Entire contents copyrighted 2005 by Jack Sanders. Reproduction without permission is forbidden.
To the scientist, the librarian, or the postman, a name is a means of identification. But a name can be more than simply a label - we might all be calling each other by numbers if that were true. Names are often a source of knowledge, of history, even of romance. And it is to record not only the fact of, but also the history and, where possible, the significance of Ridgefield's geographical names that this record has been compiled.
Moving to an unknown land, the first settlers needed names for the features of the territory to provide some mutually agreed upon manner of identification. Even among themselves, the pioneers had to create some new names; there were two Samuel Smiths among the first settlers. So the one who moved here from Milford was usually called "Milford Samuel Smith" - sometimes just Milford Smith" - while the other was called "Norwalk Samuel Smith."
The pioneers had three chief sources for the names they applied to parts of town: the language of the native Indians; the features, appearances, or uses of the land, including the terrain and wildlife; and the names of the people themselves.
Some of the names used 250 years ago survive today: Whipstick, Flat Rock, West Mountain, Titicus, Silver Spring, Limestone, and Bennett's Farm, for instance. Many, however, had disappeared from use by the 20th or even the 19th Century, and with them unfortunately went part of the town's early heritage. For Ridgefield in the 18th Century had a wealth of colorful names. Brimstone Swamp, Pompion Ridge, Toilsome, Peespunk, Cradle Rock, Dutchman's Swamp, Turn of the River, Turkey Island, Buckspen Swamp, Asprumquak, Grassy Island, Nisopack, Asoquatah, and many others have disappeared, except from early land records.
Indian names, of course, predated the arrival of the settlers. Undoubtedly, many were lost more than two centuries ago, having never been recorded by the European settlers. Others, like Peespunk, are found only in early deeds and had soon fallen out of use. The precise location to which some of them referred is often difficult to trace today. Still other Indian names remain with us, such words as Mamanasco, Titicus, Mopus, Oreneca, and Rippowam (though the source of the last is not in Ridgefield).
The meanings of some of the old Indian names have been handed down more by tradition than by record. To translate them is difficult, both because the English colonists were not always accurate in transcribing the sounds of the native tongues, and because the recording of translations of their vocabularies was sketchy at best. Studies have been done of Connecticut's Indian place names and they provide some clues as to word meanings, which do not always coincide with the traditional translations contained in Ridgefield histories. Some place names, like Peespunk and Aokeets, may reveal interesting customs or characteristics of the Indians.
A few words are - or may have been - corruptions of Indian words. Aspen, as in Aspen Ledges, was originally Asproom or, even earlier, Asprumquak. Titicus was probably something like Mutighticoos. Orange Ridge, behind Fox Hill condominiums, has nothing to do with the fruit or the color, and is a corruption, through many steps, of an 18th Century Indian's name.
And there is at least one name mistakenly considered Indian in origin: Oscaleta. It's source was a rich man's fancy for a Spanish word.
The Land Itself
Land features or placement led to some obvious descriptive names. High Ridge was so called in 1710. West Mountain and Flat Rock date from very early times. Many other descriptive names, such as Southwest Ridges, Cradle Rock, East River, Brushy Ridge, Great Rocks, Long Pond, Rocky Neck, Flaggy Boggs, Cranberry Meadow, and Yellow Hill are no longer in use and a few are difficult to pinpoint on a modern map - their namesakes, such as yellow or flags (reeds) having long ago disappeared.
The buildings and other man-made structures, or the work-a-day activities of the early settlers led to a few old names, most of them long gone. But such words can reveal interesting facets of pioneer life. For example, none of Ridgefield's histories mention the fact that the settlers dug pits to trap and kill wolves. Yet, a highway description in 1744 mentions the route's passing "ye wolfpitts," and deeds as early as 1721 speak of the "Wolfpitt Swamp." Few histories, let alone Ridgefield histories, mention deer pits, but several 1720's deeds speak of the "deer" or "dear" pits here.
At least one name has fooled some into thinking it was connected with the colonial life. Fort Hill, which townspeople have for many years associated with some unknown Revolutionary War edifice on Barrack Hill, was in use a half century before the war for independence. It almost certainly referred to an Indian fort and probably had nothing to do with the colonists.
Of course, there were the more ordinary terms, such as the Mill Road (just about any road leading to a mill), Saw Mill Path, the iron works, Mine Hill, and the Stamping Place. There was a Miller's Ridge and a Blacksmith's Ridge.
