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Brave Little State’s 5th Annual Brief History of Vermont Road Names

Two people stand in green grass. One has glasses and the other has a microphone.
Matthew Smith
/
Vermont Public
Question-asker Sam Graulty joins Vermont Public's Mary Engisch for an interview about the curious road names of Jericho, as Brave Little State continues its summer tradition.

Exploring the origins of bizarre Vermont road of your choosing. In this edition: Iranistan Road in Burlington, a Jericho tour de force — and to change gears (so to speak), those punny signs on Vermont's highways.

It's a Brave Little State tradition like no other. Every summer, our people-powered journalism show investigates the origins of perplexing Vermont road names submitted and voted on by you, our listeners:

Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio above; for accessibility, we also provide a written transcript of the episode below. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. 

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Iranistan Road

Reported by Mikaela Lefrak

Angela Evancie: Usually our road names explorations lead us down winding dirt roads, where any historical clues are buried in the underbrush or lingering around old farms. But today’s first question takes us to Vermont’s Queen City. My colleague Mikaela Lefrak is taking this one

Mikaela: First thing I do is call up the question asker, Ali Jalili of Burlington.

Mikaela: Hi!
Ali: Hi Mikaela! 
Mikaela: Well it’s nice to meet you, thanks for hopping on this Zoom. First, why Iranistan Road?
Ali: I’m originally from Iran. I’m an immigrant, I moved to the U.S. when I was a child.

Mikaela: After a career with the U.S. State Department, Ali decided to retire to Burlington, and he started house hunting.

Ali: When we were looking around Vermont for places to buy, I believe there was a listing on this road. And I was like, oh my god, that’s crazy, we have to buy this house, it’s on Iranistan Road, can you believe it?
Mikaela: Right, have you heard that phrase before, Iranistsan?
Ali: Never, I’ve never heard it.

Mikaela: He didn’t actually end up buying the house. But he’s wondered about the street name ever since. He’s from Iran, but he’s never heard the word “Iranistan” He also noticed it doesn’t match with any of the other street names in the area, which are like, Hillcrest Road and Summit Ridge.

I live in Burlington but I’ve never been to Iranistan Road, so I head over.

Iranistan Road is up in Burlington’s Hill section. It’s a short road, with only eight houses. I knock on all the doors. For the most part, people aren’t home or they don’t know anything about the name. But at the very last house, I finally get a tip.

Lexi: Toffee might be worth knocking on her door.

Mikaela: I’m pointed in the direction of Toffee Cowles. She lives around the corner in an old white farmhouse. Word is, she knows a lot about the neighborhood’s history. Or, as Toffee herself puts it to me a few minutes later:

Toffee: I’m the only person who knows anything. And of course, I know all the things John told me.

Mikaela: John’s her deceased husband. This house has been his family since the Civil War. Back then, the whole area was part of an estate owned by Colonel Le Grand B. Cannon. Toffee says he's the one who named the street Iranistan.

Toffee: He was a multimillionaire railroad baron who owned everything from the back end of this farm, all the way to cliff street, and all the way up to south prospect street. Iranistan Road got that name because of the Cannons traveling around in the Middle East. 

Mikaela: So this well-traveled rich guy renames a road on his estate with a word that reminds him of his travels. Toffee says yeah, that’s it.

Toffee: I heard it from the horse’s mouth, my husband, because he actually met Old Man Cannon when he was a wee little kid. 

Mikaela: So that’s theory number one. But here’s the thing. According to some old city maps, the road was originally called Overlake Terrace and didn’t change to Iranistan Road until around the 1940s. Cannon died in 1906. Also, Iranistan is not an actual place in the Middle East, so it’s not like Cannon would’ve visited.

There’s also a second theory, uncovered by Seven Days writer Ken Picard. Ken looked into the name Iranistan Road about a decade ago for the column Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Ken: I found what seemed like a promising lead. There was the entertainer PT Barnum 19th century. 

Mikaela: Yup, PT Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey circus. Stay with us here.

Ken: Back in 1848, PT Barnum, he built a large mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he named it Iranistan. 

Mikaela: The mansion was a wild mix of Byzantine, Turkish and Moorish architecture. And it was a big deal — people would travel to see it as a tourist destination. But it was destroyed by a fire in 1857. So what’s the connection to Vermont?

Ken: Well, turns out, Barnum had a second cousin who was a veterinarian, who married a woman from Burlington.

Mikaela: Real tenuous, but it’s the only connection Ken can find. So he’s like, alright, I’m just gonna put this theory out there. He publishes his story, and then he gets a call from someone on Iranistan Road — Grace Pomerleau.

