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Hidden in Plain Sight: A Deep Traveler Explores Connecticut

Hidden in Plain Sight: A Deep Traveler Explores Connecticut

by David K. Leff


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The art of discovering cultural and natural treasures in everyday landscapes

In the course of the mundane routines of life, we encounter a variety of landscapes and objects, either ignoring them or looking without interest at what appears to be just a tree, stone, anonymous building, or dirt road. But the "deep traveler," according to Hartford Courant essayist David K. Leff, doesn't make this mistake. Instead, the commonplace elements become the most important. By learning to see the magic in the mundane, we not only enrich daily life with a sense of place, we are more likely to protect and make those places better. Over his many years working at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and writing about the state's landscape, Leff gained unparalleled intimacy while traveling its byways and back roads. In Hidden in Plain Sight, Leff's essays and photographs take us on a point-by-point journey, revealing the rich stories behind many of Connecticut's overlooked landmarks, from the Merritt Parkway and Cornwall's Cathedral Pines to roadside rock art and centuries-old milestones.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819574664
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 07/31/2014
Series: Garnet Books Series
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,163,507
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

DAVID K. LEFF is the author of The Last Undiscovered Place (a Connecticut Book Award finalist), Deep Travel, and two volumes of poetry. His essays have appeared in the Hartford Courant, Appalachia, Yankee, Canoe & Kayak, and the Encyclopedia of New England. He lives in Collinsville, Connecticut.

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Counting Miles in Four Centuries Old Milestones

Much to the annoyance of drivers behind me, I slowly cruised along in my pickup on a busy stretch of State Route 10 in Plainville, scanning the roadside for a tablet of brownstone. In an area of small shopping plazas, offices, and modest homes near the corner of Betsy Road, I suddenly hit the brakes and pulled onto the narrow shoulder. Half hidden in tall grass on a gently sloping lawn was the small reddish-brown marker. The two-foot-high slab was inscribed with a single letter, "H," directly above the roman numerals "XII. M." An early nineteenth-century milestone, it informs passing travelers that Hartford is twelve miles from this spot.

Scores of stones inscribed with numerals and initials stand quiet sentinel along many of Connecticut's roads. Measuring distances that have served since colonial days, some of these markers are over two centuries old. Often obscured by brush, detritus, or the distractions of development, many are clearly visible to (if rarely noticed by) thousands of motorists who pass them each day. But when first established they were significant monuments, helping bind the nation together by facilitating the flow of people and goods.

Typically two to three feet tall, these mile markers resemble headstones. Though most commonly made of brownstone, some are cut from local gray gneiss or granite. Distances are generally marked, as is the one on Route 10, in roman or arabic numerals, with the county seat designated by initials, such as "H" for Hartford or "NL" for New London.

I began my Route 10 milestone prowl at the nine-mile marker, a low stub of brownstone shaded by well-sculpted shrubs at the edge of Farmington's village green. Heading south to New Haven on a crisp and windy winter day, I found the mile ten marker precisely a mile away in a historic neighborhood in which some of the homes may have witnessed the stone's planting. Though I doubled back a couple of times, I couldn't locate the eleven-mile monument. After finding the twelve-mile marker at Betsy Road, number thirteen also eluded me. Low to the ground and splotched with lichen, the fourteen-mile stone was surrounded by neatly clipped grass in front of the Plainville Housing Authority's Crest View Manor. Creeping past Southington's big-box stores, gas stations, and chain restaurants, I didn't find another marker until I was almost to the Cheshire line, as mile twenty-one appeared.

By some estimates, Connecticut once had some six hundred milestones. Without a complete inventory, no one knows how many are left. Given that they lost their function a century and a half ago and considering that they are subject to abuse by weather, snow plows, vehicle crashes, and relentless development, the survival of so many is remarkable.