But one of the most picturesque terms was "Toilsome," an area of town so called as early as 1721. The miles of stone walls here attest to how rocky the earth's surface was for the early settlers who were clearing and plowing fields. A name like Toilsome for a particularly rocky, hilly spot is not at all unreasonable.
The names of only a few of the early families wound up in the records as place names in the 18th Century. And very few of them survive. Copps Hill Road - and thus the plaza, common, and commons - comes from Copps Mountain, now more commonly called Stonecrest Mountain. It was named for John Copp, Ridgefield's first town clerk, physician, and teacher, who helped layout the community and its bounds. He was not, however, a true settler since he continued to maintain his home in Norwalk and apparently "commuted" to Ridgefield.
Other people-named places, such as Hauley's Ridge, Ressiguie's Lane, Wood's Gulf, and Sturdevant's Ridge eventually disappeared. It is interesting to note that of the 18th Century family surnames that appear on the first subdivision of Main Street lots, only five - St. John, Keeler, Rockwell, Olmstead, and Seymour - are used today for geographical titles. And most of those names came from people living in the 19th or early 20th Century - albeit descendants of the first settlers - and not from geographical references applied in the 18th Century.
A Place of Hills
As its very name suggests, Ridgefield is a place of hills. It is said that the town's center is the highest village between Boston and Washington, with an elevation near the fountain of almost 800 feet above sea level.
The settlers could hardly ignore the ridges and mountains, which consequently were among the first land features to receive names. Many of these names were also among the first to be forgotten by later generations. Long Ridge, Pisgah, Millers Ridge, Broad Hill, New Pound Ridge, Asprumquak Mountain, and Pompion Ridge don't appear on our maps, but did in old land records. Other names are still with us: Copps Hill, Titicus Moutain, High Ridge, West Mountain, and Cedar Mountain.
People today do not often think about the problems presented by hills and ridges. Automobiles make traversing them a simple, easy matter, so effortless that motorists frequently do not even realize when they are going up or down a hill. But ask a bicyclist or runner whether he doesn't notice every little change in elevation. He, after all, is using muscle power. Ridgefielders in the first two centuries either walked or rode horses or animal-drawn wagons. Traversing a hill could be a tedious undertaking, especially for horses or oxen pulling a load. Thus, hills were quite noteworthy land features and almost every little rise had a name.
Branches or Runs
Because it is so high and full of ridges, the town gives rise to many waterways which flow in every direction. There are several places in town where rain falling on one side of a ridge can wind up 40 or 50 miles away from the destination of the rain that fell on the other side. Such dividing lines exist on High Ridge and on certain hills in Ridgebury from which runoff could meander for miles to come out of a tap in Bridgeport or in New York City.
Indeed, streams that rise in Ridgefield feed reservoirs serving not only New York and Bridgeport, but Norwalk, Wilton, and Stamford. Ironically, the town's own reservoir was in a hilltop hole with a miniscule, streamless watershed, fed instead by springs. (It stopped behind used around 2000.)
Brooks in upper Ridgebury flow northward via the Miry Brook and Still River into the Housatonic, which empties into Long Island Sound at Stratford. The Titicus River watershed, comprising most of west central Ridgefield, winds up in the New York City water supply system while waters that flow through some of the Ridgefield Lakes end up in the Saugatuck Reservoir, serving Bridgeport, Fairfield, Westport, Wilton and, yes, Ridgefield.
The Norwalk River, whose source is the Great Swamp, is Ridgefield's largest waterway. It drains the east and north central parts of the town as well as the Branchville and Florida districts, with the waters eventually reaching the Sound at Norwalk. In the south of town, streams head southward or southwesterly to reservoirs. The western or "Peaceable" area, east and south of West Mountain, drains into either New York City or Stamford reservoirs.
Doing A Job
Though neither very wide nor very deep, Ridgefield's streams were vital sources of energy to the first settlers. Waterpower was a fairly reliable, inexpensive, and easy-to-harness means of operating a variety of mills for grinding meal, grain, plaster, and clover, for sawing wood needed to build houses and barns, and later for manufacturing the fabrics. Thus, the prospective settlers carefully surveyed the availability and suitability of waterways before deciding that Ridgefield was a good place for their future homes.