Ken: Now, anyone who lives in the Burlington area, knows the name Pomerleau. It certainly has some street cred, literally.

Mikaela: Big real estate family and big donors to parks and public services. Lots of things in Burlington bear the Pomerleau name. I’d unsuccessfully tried to find Grace Pomerleau during my door-knocking adventure. But here’s what she told Ken about the PT Barnum connection.

Back in the 1930s or early 1940s, when it was still called Overlake Terrace, there were only two houses, number one and number 27. As the story goes, the guy at number 27 said: “ If I get can that number one street number from you, you can rename the road.” So they switched numbers, and the new number 27 picks the street name Iranistan.

Ken: Again, why Iranistan? And now according to Grace, the man who lived at 27 Iranistan Road, he picked that name because he was friends with the Barnum family. As far as I could tell, that’s the origin. It was an invention of PT Barnum. But you know, PT Barnum said “a sucker is born every minute.”

Mikaela: So there it is, theory number two.

_

Not only do we have two theories, but, surprise, we also have two question askers. Iranistan Road was submitted by Ali Jalili, and by another Vermonter named David Boyle.

David and I chatted, and he asked me not to record our conversation, but he said I can share what we talked about. When he was younger, David and his family would go to Iranistan Road every year to see the Christmas lights at Tony Pomerleau’s – that’s Grace’s dad. David’s also a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and he wonders about the word “Iranistan.” He wants to know, is it offensive to Iranians?

I reach out to Ata Anzani, an Iranian and an associate professor of religion at Middlebury College.

Ata: I’ve never seen Iranian people use that in any way or form to refer to Iran. I don’t think the guy who named that street was of Iranian background by any means. 

Mikaela: He explains, “istan” means “land of”, in Farsi. Afghanistan means land of Afghans. But Iran has never been an “istan” country.

Ata: This word, the way it’s used in English is very different. It is related to Orientalism. And I feel like when you say Iranistan, it’s like their take on this exotic land and how they really fetishized those cultures and stuff.

Mikaela: Is Iranistan — you brought up Orientalism — does it feel like it’s kind of tokenizing a culture? Or is it just kind of like a quirky, weird thing?

Ata: That’s a tough question. Um…especially for people who have nationalist tendencies, Iranistan can be, can be an offensive kind of thing. But I honestly think this word is so out of the regular language, it’s not like people really use it or know about it, it’s like when they hear it, it’s just like, what the hell is that? I don’t even know, right?

Mikaela: Our question asker Ali Jalili sums it up perfectly:

Ali: Iran is not a "stan" country. So it’s just an unusual name for sure.

A Jericho tour de force

Reported by Matthew Smith and Mary Engisch, with help from Lexi Krupp

Sam Graulty: The main ones that I was thinking about were Browns Trace, Snipe Island / Snipe Ireland. And what were the other ones? Nashville and Tarbox, I think… and Raceway, yeah!

Matt Smith: That’s our question-asker, Sam Graulty, fitting five questions into one.

Mary Engisch: Sam has lived in Vermont for about seven years — first in Richmond, and then here in Jericho. The lucky thing for us is that Jericho has a de facto town historian. His name is Gary Irish.

Sam: Nice to meet you. 

Gary Irish: I’m Gary Irish, haha, I believe we've emailed.

Mary: We all meet up at the Jericho Center green. And Gary arrives exactly how you’d expect a small-town Vermont historian to arrive: Driving a nearly century-old Ford Model A.

A person with a hat and white beard stands in front of a car
Matthew Smith
/
Vermont Public
Gary Irish is the de facto town historian of Jericho.

And he looks the part, too. He has a big white beard, a “sun-smart” straw hat, maroon Converse sneakers, and a t-shirt that announces the 250th anniversary of Jericho, Vermont. But Gary says his roots here don’t go back quite that far.

Gary: A relative newcomer to Jericho, we’ve only lived here for four generations.

Matt: Family history. It's a big part of how lots of Jericho roads got their names. But we're talking about a specific kind of family.

Gary: When the town was first settled, A, there wasn't very many roads and B, you know, you know, ‘oh, gee, that’s where, ya know, Rectus Orr lives, up that road. So that's Orr Road,’ or whatever.

Matt: Back when Jericho was founded in 1763, places got their names from, well, the people who colonized this place. And those people were mostly white European descendants — white colonizers.

Mary: And if you weren’t in that group, your names and history have more or less been erased. Carol McGranahan, with the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, told me that the Abenaki Native Americans, who were here long before the Europeans, would have never named a road after a person. Instead, she said, Abenaki place names were based on the physical features of the area.