Roadside milestones go back at least to Roman times, and as early as 1767, Connecticut law required local selectmen to install "stones at least two feet high near the side of the common traveling road, marked with the distances from the county town of the county where such town lyes." No funds were appropriated for the mandate; however, failure to comply subjected selectmen to a fine of forty shillings. The markers replaced irregularly situated cairns, much to the benefit of "the saddle-sore horseback rider, the weather-beaten stagecoach driver, and the foot-weary itinerant," according to an anonymous report in state transportation department files. Turnpike companies planted many of the later stones. Today's sheet metal interstate highway mileposts and road signs indicating distances to various places are direct descendants of the old stones.

Route 10 in Cheshire proved barren of markers, as far as I could tell, but shortly over the Hamden line I spied a weather-chewed stone. Standing just outside the railing of Mount Carmel Cemetery, it looked like an escaped gravestone. Pitted and barely legible, the mile marker stared across the street at a tavern, bike dealer, and pawn shop, while signaling to travelers that "NH" (New Haven) was nine miles away.

With dark descending I arrived at the severely eroded seven-mile marker along New Haven's Dixwell Avenue. Standing beside it among parked cars at an Allstate Insurance outlet and across the street from a muffler shop, I imagined the traffic and change the stone had witnessed. But it wasn't only an instrument for channeling the past. It posed questions about the future. If the stone survived another hundred years, who would be passing by and what would surround it?

Placed over the better part of a century by various public and private entities, milestones are hardly uniform. A series of stones on State Route 49 in Voluntown and North Stonington in the eastern reaches of the state don't indicate the distance to a town, but rather to "PB," or the Pawcatuck Bridge at the Rhode Island line. Not far from the New York state border, a gray marker on a grassy slope beside U.S. Route 202 in New Milford gives two distances — forty-nine miles to Hartford and eighty-six miles to New York. Further east in Litchfield, a similar stone on the same road gives not only the distance between the cities, but the name of the person who planted it and the date, 1787.

While many ancient stones have fallen victim to road widening and vandalism or have been repurposed for house foundations and terraces, those left standing are increasingly celebrated as historical artifacts with almost talismanic appeal. On U.S. Route 1 near the center of Clinton is a low, grayish-red stub of a milestone, its left side partially broken. Situated on the narrow lawn of a large colonial home known as the Milestone House, it marks twenty-five miles to New Haven. A nearby plaque notes that it's a replica, the original having been uprooted and taken to the local historical museum.

Visit the Canton Historical Museum and you'll find a brownstone marker indicating sixteen miles to Hartford bolted to the porch wall. The two-mile monument that once stood along East Hartford's Silver Lane is now an artifact at the Old State House in Hartford, the very spot to which the inscription refers. No doubt the milestones on display were saved from destruction, but, having been calibrated for a specific spot, they seem bizarrely out of place indoors.

Plymouth created a pocket park on U.S. Route 6 beside a four-foot- high brownstone that indicates it's nineteen miles to Hartford, fifteen to Litchfield. Orange and yellow lichen cover the scarred, rounded marker like rust on an old car. Surrounded by flowers and shrubbery, there's also a large sign recounting the marker's purpose and provenance.

Though retired from their original use, these ancient stones are not entirely devoid of value as tools of modern business. Often they are curiosities attracting tourists. The gracious white clapboard Longwood Country Inn in Woodbury showcases its milestone, which is embedded in the inn's front stone wall. The inn's literature refers to the prized object as "an excellent specimen of a vanishing reference to our nation's early commerce and communication." The light-colored stone bearing roman numerals is faded almost to illegibility, leaving it invisible to all but inn guests and a handful of the thousands of cars passing daily.

Hidden for years by weeds in front of a dilapidated historic house that was dismantled to make way for a Taco Bell on U.S. Route 6, the fourteen-mile marker to Hartford was saved in 2007 by Bristol's city officials working with the State Department of Transportation and the site's developer. A tiny object at the margin of a major commercial artery near fast food restaurants and sprawling big-box stores, the foot-high chunk of brownstone could easily have been destroyed but for an outpouring of public concern that came close to affection. It now sits safely in a little well-landscaped plot in front of the restaurant. I recently saw it at dusk, basking in the eerie glow of internally lit plastic signs.