Judging from old deeds in the town clerk's office, there were more than dozen mills operating in town before 1760. They were almost neighborhood businesses, depending of course on whether the neighborhood had a convenient source of running water. Only the southwestern part of the present town lacks a significant stream, but in early times residents of this area probably went to what is now Lewisboro for their milling services. A mill stood on the Stamford Mill River (East Branch) along the present Route 123, an area that was part of Ridgefield before 1732. In addition, the Northrup family operated a saw mill for much of the 19th Century very near the New York State line off today's Route 35. Unlike hills and mountains, which are permanent fixtures of the landscape, smaller streams are transient things, subject even to death. Farmers - and that's what most of the settlers were - cleared the land and often drained wetlands to gain pastures. These changes in the surface of the land often altered the course and size of brooks ("branches" and "runs," they were often called). Sometimes watercourses were virtually eliminated.
Oldtimers used to say that "Brooks are disappearing." Eric Sloane, in Our Vanishing Landscape, observed that "the idea might, seem fantastic. Yet a hundred years ago, you could hardly go from here to there without confronting any numbers of fresh brooks. In the back country you will still find every valley fingered with running streams, but wherever the city has encroached and highways have come within earshot, the earth will have been sufficiently drained so that there is no rainwater reserve, and the brooks, you will find, have disappeared."
Thus, identifying the little branches and runs mentioned in so many deeds in the 1700's is not easy. As often as not, it's impossible without an exhaustive title search. But, as with so many old names, just knowing the words - like Peespunk - is valuable, giving us glimpses of early Ridgefield life and activities.
The first residents had names for many of the waterways in the town, for a stream or a creek was a good marker for delineating property bounds. Many names - the Titicus, Norwalk, Mopus, Spectacle, and Stamford Mill brooks and rivers - have remained in use for two and one-half centuries.
Frequently, however, deeds describing land simply mention "the branch." In addition, there were no maps to document or stabilize names of streams (and other land features). Often only the people who lived on or near a small brook knew its name. As time passed the original names were forgotten and replaced with other names, usually based on the families that lived along the streams.
When this writer was a child living in Danbury, he went sledding on Horan's Hill and fishing in Horan's Hill Brook. That name never appeared on any map, but every kid and most adults in the neighborhood knew it. It was Horan's Hill because a couple named Horan lived there. (Mr. Horan was, incidentally, the son of the engineer killed in Ridgefield's only fatal train wreck, which occurred in 1904.) Horan is dead and perhaps today's generation of young sledders calls it O'Connor's Hill or some such name. (They don't call the brook anything; it has disappeared into pipes under Interstate-84).
Who, 100 years from now, would know where Horan's Hill was? Yet, two centuries ago, such transient neighborhood names - for streams, hills, glens, and fields - were frequently used to locate property, and many wound up in deeds. Even today, there is no map of Ridgefield which attempts to record the names of all the streams.
Although there are probably fewer streams today than in 1700, there are unquestionably more ponds. Early land and Town Meeting records mention very few bodies of water - Mamanasco Lake, Bennett's Pond, Round Pond, Little and Great Ponds. But today there are dozens of ponds,
Most of the original ponds were the remains of larger bodies of water that were formed in the troughs scraped out by glaciers and first filled by their melting ice. Over the centuries these ponds became smaller as the ice disappeared and as runoff carried sand, silt, and organic matter down the hills and gradually filled the basins.
As the ponds became shallower, plant life became more abundant, slowly clogging the water. As vegetation died, it added to the bottom material and nutrients, consequently reducing the space for water. Ponds became swamps, then moist meadows and finally dry land. The whole of the Titicus Valley along North Salem Road was once a long lake, the remnants of which are still found in the valley's swamps and in Lake Mamanasco. Though artificially created, the present Ridgefield Lakes probably exist on territory that was ponds many centuries ago. Lake Mamanasco, which the settlers called "grassy place," was probably a dying pond in 1700 (in fact, it may have been two separate dying ponds, according to one translation of the Indian word mamanasco. Although Historian George L. Rockwell maintained that it had been dammed up by beavers, Mamanasco was probably on its way out when the settlers arrived and built a dam at its outlet to raise the water level for a mill (which stood at the end of Pond Road).
Other ponds may indeed have owed their existence solely to beavers, an animal that still shows up from time to time to create ponds in which to build a lodge.
In early deeds for land near the New Pound Bogs - now called Silver Spring Swamp - we find several references to "ye beaver Damm."
