Life Goes On in a Town Called -- What?

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

PODUNK, Vt. -- Yes, this is really Podunk. In other places, the word might be a generic put-down, a concept, a mythical map dot somewhere between Hick Town and Nowheresville.

Here in Vermont, though, it's a real somewhere.

"This is the center of Podunk," Dan Hescock, an auto mechanic and local historian, said after stopping on a dirt road here one recent morning.

He was looking at an old outhouse without a door, a schoolhouse whose last pupil departed about 90 years ago, and a whole lot of trees. To an outsider's eye, Hescock was in the middle of the woods. But he really was in Podunk, a hilly crossroads in southern Vermont.

This community, like a handful of other places with the same famous name, has a story that helps explain a little bit about how Podunk America got the way it is today.

The name "Podunk" appears to have originated in languages of northeastern Indian tribes, for whom it meant "marshy meadow," according to the late language expert Allen Walker Read.

In his 1939 work "The Rationale of 'Podunk,' " Read wrote that the word gained its current meaning -- a small, rural town -- in the 1840s, after a series of humorous articles in a Buffalo newspaper set in the fictional burg of "Podunk." The secret to its success? Funny sounds, Read determined: ". . . - unk and - dunk and po - have been irresistible to the American people."

Vermont's Podunk, an area of the town of Wardsboro, is one of five current "populated places" with the P-word as their primary name, according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. It's still not clear how the name caught on in Wardsboro: It may have been the Indians, move-ins from Podunk, Conn., or, according to one probably unreliable local story, the "poor Dunkles," a family whose name eventually was corrupted to Podunk.

Hescock estimated that, in the early 1800s, perhaps more than 100 people lived here. They were primarily farmers, raising sheep, cows and crops along steep, often deforested hillsides.

As the 19th century wore on, Podunk began to fade, the victim of a mass migration from northern New England to industrial cities farther south and better farmland out west.

"Vermont was exporting its people," said Arthur G. Woolf, a professor of economics at the University of Vermont. "It's much more fun to be a farmer in Ohio, where you actually don't starve, than on a rocky hill farm in Podunk, Wardsboro."

In Wardsboro as a whole, the population shrank from a high of 1,125 in the 1850 census to 322 in 1960. Podunk's schoolhouse closed down about 1916, Hescock said, as the number of students dwindled.

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