Braking for History
I brake for history! There’s no bumper sticker on my car cautioning tailgaters to stay back, and I don’t warn passengers about sudden stops. Nevertheless, anyone who knows me prepares for a quick swerve and an abrupt halt if a historical marker, plaque or monument is seen out the windshield.
Most roadside signs typically alert us to approaching destinations, prescribe speed limits, or warn of danger, but historical markers are not about moving safely from one point to another. They are not about movement at all. They are about place, about rootedness. Unlike signs announcing the state or town a traveler is entering, historic markers give clues to where you are rather than merely stating a name. Typical road signs are about ordinary travel, historic markers are about time travel.
My home state of Connecticut has a rich and deep cultural history ranging from its Native American settlements to its pivotal roles in the Revolutionary War and the industrial revolution. It has been a haven for writers and artists and the birthplace of submarines which it still produces in the nuclear age. Unfortunately, we do a poor job of putting across our history in the location where it is most likely to be seen—along our streets and byways. With few exceptions, residents and visitors alike can be forgiven for failing to know that notable personalities and significant events have occupied the same space as they do, though separated in time.
Remembering 300 Years
Although Connecticut has many historic monuments and each town was given a sign commemorating its history for the national bicentennial in 1976, the only uniform, easily recognized historic markers meant to be seen from behind the wheel were produced for Connecticut’s 1935 tercentenary celebrating 300 years of European settlement. Among many other disparate facts, these signs inform motorists where steamboat inventor John Fitch was born in South Windsor, where the first music school was founded in Salem, and where Revolutionary War Governor Jonathan Trumbull lived in Lebanon. But the signs pose more questions than they answer, revealing more about our perception of history at a given moment than they do about the past.
Largely forgotten today, the tercentenary was marked by much hoopla, with 3,000 events attracting about four million people and culminating in a gigantic parade through Hartford. A commission spent five years planning this extravaganza, which included such souvenirs as commemorative coins and license plates. Though little noted at the time, the roadside historic markers remain the tercentenary’s most enduring legacy.
Despite their longevity, thousands of people pass these signs each day with hardly a notice. Usually painted a now faded brown, and measuring about a foot-and-a-half by two feet, they typically hang from brackets on stout metal poles. In contrast to many other states, Connecticut’s roadside history signs offer only a terse phrase or two befitting our Yankee reputation for being thrifty and tight lipped. Perhaps their economy of words has more to do with their location, not at highway pullouts, but along the travel way like a directional or warning sign. Meant to be grasped at 1930s speeds, they are often unreadable in today’s fast-paced traffic. Placed throughout the state were 139 signs. Accounting for duplicates, they express only seventy-one distinct messages, less than one for every two towns, precious few in a state with such a rich heritage.
Nine identical signs were located at Hartford’s various entrances, announcing its establishment as a Dutch fort, while six signs were placed to commemorate Middletown’s settlement in 1650 as seaport. Such repetitious signs were placed in a number of other communities, unfortunately limiting the amount of curbside history.
What and Who are History
Of the seventy-one distinct signs, a remarkable eleven were devoted to education It wasn’t all highbrow academics like the founding of Yale College near the Branford Green or Litchfield’s Tapping Reeve Law School, the nation’s first, which graduated governors, congressmen, supreme court justices and other notables. Included is Prudence Crandall’s school for African American girls in Canterbury and Moor’s Charity School for Indian education in Columbia.
Political biography was also a popular theme. The birthplace of Declaration of Independence signers William Williams (Lebanon), Lyman Hall (Wallingford), and Samuel Huntington (Scotland) were each marked. So too was the birthplace of abolitionist John Brown in Torrington and the home of Revolutionary War diplomat Silas Deane in Wethersfield.
Military matters also had a high profile, including the landing of British troops in Westport, the battle of Ridgefield two days later, the Derby birthplace of Old Ironsides commander Isaac Hull, and the Essex site where the warship Oliver Cromwell was built in 1776.
Oddly enough, the state’s history appears to end with the Civil War, and only three references are made to Connecticut’s industrial prowess, surely the most significant development of the latter half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth. History in the 1930s, it seems, was largely about homage to the colonial era by nostalgic industrial-age citizens longing for simpler, less frenetic times. Even so, the choices are curious. Why does Lyman Hall, who signed the Declaration of Independence for Georgia, rate a sign but not Roger Sherman, the only man to put his signature not only on that document but on the other three great founding papers of the Republic—the Continental Association, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
Shouldn’t there be a marker at Groton’s Fort Griswold, site of Connecticut’s most significant Revolutionary War battle? Why isn’t the there a sign at Mark Twain’s Hartford home? International luminaries such as P.T. Barnum, Charles Goodyear, and Frederick Law Olmsted get no mention, while Moses Cleaveland of Canterbury, who founded the misspelled Ohio city that bears his name, is commemorated. Could there have been political influence or lobbying by local enthusiasts?
The Future of the Past
Notwithstanding the relative historical significance of the events and people they describe, these markers embed our landscape with interest and meaning. But they are slowly disappearing, perhaps victims of vandalism or vehicle accidents. I have seen them hanging in antique shops and as part of the décor of trendy restaurants. Their loss is a slow erosion of historical consciousness, fading like an aging person’s memory. No one knows how many of these signs remain or their condition.
Observable in the daily flow of traffic, these historical signs are more accessible than history books, films or lectures, perhaps more suitable to a world of brief texts, tweets, and bumper stickers. But I hold little hope that missing signs will be restored or that additional ones will be added to tell a more complete story. Still, such an effort would not only support the big business of tourism, but help inculcate a sense of pride and place in Connecticut people. Why is this important? History is less glorification of the past than understanding the present. It is less about remembering, than it is a means to anticipate and engage the future.
As our countryside changes, messages on the remaining historical signs are increasingly juxtaposed with the world around them. Caught, for example, in the daily commuter traffic on clogged State Route 4 in Farmington recently, I read a marker explaining that the town began in 1640 as Tunxis Plantation, a frontier trading center. I was struck by the quaint notions of “frontier” and “plantation” while observing relatively new housing and commercial developments and the recent erection of the grand Mormon temple with its towering spire. It’s an area where many still remember corn and other crops growing. Such developments lent the sign an unintended poignancy, reminding me that regardless of the moments memorialized on these markers, our landscape is passing into history even as we drive by.