Many of these small beaver-built ponds or swamps vanished as the animal was killed off for pelts or scared off from Ridgefield's woods.
Mills and Ice
As the settlers grew in numbers, the need for mills increased. Predictable seasonal changes in rainfall, as well as the vagaries of the weather, such as dry spells and droughts, meant that the wise miller had to store energy when the streams ran low and slow. Several ponds were created for this purpose, including Miller's Pond, New Pond, and John's Pond. Many millponds are no longer with us, their dams having burst years ago. One such pond existed just above Stonehenge Inn, along what was then the Danbury-Norwalk Turnpike and is now Stonehenge Road. Another was at the intersection of Whipstick Road and Wilton Road East.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the need for waterpower had all but disappeared. However, ponds were still handy on farms for watering livestock. And during the 19th and early 20th Centuries, ponds served as sources of ice to cool the precursor of the refrigerator.
Ice was cut on many ponds, hauled away by teams of horses to storehouses where the blocks were packed in sawdust and held for the warm months. One such icehouse stood on the site of what is, in 2005, Girolametti Court shopping area on lower Danbury Road. In the late 20th Century, a restaurant called The Ice House operated at the old bowling alley at the rear of this property.
Important sources of ice were New Pond, Hopper's Pond, Round Pond, and a vanished body of water on the south end of East Ridge near the East Ridge Middle School, created by the operators of Hurlbutt's Market to obtain ice.
Throughout much of the 20th Century, Ridgefielders were still building ponds, not for the practical purposes of our forefathers but for the embellishment of subdivisions. Quite often, these man-made landscaping decorations, dug from swampland, turned sour for lack of enough water moving in and out. Algae, duckweed, and other vegetation quickly takes over and converts such ponds into pea-green puddles, better suited for raising mosquitoes than property values.
Today it's illegal to scoop out ponds in wetlands which are protected by laws created because dredging destroys wildlife habitats as well as the ability of the swamps to hold water in times of heavy rain and to filter water that drains downward to recharge aquifers.
Being 15 miles from the ocean with no appreciable .bodies of water, Ridgefield hardly seems a likely place for many islands. Yet the early land records are peppered with references to "islands." The early settlers considered any piece of dry land that was surrounded or nearly surrounded by swamps to be an island; thus, references appear to Turkey Island, Jug Island, Grassy Island, and plain "ye Island."
Only one vestige of this old terminology survives today and it has confused many a person who has heard it: Island Hill Avenue takes its name from references in the land records that date back to 1710 and describe as an "island" along Danbury Road, approximately between Fox Hill condominiums and Haviland Road.
Most of the names described in this series will be road names, simply because there are more of them than any other kind of geographical name in Ridgefield. The town today has more than 300 roads running more than 190 miles in length.
Roads were here even before the settlers were. Indian paths existed for as long as the Indians did and some of today's highways - such as portions of North Salem and Oreneca Roads - follow old Indian trails.
Even the European settlers had a road through town before Ridgefield was purchased and settled. The "Danbury Cart Path" connected Danbury and Norwalk before 1708 when it was mentioned in the first deed of purchase of Ridgefield land from the Indians. It probably generally followed the Norwalk River valley, perhaps along parts of the present Route 7, and veered off into Redding along Simpaug Turnpike.
Role of Roads
From the earliest days highways were of great importance. Yet their role has changed significantly. Two hundred and fifty years ago, roads were chiefly lines of communication. They connected homestead with homestead, families with town and church, and towns with towns. There were no telephones, no radio, no television, and no local newspapers. News traveled mostly by word of mouth, and mouths traveled over roads.
In those days work kept people at home, not away from it. The farm was their occupation and their chief source of food and clothing. Today, work is often far from home and supplies are in town, reachable by highways. News, on the other hand, arrives with the flick of a switch, the opening of a mailbox, the toss of a paper carrier, or the ring of a telephone.
The First Roads
Main Street, usually called the "Town Street" in the 18th Century, was the first road laid out by the settlers. It was a simple straight line along the middle ridge of three ridges, just about in the center of the original purchase of Indian lands. From it roads extended in every direction like the tentacles of an octopus.
Probably the very first roads to be built were intertown routes, especially to Norwalk, to Danbury, and to Bedford. A new town would have a hard time surviving its first few years without communication with and supplies from neighboring established towns. Note that even today, every major intertown state highway in Ridgefield converges on the village: Routes 33, 102, and 116, all of them old roads. Route 7, the only US highway here, was a relative newcomer, having been built in the early 19th Century to better connect Norwalk and Danbury, and to avoid the need to travel through the center of Ridgefield.
