by Jim Meehan
Even though my wife Marsha and I do not live there, Hangdog Lane has long been my favorite street in our hometown of Wethersfield, Connecticut — not because of its location, or its appearance, or anything even remotely contemporary. It is totally the name – the kind of label that shouts out that there must be an interesting story behind it.
And it does in fact have a potentially historical etymology.
The story that I’ve heard by word of mouth is that back in revolutionary times some of Wethersfield’s patriots mutilated, and then hung the body of a local Tory’s pet dog from a tree in that area of town as a warning/threat/punishment to him and other British supporters.
Vigilante justice, historic significance, and a really cool appellation – local legends do not get much better than this.
Except, sadly, that it doesn’t seem to true.
The term “Hangdog” was used as a name for geographic locations in town well before the time of the American Revolution.
The early Wethersfield settlers (1634 et seqq.) labeled, mapped, and divided up the land in their new home town – and “the names given to these fields at once disclose their location or some superficial characteristic…The following are some of the Wethersfield names: Great Meadow, Wet Swamp, Dry Swamp, Long Row in Dry Swamp, Great Plain, Little Plain, East Field, Middle Field, West Field, Little West Field, Great West Field, Furtherest West Field, South Fields, Beaver Meadow, The DMS, Back Lots, Pennywise, Mile Meadow, The Island, Hog Meadow, Huckleberry Hill, Fearful Swamp, Hang Dog Swamp, Sleepy Meadow, Cow Plain.”
The book “Connecticut Place Names” lists “Hangdog” in Rocky Hill (a part of Wethersfield until 1843) and says it was “Located in various parts of the town; name also found in other parts of the state. Applied to a swamp 1688 or earlier.
“N.C. Brainard. Story of shepherd who hanged stray dogs H-D [Hang-Dog] pasture mentioned as in HTFD.”
Capt. William Warner of Wethersfield died 16 October, 1726 and in his probated will gave to his son William Warner “several pieces of land: 6 acres of land at a place called Hangdog, 2 acres of land in Beaver Meadow.”
And one of Wethersfield’s most famous landmarks, The Great Elm, literally traces its roots to a pre-Revolutionary “hang dog” location.
“According to a memoranda book kept by James Smith, father of the present occupant of the premises abutting [The Great Elm], Mr. Charles H. Smith states that John Smith, an uncle who died in 1818, aged 72, pulled it [The Great Elm in infant form] up near ‘Hang Dog Hill’ to drive home his cows from the public cow pasture in Stepney West District (when he was about twelve years old). Arriving home it was set out in the ‘Common’ front of their home. According to the record it should have been planted about 1750-8.”
Hang-Dog Hill is still identified by that name on Maple Street at the intersection of Fox Hill Road, Maple Street & Crestridge Road – about 1/4 mile north of Hangdog Lane.
Martha Mayer of the Griswoldville Preservation Association has a copy of an 1829 land transaction in Wethersfield by which Josiah Griswold bought from Francis Simeon “a tract of land called the Hang Dog Lot”, five acres more or less, bounded west & south by lands of Elisha Wolcott, east and north by the highway. Two other parcels were in the deal: Hog Meadow Pasture and a tract bounded on the west side by the Hartford/New Haven Turnpike, and on the south side by the highway.
Unfortunately, because it would have made such a good story, it appears more likely that Hangdog Lane derives its name from its proximity to Hang-Dog Hill rather than its violent, patriotic past. The story behind Hang-Dog Hill and Hangdog Swamp is however still an open question – so there may still be some opportunity for yet another grisly Wethersfield urban legend.
Folly Brook Boulevard, on a corner of which our house sits, likewise has its own neighborhood folk tale.
Shortly after moving in I asked a neighbor, “Where is Folly Brook and why is it called that?” I was told that the creek basically ran under the eponymous street. The name was the result of an unsuccessful attempt to reroute another small stream, named “Beaver Brook” that flowed in that general area. A derisive public began calling the failed aqua-engineering project “Folly (as in stupidity) Brook”. Over time the popular name replaced the legitimate one.