Not all milestones are on main travel routes. A wrong turn onto Walkley Hill Road in Haddam one day led me to discover two sandstone mile markers on the steep, twisty country byway, where I never expected them. Amazingly, this must have been the primary route to Hartford before a straighter, flatter alternative was built. Walkley Hill climbs from the new main road, State Route 154, and winds around in the hills before returning to the state road a few miles later. This old way is a reminder of a slower transportation era when even major roads were more beholden to topography. Route 154 also has milestones, though some are replacements dating only to the late twentieth century.

Connecticut Yankees have a reputation as a practical lot, but something in a milestone captures the imagination and stirs nostalgia. How else to explain a noble, short-lived Department of Transportation program of the early 1970s to find and replace lost milestones? In addition to Route 154, State Route 85 in Colchester and Salem and several other roads in eastern Connecticut were planted with replicas that use pink granite to represent sandstone and gray granite for other rock types. Little more than a generation old, they've begun disappearing into the underbrush and show signs of weathering.

Perhaps Connecticut's most unusual milestone sits in a suburban neighborhood of well-tended postwar houses in the Griswoldville section of Wethersfield, where it marks six miles to Hartford. Though it looks like an ancient brownstone monument, it was erected in the early 1970s by Richard Lasher, the self-styled mayor of Griswoldville, now in his nineties. Fashioned from material salvaged during renovation of a local eighteenth-century church, Lasher created the stone as a tangible token of his attachment to home and its connection to the larger world.

Expensive, difficult to replace, a safety hazard in a crash, and barely visible at even moderate speeds, the old stones are obsolete now. I'm grateful for the new road markers with bright reflective surfaces, but a deep traveler's curiosity keeps me always on the lookout for these old-time monuments. I doubt that our current clutter of metal and wooden signs will last as long or be as deeply affecting once they become outmoded in a future filled with GPS devices. Regardless, as we speed faster and faster into the twenty-first century, old milestones will continue to stand sentry along the roadside, reminding us of where we've been.


What's in a Name?

Reading Street Signs

* * *

We get places by reading street signs. They enable others to find us. But more than just practical navigation tools facilitating the flow of letters and visitors, the street signs we read at road intersections are community memoirs forming a network of meaning, what William Least Heat Moon has called a "deep map," a written outline of a place that joins together history, topography, legend, and politics.

Wherever I go I not only read street names to determine where I am, I treat them like a crossword puzzle whose intersections offer clues leading to a fuller understanding of a place, enabling me to see what is hidden in plain sight. Street names describe natural features; specify uses of property; indicate landmark buildings like taverns, churches, and factories; and offer directions, such as east and west, or the name of the neighboring place to which they lead. They memorialize Indian tribes and honor families and individuals. Streets are commonly named for flowers, trees, birds, and other animals. Some names suggest good places for seeing sunrises or sunsets, such as Sunny Slopes Road in Columbia or Suncrest Lane in Farmington. Others are biblical, with events, places, or people from scripture that indicate settlement by devout people. Some are just whimsical or demonstrate the salesmanship of developers, such as Ellington's Darby Dream View.

I especially like street names that provide clues to overlooked elements of our landscape, such as the numerous Spring Streets indicating water bubbling from the ground, or Four Mile Road in West Hartford, where an old-time sandstone mile marker proclaims a distance of four miles to Hartford. Some street signs are mysteries solved with a little curiosity, like Huyshope Avenue in Hartford, a corruption of "House of Hope," the name of a Dutch fort built nearby in 1633. Others, like Obtuse Rocks Road in Brookfield, have origins that will forever remain just ... well, a little obtuse.

Topographical monikers are common, often combining the practical and the poetic. Boggy Hole and Foggy Meadow Roads, both in Old Lyme, are among the most evocative. Simple utilitarian descriptors like River Street, Hill Street, and Ridge Road are legion, and there may be more Cedar Swamp Roads than there are cedar swamps. But some topographical names are truly intriguing, like Pulpit Rock Road in Woodstock, where religious services were held in the 1600s from a large glacial boulder. Breakneck Hill Road in Woodbury is among those names inviting curiosity and stories, but whose origins are unclear.