At about the same time intertown roads were being developed, highways to fields and pasturelands near the center of town were being laid out. Roads like Peaceable Street, North Street, St. John's Road, Silver Spring Road, and Farmingville Road, were all built to serve farmlands, probably some years before houses were erected along them. Settlers who lived in the village often put up barns at their outlying farms to store crops and tools.
Some roads were probably built to get to woodlots, whose trees supplied fuel for fireplaces and lumber for construction. West Mountain Road or Barrack Hill Road may have started out as routes to the woods.
The Search for Flat
The curving of New England roads often shocks people who come from flatlands, such as the Midwest or Florida. Floridians or Iowans are accustomed to driving for miles in a straight line. Here, they are lucky to find a straightaway that is 1,000 feet long.
The purpose in laying out Ridgefield's early winding roads, many of which remain today, was two-fold: to get from here to there, and to do it as easily as possible. More often than not, a road went around a hill, rather than over it. This may seem the longer way, but when you consider the distance covered in just going up and then down a hill, it frequently turns out that the "long way around" was almost the same distance. Of more concern to our forefathers, however, was the fact that beasts of burden dragging the load of a wagon found it easier and quicker to travel across a flat surface than up an incline. Even going down a hill was tricky business: the driver of the rig had to make certain that the load didn't roll faster than the animal in front of it.
An example of this desire for flatness is found in Danbury Road. As late as 1908, maps show that Ridgefielders then and before considered Danbury Road to be the present Danbury Road north only to Haviland Road, then across Haviland to Route 7, then north through the Sugar Hollow over the present Route 7 - all of the distance being fairly flat.
The present Danbury Road between Haviland and Route 7 was called "the Hill Road," for obvious reason. It was shorter, but it was also more difficult for load-pulling animals to deal with. What's more, during the spring thaw or after a good rainfall, the Hill Road was probably almost impassable because of muck, a condition that plagued many dirt roads but was doubly difficult to deal with on an incline.
It is probable that the creation of the Second Ecclesiastical Society - the Ridgebury parish - and the near creation of the "town of Ridgebury," was due more to the poor hilly roads from the northern reaches of town to the meeting house in the center than to any other factor. The direct route, as the crow would fly, passes over Asproom Mountain, making travel tedious or impossible at times, and the long way around - via Spring Valley, Ridgebury-North Salem, or Bennett's Farm Roads - took hours.
Because decent roads were necessary to keep the community together in the 18th and 19th Centuries, their maintenance was essential. Washouts, muddy puddles, and poor drainage were common headaches for travelers.
Road maintenance in the earliest years of settlement was probably a voluntary effort. The selectmen or Town Meeting would occasionally appoint committees to study special problems, but people whose property fronted on roads were supposed to take care of their maintenance.
The good-neighbor system apparently didn't work too well. By the mid-1700's, the town began appointing public officials called surveyors of highways whose job was to check roads and bridges periodically for damage or other problems and to see to it that neighbors did the repair work. In 1782, the town was divided up into districts, with a surveyor assigned to each. To guarantee that people would do the repair work, the Town Meeting in the late 18th Century adopted an ordinance giving the surveyors the power to draft workers. Those who failed to obey the surveyors' orders to do road work could be fined (50 cents a day for a man, $1 a day for a man and a team of horses, according to a state law in effect in 1814).
Work for Taxes
At first the town compensated road workers pressed into service by abating their property taxes. Later, workers had the option of receiving outright payments. The 1793 Annual Town Meeting "voted that each person shall be allowed at the rate of three shillings per day for each day's work, and six shillings per day for a man and team, that they shall work on the highways by direction of a surveyor, and that each person shall have liberty to labour on the highway to the amount of their respective rates (taxes), provided they work on the day or days they are respectively warned to work..." Workers were given four days warning. The pay or abatement for road workers was increased to four shillings per day at the 1795 Annual Town Meeting, which amount was converted to 67 cents a day in 1796 when them United States went on the decimal monetary system. By 1798 the compensation was up to 75 cents and in 1814 it rose to a whopping $1 a day.
