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Signs, Signs, Everywhere

-by Deborah Thomas.

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blocking up the scenery, breakin’ my mind.”(1) Except when you need one on a dark and stormy night because you are lost. You are on some dark, zombie-apocalypse road without a yellow line in the middle, at the far end of Higganum, looking for a house number on a mailbox.  A safe house.  Lightning flashes and you swear you saw a face appear in the rear view mirror. The next thing you know, you see the street sign for “Pond Meadow” in front of a pink house, facing Rt. 81. You did not veer to the left or right, you just kept traveling on Hidden Lake, because that’s what you have for directions. What just happened? Never mind that you can’t see the mailbox numbers, or, that the road sign indicating that Hidden Lake took a ninety-degree right turn. You didn’t know you were supposed to turn right when you came to the house with the chair carved out of a tree in the yard. You didn’t have a landmark, you are doomed; zombies are clawing at your car door.

The “rainbow” arch beneath the soon to be torn down-water tower.

The earliest Connecticut natives used waterways and also paths carved through the terrain by animals. Members of the Wangunk group most likely followed the banks of the Connecticut River. Hunters and trappers continued to use these trails, and natural features like the glacial erratics to find their way (two giant boulders in our town Shopboard Rock on Rt.  154/Saybrook Road, and the large WV Bug sized boulder at Candlewood and Neff Road, for example).  With the new settlers of the Thirty Mile Island Plantation came horses and carts and naming of roads.

Iconic Spencer’s Shad Shack, eastern side of Saybrook Road.

Prior to numbering modern highways, roads were given names that could be attributed to a unique nearby local characteristic (Candlewood Hill), a person (Parmalee Road), or a natural feature (Boulder Dell). In hilly lands like the Northeast and out west, roads followed paths that snake back on themselves. Is this where the saying, “You can’t get there from here,” originates? Roads in the Midwest and Texas flatlands go on forever in many directions. In Iowa you could navigate by the farms; go north on Highway 50 until Platt’s Turn, then follow the cornfields until you come to the main house.

Pulpit Rock, newly painted (by terrific father & son team!) on Candlewood Hill.

In Michigan, roads radiating away from Detroit are labeled with “mile,” 5 mile, 10 mile, and so on. Some people will easily recognize the movie “8 Mile,” a story about boundaries. The road is a real landmark and, as much a character in the movie as Eminem.  Places, landmarks—tell stories sometimes, too.

If you’re in Manhattan, you can rely on the east-west grid for streets and the north-south grid for avenues for basic locations and getting around. I can meet you anytime at 350 – 5th Avenue in New York City, but I could just as easily say let’s meet up at the Empire State Building.

Great old cow stanchion on Jackson Road (behind which is an immense rockslide hillside).

To get where we’re going in modern times, we navigate by maps, global positioning satellites (GPS), and Internet and very often, by narrative and by landmarks. How do you give directions to others? —do you tell people to take such-and-such road, for these many-miles, and take the first right? Do you give a bit of history or story telling for the journey? “Turn left at the old Higganum School.” Or,  “Take the left fork in the road where the original red saltbox used to be,” and, “Go past Sophia’s Pizza on Rt. 81 and take the first right.” (Dickenson’s red house on Pokorny Road was torn down and bulldozed away and a new home was built on the site about 8 years ago, and Sophia’s hasn’t been Sophia’s in over 15 years; after she passed away, her son Dino re-named it “Dino’s.”)

Awesome railroad trestle on eastern side of Saybrook Road.

Never mind GPS, sometimes you really cannot get there from here. Maps in cities are easily outdated due to construction and also temporary redirections and Internet sites aren’t always up to date. It’s frustrating and time consuming, not to mention dangerous if you are listening to a navigation aide while trying to drive at the same time.

Additionally, learning old names for roads and buildings can be brutal if you are a newbie, especially if the place has changed owners three or four times. But at our local level, if you take any road in Haddam you’ll probably find a local landmark; something tied to a place and perhaps a place name.  Maybe it’s a church spire, or a town plaque. Perhaps you know where you are going because the “Old Gaol” still stands at the corner (Jail Hill Road and Rt. 154/Saybrook Road). Haddam, Higganum, and Haddam Neck all have interesting place names: Parsonage, Depot, Injun Hollow, Wig Hill, and Skunk Misery to name a few (although Skunk Misery started out as Snow Road).

Old Glory in all her glory on the side of a great looking barn at Candlewood Hill Road and Haddam Quarter intersection.

With the old water tower on the Frismar site at Higganum Cove being torn down we’ll have one less visual reference. Yet, whether it’s an ice-age boulder or a rainbow painted arch, these  treasures, many of which may be off-the-beaten-path—are what makes our town “uniquely Haddam” to us.  Let us hear from you; what other landmarks, places, and roads in Haddam are special to you? Send us photos and stories, too.

REFERENCES and SIDEBAR: Other things I dug up while looking into our roads and landmarks:

(1) “Signs,” by Les Emmerson, Five Man Electric Band, 1971.

Connecticut: Highways to Nowhere by Greg Amy, at –

Connecticut Roads by Steve Alpert, at:

Connecticut’s Historic Highway Bridges by the Connecticut Department of Transportation, at:

Ferry Boats a Way of Life in Early Connecticut, at:


(Photo Credits All: Lily Umba)