The remains of a cider mill, quarry, paper mill, lime kiln, brickyard, and icehouse may still be found along a namesake road. Swimming Pool Road in Canton memorializes a public swimming hole, but no one's swimming there now. I once made my way up Roxbury's Mine Hill Road and, thanks to preservation by the local land trust, came upon the remnants of a once thriving nineteenth-century iron forge and the series of abandoned tunnels from which ore was extracted. Iron Works Road in Killingworth marks the site of one of the nation's largest colonial iron makers, but my visit there revealed nothing beyond the street name.

Given Connecticut's role as a breadbasket of colonial America, it's logical that farms are frequently found in street names. In developed areas, the names serve as epitaphs of fading agriculture, as is the case on Bidwell Farm Road in Canton or Farmstead Lane in Farmington. Cream Hill Road in Cornwall used to be the site of dairy farms. Town Farm Road, found in several communities, marks the location of a nineteenth-century poor farm.

Taken collectively, street names can demonstrate the mindset of an era and place. Connecticut is dotted with many nineteenth-century mill villages whose pragmatic road designations are befitting neighborhoods developed to produce practical products. In the edge-tool-making hamlet of Collinsville, where I live, three of the four cardinal directions are street names, as well as Front, Center, Main, Spring, River, Church, Bridge, and High.

Current uses are also indicated by street names, such as Middletown's Aircraft Road, Groton's Filtration Plant Road, and Torrington's Technology Park Drive. Church Streets and Cemetery Roads have probably had their namesake uses longest. Railroad Streets can lead to the train station or an abandoned right-of-way. Whenever I pass Canal Street in Farmington or Ferry Lane in Simsbury, they ignite questions about long-gone means of getting around.

Native American culture is well represented on Connecticut street signs, which tend to memorialize a tribe, like Bloomfield's Tunxis Avenue, or a great tribal leader, such as Bozrah's Wawecus Hill Road. Kent's Schaghticoke Road leads to an actual Indian reservation. There are also descriptive Native American terms, such as Massapeag ("great-water land") Road in Montville and Wopowog ("the crossing place" of a river) Road in East Hampton. Many Indian-themed street monikers have nothing to do with Connecticut tribes. Near Middlefield's Lake Beseck, there is not only a Pequot Road, but also Cherokee, Iroquois, Kickapoo, Sioux, and Seminole Roads lending an air of Hollywood nostalgia for something that never existed.

Roads are often named for a town's earliest settlers, like Case Street and Barbourtown Road in Canton. Later industrialists also get their due. East Hampton has remembered its most famous bell maker with Bevin Road, Bevin Boulevard, and Bevin Avenue. Sometimes a road commemorates an entire community that settled and then moved on, as with Shaker Road in Enfield and Somers.

Politicians often get streets named after them. Governor Morgan Bulkeley is honored in Hartford, Ella Grasso in Torrington, and Chester Bowles in Essex. Local writers like Lydia Sigourney and Mark Twain are celebrated in Hartford. Stephen Mather Road in Norwalk acknowledges the local boy who went on to become the National Park Service's first chief. Bridgeport's Barnum Avenue and Barnum Boulevard pay tribute to the great impresario and mayor P. T. Barnum. Naugatuck pays homage to military leaders, dedicating roads to Generals Dalton, Pulaski, and Patton (none of whom were from Connecticut).

Streets named for animals, trees, and flowers often salute existing features, like the large, ancient tree on Easton's winding Old Oak Road. But sometimes road signs are like obituaries, as is the case with the many Elm Streets, whose signature tree has succumbed to disease. Over twenty-five species of trees are represented on road signs, including maple, birch, sycamore, tamarack, aspen, apple, and hickory. About twenty different birds, from raptors to songsters, are acknowledged. Deer are a popular mammal, as are foxes; Simsbury has Fox Den Road, Fox Ridge Lane, and Fox Chase, while nearby West Hartford includes Foxcroft Road, Fox Meadow Lane, Foxridge Road, and Fox Chase Lane.