At first most people apparently took advantage of working on roads to reduce their taxes. But eventually the town had to levy a tax to pay for roadwork. The 1799 Annual Town Meeting voted a tax of two cents on the dollar of assessed property value "for the purpose of repairing highways." By 1824, the highway tax had doubled to four cents. Surveyors collected the payments.
Major road projects usually came before the selectmen or Town Meeting for consideration - as they still can today. Often, a committee would be appointed to study a problem and recommend a solution. Take for example, the problem investigated in the spring of 1740 by James Benedict and Thomas Hyatt, "committee," as reported in the town record book:
"Whereas complaint being made to us by Timothy Keeler and others that ye highway across ye brook by Timothy Canfield's house was to be so bad that in ye winter season, there was no possibility of passing or repassing, and having examined ye matter, we found that there was good reason for ye complaint and to mend ye said way. We, by ye advice and consort of ye said Canfield, took off his lott 50 rods (825 feet) of land, on ye south side of said lott, 50 pole (square rods) . . ." in order to move the roadway.
At Least Adequate
Problems like this seemed remarkably uncommon in the 18th Century, at least as far as recorded instances go. It appears that the early Ridgefielders laid out their roads wisely - or, at least, adequately. However, later generations did try to make improvements, somewhat to the displeasure of the tight-fisted Town Meetings of the 19th Century. Plea after plea for road improvements were rejected.
An interesting case is that of Wilton Road West, often called "ye Country Road." Today the southern end of the road is smooth and straight as it heads down Flat Rock Hill to the intersection of Silver Hill Road and then up past the gas station to the Wilton line. But years ago, the road veered off to the east over what was called Pot Ash Hill and met Wilton Road East at a point just north of Silver Hill Road intersection. This route was steep, rather winding, and apparently susceptible to washouts.
Thus, a Town Meeting on Nov. 11, 1831, voted to appoint a committee to view "the present traveled road leading from Ridgefield to Wilton ... over Flat Rock and Pot Ash Hill" to consider a new route. Although the report is not spelled out in the Town Meeting records, the committee apparently recommended a new route. However. the Town Meeting rejected it, perhaps because it would be too expensive. Yet the committee probably had the right idea, and nearly a century later, the state came along and straightened out Wilton Road West, abandoning the old path over Pot Ash Hill (a route that's still visible and walkable through the woods, though in 2005, clearing was taking place along the path).
In the early 19th Century, the state seemed to be pressuring Ridgefield - and probably many other towns - to improve its intertown roads. A February 1800 Town Meeting voted to oppose a proposal to alter or straighten the road "from Danbury Court House through said Ridgefield." This was at the time when planning was underway for the Danbury and Ridgefield Turnpike through Sugar Hollow, the present Route 7 path, to replace an old hilly route over Moses Mountain in Danbury, east of Sugar Hollow. (In 2005 we have work underway on widening this route throgh the Sugar Hollow.)
By 1804, the Fairfield County Court had issued a formal "citation" of complaint against the town because of the poor condition of a section of Danbury Road. All through this period, there was considerable development of turnpikes or privately sponsored toll roads in Connecticut. In theory, a better quality road could be built and maintained if users paid a fee for traveling across it.
But apparently, Ridgefielders didn't like the idea of paying for something that had always been free, and in 1805 when a turnpike from Danbury to Norwalk was under consideration, the Town Meeting appointed Samuel B. Sherwood "an agent to oppose a petition which was brought before the Honorable General Assembly, praying said assembly for liberty to extend the turnpike Road leading from Danbury to Belden's Bridge in the town of Wilton, from said bridge to the bridge in Norwalk at the stores or landing."
It was not until 1829 that the company was finally incorporated to build the turnpike that is now Route 7 (south of Roue 35).
In 1805, a Town Meeting appointed a committee to examine layouts for new roads or alterations to present roads "from the meeting house in this town through the towns of Wilton, New Canaan, and Norwalk." Again, the state may have received complaints about the quality of our main highways.
The reference to the "meeting house," however, is worth noting. The meeting house was the town hall (as well as the Congregational Church) and in New England was almost always located in the center of a community. Ridgefield's was on the village green along Main Street at the head of Branchville Road. All main roads in theory led to and from the meeting houses of each community. Even today, throughout the United States, highway signs that give mileages to the next town are usually reporting the distance to that community's city or town hall.
Early roads were not fancy, being little more than cleared paths through woods and fields. But they had design.
