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.

And as homes and farms were abandoned, the forest returned: Estimates are that Vermont was about three-fourths cleared in the mid-1800s and now is about three-fourths wooded.

Hescock demonstrated this by driving the road that used to lead to one of Podunk's biggest cleared farms. It is still lined by the old stone walls, but now ruts and low-hanging limbs make the way nearly impassable.

"You can see how the forestation is just -- whoops! There goes my antenna," Hescock said, as a branch pulled a magnetically mounted radio antenna off the hood of his SUV.

All that's left in Podunk now are 50 or so full-time residents, a roughly equal number of livestock, the decaying schoolhouse, and Upper and Lower Podunk roads. Residents of the area say they've often been surprised to walk in the woods and see stone walls, gaping cellar holes or other traces of the community that once was here.

"You wound find occasionally a cemetery in the middle of nowhere . . . three headstones and a falling-down fence," said Sarah Wolfe, a former New Yorker who moved to Podunk in 1991 and then left for a slightly bigger Vermont town in 1999.

Also remaining, of course, is the name. Residents say that, while Podunk sounds normal to them, it can be funny to catalogue-company phone operators, tourists and other people hearing it for the first time.

"You actually live in Podunk?" they ask Barry LaMarche, who lives on Upper Podunk Road. "I say, 'Yes, I do.' I don't get offended by it," he said.

"It's a good chuckle, you know."

Similar declines also affected a few of the country's other Podunks, as tiny farming communities across the North and East became less viable in the age of the railroad and then of the automobile. Officials in Michigan said the remnants of their two Podunks are an old dance hall and a lake, respectively. New York's Podunk, part of the Finger Lakes town of Ulysses, has dwindled down to eight or nine houses, an official there said.

Connecticut's Podunk, in the town of Guilford, has been affected by the opposite menace to small-town life: urbanization. In the past few years, it's been covered by a new subdivision with 30 or 40 homes, said municipal historian Joel E. Helander.

"A sea of houses," Helander said. "And I will tell you, it's hard to go back."

Now, a similar trend is beginning to threaten the essence of Vermont's Podunk as well. In the past decade, large new homes have begun to be built along both Upper and Lower Podunk roads, vacation places for people who ski at the nearby Mount Snow and Stratton Mountain resorts.

The newcomers are the kind of people who put hand-painted signs with the family name out front -- people who don't know their neighbors, or the story of the place they've bought in to.

"The people that come in here wouldn't have any clue as to where Podunk is," Hescock said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company