Excerpted from "Hidden in Plain Sight"
by .
Copyright © 2012 David K. Leff.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue to Deep Travel: The Merritt Parkway
Counting Miles in Four Centuries: Old Milestones • What's in a Name?: Reading Street Signs
Seeing through Time: Roadcuts
Painted Ledges: Roadside Rock Art
Last Picture Shows: Drive-In Theaters
A Cool Drink of Water: Roadside Springs
A Great Good Place: Diners
A Most Enduring Harvest: Quarries
The People's Castles: Stone Lookouts
King of Homes: Yankee Castles
A Thousand Uses: Quonset Huts
The Shape of Futures Past: Octagon Houses
Practical, Adaptable, and Disappearing: Barns
The Spirit of Community: Camp Meetings
Exploring Gasoline Alley: Racetracks
A Place for Common Ground: Town Greens
Heart of Nowhere: Connecticut's Most Remote Place
The Measure of a State: Connecticut's Highest Point(s)
Big Trees: Old-Growth Forests
A Sacred Grove: Hope for the Chestnut Forest
The Perfect Street Tree: A Few Good Elms
Inventing New England Autumn: Leaf Peeping
A Most Useful Tree: Season of the Witch Hazel
Tasting the Landscape: Cider Mills
A Community Harvest: Agricultural Fairs
Forgotten but Not Gone: Ghost Towns
Ghost Streets and Routes Less Taken: Abandoned Roads
Beneath the Lakes: Lost Worlds
Watery Ghosts of Manufacturing: Mill Ponds
Steeped in Mystery: Gungywamp
Space-Age Ghosts: Nike Missile Sites
Perpetual Care Isn't Forever: Neglected Graveyards
Haunting Stones of Metal: Zinc Grave Markers
Trash Talk: Landfills and Landscape
Reinventing the Colonial Landscape: Wallace Nutting
A Fresh Way of Looking: The Hudson River School
In a State of Plein Air: Artists Outdoors
Where the Landscape Is Art: Weir Farm
Poetic Space: James Merrill's Apartment
Landscape and the Written Word: Nature Writers
Buy the Book: Used Bookstores
Epilogue to Further Discovery: The New England Trail
Just the Right Place: An Explorer's Guide
Connecticut's Hidden Places: Map Key

What People are Saying About This

Nicholas F. Bellantoni

“You think you know Connecticut? Think again. The inquisitive mind of the ‘deep traveler’ sees much more than in ‘plain sight.’ After reading this book, you will explore our state differently. Though the eyes of the ‘deep traveler,’ things we experience every day driving and hiking through Connecticut, from roadside rock art to old growth forests, take on new meaning. My recommendation: Hop onboard and take the journey!”

From the Publisher

"Zinkies and Gungywamp, barns and brownstone pits, Leff's meditative exploration inveigles and delights."—John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University

"You think you know Connecticut? Think again. The inquisitive mind of the 'deep traveler' sees much more than in 'plain sight.' After reading this book, you will explore our state differently. Though the eyes of the 'deep traveler,' things we experience every day driving and hiking through Connecticut, from roadside rock art to old growth forests, take on new meaning. My recommendation: Hop onboard and take the journey!""—Nicholas F. Bellantoni, Connecticut State Archaeologist

"The Connecticut places—some world famous, some obscure—that David K. Leff lovingly explores in Hidden in Plain Sight are fascinating. Even more revelatory is how he gets there. Invariably putting his senses on high alert, he teases out truths 'hidden in the middle of everywhere.' ""—Tony Hiss, author of In Motion: The Experience of Travel

"Zinkies and Gungywamp, barns and brownstone pits, Leff's meditative exploration inveigles and delights."—John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University

Tony Hiss

“The Connecticut places—some world famous, some obscure—that David K. Leff lovingly explores in Hidden in Plain Sight are fascinating. Even more revelatory is how he gets there. Invariably putting his senses on high alert, he teases out truths ‘hidden in the middle of everywhere.’ ”

John R. Stilgoe

"Zinkies and Gungywamp, barns and brownstone pits, Leff's meditative exploration inveigles and delights."
John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University

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