Old dirt roads were deliberately built with a sort of wash board surface to help direct water off to the sides. Also for drainage, they were slightly higher in the middle than at the edges, a technique still used by modern road builders.
Earth-surfaced roads had remained in use here as late as the 1960's when the last few major dirt roads - all of them very old highways - were paved. Those included Spring Valley Road, Mopus Bridge Road, and Ledges Road. For a while in the 1970s and 1980s, a "new" dirt road appeared from the vestiges of an old highway, and with the development of houses along it, the northern section of Peaceable Hill Road was the only - and the last - dirt highway in town. It was eventually paved, too.
More important roads in the 19th Century were packed down with rollers and sometimes surfaced with gravel or clay for hardness and durability. No evidence has been found of plank roads here. Wood-covered roads, usually made with oak board, were found in various parts of the Northeast, especially New York, in the last quarter of the 19th Century.
It might be good to point out here that 18th and 19th Century inhabitants had no need for snow plows. Snow, in fact, was usually a boon to the traveler and worker, and machinery was developed to pack down the snow onto highways to preserve it. Snow reduced friction and a horse or ox pulling a sleigh or sled could haul considerably more weight over snow-coated ground than it could pulling a wagon over dirt. Indeed, farmers would often wait for winter to undertake such tasks as hauling away boulders or big stumps from fields.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, the town began using a very durable kind of highway called a "Telford road," named for its British inventor. This system consisted of vertically inserting long flat stones in the roadbed. These deeply imbedded slabs were covered with gravel, producing a road that was resistant to erosion, frost heaves, and potholes. Portions of Danbury Road, North Salem Road, and St. John's Road are among the highways here with Telford bases.
In the late 19th Century, roads were being built in a similar fashion, but using blocks of wood instead of slabs of stone. A wood base was much kinder to the delicate hooves of horses. It is not known whether Ridgefield ever used this type of road, called Nicolson pavement.
Solid concrete paving came on the scene in the 1910's and 1920's as the automobile, growing in popularity but susceptible to the shortcomings of dirt roads, required better surfaces. The first paving, part of a state experiment, was done on the eastern end of Branchville Road around 1912. Main Street was paved in 1926.
The town did not adopt regulations with specifications for road construction work until 1959. To draw up such regulations the town had to have a planning commission. Creation of the commission in 1958 was a hotly debated issue that was forced by the many complaints that new roads being built in subdivisions were of poor quality.
The practice of formally naming roads is fairly modern in Ridgefield. The first application of names came from the habit of referring to "the road to Danbury" or "the road to North Salem." Soon the highways came to be known by the simpler and easier terms, "Danbury Road" or "North Salem Road."
But by 1735, the only road names found on the land records are "Danbury Rhode," "Bedford Rhode," and "ye Country Road."
In a similar manner, family names often became attached to the roads that bounded their homesteads. At first you would go to the lane where the Olmsteads lived. Later you went to the Olmsted Lane. Blackman Road passed by the Blackman farm and Lounsbury Road, by the Lounsbury homestead.
Most of these names were adopted in the early 20th Century when the automobile made traveling easier and the number of travelers increased. To find your way about in strange places, it was handy to have a map and even handier to have names on the map that corresponded to names on the roads.
However, even in the middle to late 19th Century, streets in the village were picking up names - probably because there were quite a few of them in a small area, and they needed identification to avoid confusion among newcomers or visitors.
Today; every road gets a name, often before it's built. When they submit subdivision plans to town officials, the developers usually suggests the name, and the Planning and Zoning Commission approves or maybe changes it.
Unfortunately, not all of our more than 300 road names are very suitable or distinctive. Some are downright awful.
Survey of Roads
A survey of the 23 Fairfield County towns in the 1970s shows some interesting tendencies in the practice of road-naming. One of the most common - and least creative, even least meaningful names is "sunset." Twenty one towns had a Sunset Lane, Road, Avenue, Circle, whatever. Not a town to be outdone, Ridgefield actually had a Sunset Drive as well as a Sunset Lane at one time. One would think that a sunset is obvious and common enough that we would not have to have street names to remind us that they occur.
The sunrise, incidentally, is considerably less popular, probably because most people find it painful to haul themselves out of bed to see one. Only 11 Sunrise roads existed in the county in the 1970s.
Trees are a very popular, if not very creative, source of names here and throughout the county. The most popular road name in the county was maple, with 22 of 23 towns having maple roads of one sort or another (only Sherman ignored it).
