said, ‘Set up a road block, there’s a killer a’comin through Smugglers’ Notch!’” Brian explains. “Amazingly, they riddled the car with bullets, and never hit him once.”
Our question-asker Mischa asked about legends of treasure here in the notch. In my research, I found mostly general references to stashes of loot left behind by smugglers, which, maybe there weren’t so many of those?
Neither Brian Lindner or Barbara Baraw had any treasure stories to share. They say the true stories are just as good. But if you want to tell tales of smuggling and hiding out in the notch, Barbara Baraw doesn’t mind.
“No, we have to have myths and legends,” she says. “I mean, that’s what society’s about — that’s what oral history is about. And it’s fun.”
Thanks so much for checking out this latest episode. And thanks to Peter Langella, Patrick Spurlock, Ellen Read and Mischa Tourin for the great questions.
If you have a question about Vermont place names, or anything else, ask it at bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there you can sign up for our newsletter and vote on the question you want us to tackle next. We are on Instagram and Twitter @bravestatevt.
Lydia Brown and Nina Keck reported this episode with host Angela Evancie, with editing from Lynne McCrea. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed and we have engineering support from Chris Albertine. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions and the United States Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The archive audio in our Devil’s Washbowl piece came from Monsters and Mysteries in America.
Special thanks to: Paul Gillies, Craig Whipple, Abagael Giles, Ethan de Seife, and Joe Citro.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and VPR members. If you like our show, please make a gift at bravelittlestate.org/donate. Or leave us a rating or review on your podcast app.