Matt: That’s a very different approach than the history Gary is telling us, which has the names of residents and immigrants woven deep into the place name. So, we can take care of the first three names on Sam’s list pretty quickly, the roads named after Jericho’s earliest white families. Number one:

Tarbox Road

Sam: Where did the name Tarbox come from?
Gary: Well, that's an easy one. That's another one of these examples named after the family who lived there, Cyrus Tarbox. Now, where did his family name come from? I have no idea. 

A green sign with white letters in front of a road
Matthew Smith
/
Vermont Public
Gary Irish says the name Tarbox Road comes from Cyrus Tarbox and his family, who used to live there.

Nashville Road

Mary Engisch: Number two, Nashville Road.

Gary: Well, that's one that's pretty easy to answer that's named after the Nash family!

Mary: And cut!

Gary: There was a Caleb Nash that was one of the early settlers in Jericho. He had a son Caleb Jr. 

_

Browns Trace

Mary: And number three: Browns Trace.

Catherine McMains: Hi, this is Catherine McMains. I'm calling to return your phone call.

Mary: Catherine McMains of the Jericho Select Board told me this:

Catherine McMains: The Browns family was the very first family in Jericho. And Browns Trace is named after them. And “trace” used to be the name of what used to be called roads, because they were traces in the wilderness. 

BLs-115-road-names-browns-trace-brave-little-state-smith-vermont-public-07072022
Matthew Smith
/
Vermont Public
Browns Trace was named after the the Browns, the first white family to settle in Jericho. A "trace" used to refer to a road, a.k.a. a trace through the wilderness.

Mary: Indeed, a bit of Googling does bring up the reference of “trace” being synonymous with 'road', as in, a path that someone or something takes. Browns Trace is also where our tour guide Gary Irish grew up.

Gary: And my father was a farmer. And so you know, cows by nature walk along in the same path every day. So they make a dirt path. And so as a kid, I'm walking along there one day and found an arrowhead. ‘Well, this is kind of neat.’ So I picked it up and hung on to it.

Mary: Gary says years later, he brought that arrowhead to the Vermont Archaeological Society.

Gary: They say this is something like 12,000 years old.

Mary: Gary learned the arrowhead was made from material most likely from Maine. Probably used and traded between Indigenous Americans in what’s now New England.

Gary: So there obviously were Native Americans around in that time period.

Mary: And this acknowledgment is vital to note because many of the official histories of Vermont towns claim there were, no, quote, "Indians living in Vermont", a false history which persisted for hundreds of years. As for the Browns, Gary Irish recounted the oft-told story of that family, Jericho’s first white settlers.

Gary: The Brown family had moved to Vermont from around the Great Barrington, Massachusetts area, and bought land.

Mary: The Browns arrived in what’s now Jericho, kind of by accident after taking a wrong turn at Mt. Mansfield. This was in 1774. But they liked the land and decided to stay. During the American Revolution, the Browns were taken prisoner by the British Army. After war's end, they made their way back to Jericho and lived on what is now Browns Trace. Their descendants still live in the area.

Raceway Road

Matt: We keep walking through the Jericho Center green shaded by what have to be century-old maple trees. And we get to Sam’s fourth road name, and the first that’s not named after a person or family. It’s a road called Raceway.

Gary: This is one of those things that's just been handed down by word of mouth, I've never found anything written about this or anything.

Mary: Gary says that road leads to a long, flat stretch of land. Perfect for a horse race.

Gary: And so well gee, my horse is better than your horse. Oh, no, it isn't — sort of thing. So Sunday afternoon, you went over there and had a race. And so it was before you went to have the race. So it was the race way.

Mary: Our question-asker, Sam, says he rides his bike in the area and it is indeed a good place for a race.

Sam: I definitely have tried to well not really race my friends on that part, but I definitely have tried to ride faster there and it is nice and straight. So it can definitely get a lot of speed.

Snipe Ireland / Snipe Island 

Matt: Now for the answer to Sam’s final road name: Snipe Island Road. First, a word about the snipe part. A snipe is a migratory bird that breeds from Vermont to Alaska, and heads south for the winter. So, an island full of snipes, in a brook, or in the Winooski River, is the likely origin for the first half of the road name.

The second half — “island” — is where it gets a little weird. And Sam’s question, specifically, is: “Why is the road leaving Jericho named Snipe Island Road but in nearby Richmond, it’s named Snipe Ireland road?”

And for this explanation, I have to turn to a Richmond history buff.

Wright Preston: My first name is Wright and my last name is Preston. I grew up in Burlington, and live on Snipe Ireland road in Richmond.