Twenty-one towns had road names commemorating the birch (be it white, black, or plain) and 21 also name the oak. There were 19 towns with pine roads, while 19 honored the dogwood, 15 the cherry and the apple, and 17 the dying elm. Twenty towns had roads named for the bayberry bush. Namers in 18 towns, including Ridgefield, apparently once tired of tree names and labeled roads simply "forest."
Animals are popular, too, but the deer far outstripped all others. Twenty-two towns had deer-connected road names while 19 used foxes; eight, bears; seven, beavers; and six, woodchucks; and five chipmunks. Surprisingly only three towns had rabbit roads. Even the gopher is remembered in Newtown.
Although they are our most visible wild mammals, squirrels are apparently not held in high esteem in this upper-class county; only two squirrel lanes, drives, roads, paths, had made the atlas by 1985. They are apparently on the same level of appreciation as rats and mice, unrecognized anywhere on a road sign.
Wolves, once common in these parts, are treated even worse. The only references to them are in three towns with Wolfpit roads, recalling the method used to trap and kill the creatires. When it was suggested to a Ridgefield developer that he name his new road "Wolfpit" after the 18th Century wolfpits that existed near his new subdivision, he quickly rejected the idea.
"Sounds too much like 'armpit,'" he said.
One might think that a skunk would get the same rating as some of the vermin-related names. But no: Wilton has a Skunk Lane. Ridgefield used to have one, but it was apparently deemed undesirable, and is now North Street.
Birds, which are perhaps too flighty for the road namers, are less popular than mammals. In 1981, only 12 towns had partridge roads and 12 had pheasant roads; Ridgefield has both. But 11 had roads named after robins (we don't) and eight, eagles (ditto). Our newest bird name, Cardinal Court, was on the street signs of 10 other towns in 1981.
Though they are probably the most intelligent birds cruising our skies, crows fare poorly, being neither cute or colorful. Danbury has a Crow's Nest Lane and Westport a Crow Hollow Lane, but nobody has a Crow Court or Circle. Among the dumbest of birds is the turkey (rejected by another developer who was subdividing the town's last turkey farm), but five towns have turkey names.
As for "people" names, Washington (11 towns) and Lincoln (11, too) can't be beaten.
Even bugs have their place in the county atlas: there were no fewer than seven Cricket Lanes in the 1980s.
Among other Ridgefield names that are common in the county are Prospect (16 towns), Hillcrest (16), Main (16), Pleasant (14), River (13), Brook (11), Highview (11), Saw Mill (10), and Sleepy Hollow (9 -- ugh!).
In recent years Ridgefield has made efforts to select appropriate names, and to avoid the trite or icky-sweet subdivision road names that have sometimes been selected.
Ridgefield has a rich heritage to draw upon for names much better than Highview, Longview, Minute Man, Sprucewood, Tally-Ho, Pilgrim Hill, Memory (Lane, of course), Kingswood, or the king of them all - Sleepy Hollow.
When We Were Bigger
Ridgefield was once wider than it is today, and longer.
Before 1732, the western boundary extended about a mile and three-quarters into present New York State. This land had been acquired from the Indians in pieces, starting with the very first purchase in 1708 which extended into the southeastern section of present-day Lewisboro, and ending with a segment in modern North Salem in 1729.
The town begrudgingly gave up these lands, called The Oblong, in 1731 when a new colony line was drawn. But because this territory was once part of Ridgefield, this study has included pre-1732 names used for these lands and which appear in the Ridgefield land records.
For the same reason, many of the early names used for land now in Danbury have been included. After Ridgefield acquired the New Patent lands after 1731, the town bounds extended through what is now western Danbury to New Fairfield. This northern neck was part of Ridgefield until 1846.
Some place names, originating in other towns, occasionally extend into Ridgefield. The peak of Spruce Mountain is in Danbury, and most of Starr's Ridge is in Redding, but parts of both are also in Ridgefield. Such names have been included became they appear in early Ridgefield records.
Not only the boundaries, but also the names of the bordering towns have changed over the years. In 1750, Ridgefield would have been described as bounded on the south by Norwalk, on the east by Fairfield, the north by Danbury and New Fairfield, and the west by Salem. Wilton didn't break off from Norwalk until 1802. Redding, once part of Fairfield, was incorporated in 1767. North and South Salem were once one town. Today's Lewisboro was for years called just "Salem."