I accepted that explanation and probably passed it on to others over the years without the slightest compunction – even though as I became more familiar with the concept of urban folklore, this story began more and more to feel exactly like another one of those unsubstantiated neighborhood beliefs.
Recently, while doing research for an article on the history of Wintergreen Woods – the town nature preserve that runs along the northern edge of an uncompleted portion of Folly Brook Boulevard – my curiosity about the etymology and actual location of Folly Brook was revived.
Folly Brook Boulevard, it turned out, was the result of the unsuccessful attempt beginning in 1928 by the town of Wethersfield to construct a four-lane highway named the Goodwin Parkway connecting Wethersfield to the city of Hartford.
“… Goodwin Parkway extends from the southerly limits of Goodwin Park up either side of Beaver Brook to its source, as an informal parkway varying in width according to the contours of the ground as well as to the limitations imposed by private developments. At the source of Beaver Brook it proceeds as a formal parkway in a southerly directions to Griswold Street, which it crosses, and thence in a southeasterly direction down Goff Brook into Mill Street, across the railroad tracks to its intersection with the Middletown Parkway.”
The map included with this proposal shows a dashed line delineating the parkway and the word “GOODWIN” drawn on what is pretty much the route of today’s Folly Brook Boulevard.
But not everybody agreed with the names chosen for the Goodwin Parkway substitute and the waterway that runs beneath it.
In September 1935 Jared B. Standish (Town Board of Parks member and town historian) successfully petitioned to have a sign on Nott Street that designated the small stream as “Folly Brook” replaced by a new sign reading “Beaver Brook”. He also attempted to have the name of the boulevard changed to “West Swamp Parkway”.
“The name ‘Beaver Brook’ was given the stream by the early settlers of the town, Mr. Standish explained. About the year 1726 some person dug a trench to change the course of the brook from the city line to the river. Townspeople at that time termed this action ‘folly’. Since that time the name ‘Folly Brook’ has gradually become associated with the brook, Mr. Standish said.
“The Folly Brook Boulevard development, which extends from Campfield Avenue at Victoria Road south to Griswold Road at Prospect Street, was first considered as a parkway by the Town Park Boa
rd some years ago. It was ta
ken over by the Metropolitan District Commission with the intent to construct a sewer there, possibly within that year. The brook which courses through Wethersfield was erroneously referred to as ‘Folly Brook’ on the maps of the boulevard layout.”
Historian William DeLoss Love affirms the 1726 date. “Much of this tract [called “Southfield” by Love] was marshy land and was partly drained by a brook, which ran south to Hartford and emptied into the Connecticut River in Wethersfield. The Folly Brook channel eastward was cut through in 1726 to further this drainage.”
A report prepared by William A. Niering and Frank E. Egler for the Great Meadows Conservation Trust on the Folly Brook area likewise confirms the date as well as the origin of “folly.
“The Folly, for which the area is named, was formed in 1726 by making a cut off to intercept the outflow of the Great Swamp. The swampy area extended from above Park Street in Hartford on the north to the Collier Road in Wethersfield on the south. The cut-off was but a few rods in length and carried water across the main road between the two towns to the Cove. The little channel in time became a ravine requiring an expensive bridge to cross it; thus the name ‘Folly'”.
So this Folly Brook fable, unlike that of Hangdog Lane, appears largely to be true. And it brings to the surface an issue that has evidently bubbled underground in our town for years.
But most importantly – no animals were harmed in the making of either street name.
Connecticut Place Names”: Arthur Hughes, Morse S. Allen; Connecticut Historical Society (1988)
“The River Towns of Connecticut: a Study of Wethersfield, Hartford and Windsor”: Charles McLean Andews; books.google.com
Plan of A Residence Suburb Wethersfield Connecticut”, 1928
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Hartford Courant (1764-1986)
“The Colonial History of Hartford: Gathered from the Original Records”: William DeLoss Love; books.google.com
Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.