Matt: Wright has something of an obsession with Snipe Island, the road, the nearby brook that bears its name, and its alter-ego, Snipe Ireland. And Wright has traced that history back about as far as he can.

Wright: It appears that the word snipe island for Snipe Island Brook and ultimately the road  started, perhaps, in 1870. 

Matt: Wright has poured through historical records, old maps, property deeds. He’s even done his own interviews with people who lived in the area around the turn of the last century. He submitted his findings to the Richmond Historical Society. And it all points to the road’s name as Snipe Island Road. Until, well, until his grandmother decided to change it in the 1980s.

Wright: My grandmother, Mildred Preston felt, based on the lore of the road, and the lore in Richmond, that it was originally Snipe Ireland. Irish families were settling in Richmond in the 1840s and 50s. 

Matt: So, in 1983, she petitioned the Richmond selectboard and prevailed, but only on the Richmond side. On the Jericho side, nothing changed. And it’s been that way for about 40 years now.

Fran Thomas: My husband and I always knew the road to be called Snipe Island.

Matt: This is Fran Thomas, the president of the Richmond Historical Society.

Fran: It appears that Mildred Preston, went to the Select Board and asked to have the name changed to snipe Ireland. And it appears that she felt that there was enough Irish heritage along the road that Ireland would be a better name than Island.

Matt: So, after all that, was Grandma Preston right? Was the original name of the road, Snipe Ireland? According to her grandson, Wright Preston-–no.

Wright: I’ve found no references to Snipe Ireland until 1980, 1980 and forward, but earlier than that I haven’t bumped into it.

Fran: Reliable residents of Richmond at the time, who indicated that to them, that was always called Snipe Island, and not Ireland. So it appears that maybe his grandmother was wrong.

Matt: Knowing this history, I asked Wright Preston: Should Richmond undo his grandmother's work and change the road name back? Back to Snipe Island Road? He says… maybe.

Wright: I really like Snipe Ireland, I prefer Snipe Island, and I really don't want the name to be lost.

bls-115-snipe-island-road-brave-little-state-smith-vermont-public-07072022
Matthew Smith
/
Vermont Public
The road leaving Jericho is called Snipe Island Road, but in nearby Richmond, it’s called Snipe Ireland road. Why? The answer involves a Richmond resident's insistent grandmother.

Matt: As for Fran Thomas…

Fran: I kind of liked the quirky name of Snipe Ireland.

Matt: And Fran says she hopes the unusual name will inspire future history buffs to think about where the road names in their community come from.

Fran: And, you know, have them maybe be interested in doing a little research or to find out what other roads, where they got their names.

Matt: So: hint, hint.

Angela Evancie: Matthew Smith and Mary Engisch reported that segment, with help from Lexi Krupp. Up next, we switch lanes for a question about puns on Vermont’s highways.

The punsters of VTrans

Reported by Brittany Patterson

Brittany: Katie Ruffe and her husband often visit family out of state, especially around the holidays. On their way, they’ll sometimes see those big digital message boards on the side of highways like I-89 and I-91.

Katie: They're like the black temporary signs with the orange dots that spell out different things.

Brittany: They’ve made a big impression.

Katie: The one I remember the best was we were driving out of Vermont for Thanksgiving and the sign said something — I’m paraphrasing: ‘Happy turkey day don't drive basted’ and then there was another one referencing like, dangerous snowy road conditions that said: ‘Winter is coming’’ like in Game of Thrones.

Brittany: And Katie says she appreciates the humor Vermont is bringing to these message boards.

Katie: That makes us really proud to live in Vermont.

Brittany: But like any good Brave Little State question-asker, she wants details.

Katie: Like, is there a guy whose job it is to come out and type in the funny signs? That would kind of make it better in a way.

Brittany: Katie, there is a guy!

Ryan Knapp: So my name is Ryan Knapp. I’ve been with the state for 11 years now.

Brittany: And there’s a gal:

Rachel Noyes: I get texts from my friends all the time that are like, ‘was this you on this message board?’ And I'm like…maybe. 

Brittany: That’s Rachel Noyes. And Ryan and Rachel work with a whole team of folks, we’ll get to that a little later. As for how the messages get on the signs, Ryan does type them in — sorta.

Ryan: It's just like sending a text message only you're sending it to a message board.

bls-115-rachel-ryan-tmc-brave-little-state-patterson-vermont-public-07072022
Brittany Patterson
/
Vermont Public
Ryan Knapp and Rachel Noyes lead the braintrust inside the Vermont Department of Transportation that places punny messages up on message boards along Vermont's highways.

Brittany: Ryan works for the Vermont Department of Transportation or VTrans. For the last three years he’s been the supervisor of the Transportation Management Center, or TMC. If something happens on the roads, Ryan and his team know about it.

I talk to Ryan inside the TMC in Barre, where three radio streams pipe in messages from VTrans personnel around the state. There’s a wall covered in screens. One of them shows all 80 of the state’s message boards in real time.

Sadly, no punny messages are up on the day I visit.

Ryan: The primary role of the message boards is to message you know, live incidents in real time. So if a road is closed ahead, or if there's a crash scene ahead, Now, part of our other use for all of the message boards is traffic and public safety in general.

Brittany: Historically, the safety messages were pretty straightforward — like what our question-asker, Katie, still sees in other states:

Katie: Cell phones down. Buck up it’s the law. You know those pretty basic ones. 

Brittany: And Vermont does those too. But in early 2019, folks inside VTrans decided to also try something new.

Rachel: It was like, OK, we had a little bit more freedom on what we were going to put for this Valentine's Day. And one of the ones that we got so much positive feedback on was it said: ‘No Valentine? Your seatbelt will hold you.’

Brittany: Rachel is the outreach manager for the Highway Safety Office. She’s the other half leading the braintrust inside VTrans that helps come up with the punny road sign messages.

Rachel: And we got so much feedback through the website through the DOT website. Through our website, I got text messages and calls from friends and family that were on the highway. And so it sort of sparked this, you know, we're getting the message out there. 

Brittany: And science agrees. In 2020, a group of researchers at Virginia Tech published a study that found these non-traditional messages worked. Ninety percent of people said they were both appropriate and effective.

Tripp Shealy led the research. He said they found the more specific and universal, the better. For example:

Tripp: Like, ‘get your head out of your apps’, uses both wordplay and it includes humor, and is specific about a message, a message about distracted driving. So something like that works a whole lot better than a more general message about just being safe.

Brittany: And that tracks with what seems to be working here in Vermont. Here’s Ryan again:

Ryan: How can we get folks' attention, while also, you know, following the guidelines from the federal government, but you know, quite honestly, making people laugh a little bit? Because those are the signs that they remember.

Brittany: In total, there are about 12 folks within the agency that weigh in on the punny messages. It’s about 50/50 borrowing from other states/the Internet and internal brainstorming. Writing these messages is harder than you might think. There's a strict character limit. And again, they have to make sense and fast because you know — driving.

Brittany: Some that have made the cut:

Rachel: ‘Drive safely. XOXO V. Trans. Hocus Pocus drive with focus. Texting while driving? Oh, cell, no. You may sparkle but don't drive lit. 90 is the temperature, not the speed limit, and only Rudolph should drive lit.’ See? Oh my God.

Brittany: But in all seriousness, Rachel and Ryan say the goal here is safety. Vermont’s highway fatalities have been climbing steadily since 2019. Last year marked the highest number of deaths in a decade.

Rachel: You know, why not try something new, and why not see how people respond? We're in this together. And this is why Vermonters drive like this. And these are your friends and family on the road.

Brittany: So in the spirit of safety … … be brave, signal before changing lanes?

_

Credits

Thanks to this year’s question-askers: Ali Jalili, David Boyle, Sam Graulty and Katie Ruffe. And special thanks to Ken Picard, Carol McGranahan, Gary Irish, Wright Preston, Harriet Riggs, and Amy Tatko.

This episode was reported by Mikaela Lefrak, Mary Engisch, Matthew Smith, Lexi Krupp and Brittany Patterson. Angela Evancie produced and mixed it, with editing and additional production by the Brave Little State team: Josh Crane, Myra Flynn and Angela Evancie. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public. Subscribe to the podcast for free, so you never miss an episode:

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Mikaela Lefrak joined VPR in summer 2021 as co-host and senior producer of 'Vermont Edition'. Prior to that, she was a reporter and host at WAMU in Washington, D.C.
Originally from Delaware, Matt moved to Alaska in 2010 for his first job in radio. He spent five years working as a radio and television reporter, radio producer, talk show host, and news director. His reporting received awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Alaska Broadcasters Association. Relocating to southwest Florida, he was a producer for television news and NPR member station WGCU for their daily radio show, Gulf Coast Live. He joined VPR in October 2017 as producer of Vermont Edition.
Brittany Patterson joined VPR in December 2020. Previously, she covered energy and environment for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource collaborative. She previously taught audio and video news writing at West Virginia University.
Mary Engisch is the host and reporter for Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday on VPR.
Angela Evancie is VPR's Director of Engagement Journalism and the Executive Producer of Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.