Monday, May 17, 2010

Where is Folly Brook and why is it called that?

Even though we 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. It even made the list of "embarrassing town names" on And it does in fact have an historical, or at least urban mythology, etymology.

The legend goes that back in colonial times, some of the original New England patriots hung the mutilated body of a local British sympathizer's pet dog from a tree in that area.

Wow! Vigilante justice, historic significance, and a really cool appellation. Hard to top that one.

We live on the corner of Brimfield Road and Folly Brook Boulevard. Our house faces the boulevard yet we have a Brimfield Road Address.

Folly Brook is an interesting moniker, but certainly not one that implies anything important or even interesting in its lineage. I initially assumed that Folly was a person -- perhaps even a misspelled Irish surname.

Once (I do not remember when) I asked a neighbor (I don't remember who) "Where is Folly Brook and why is it called that?" I was told that the creek pretty much ran under the eponymous street above it - and 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 one of those unsubstantiated neighborhood beliefs.

Finally, while doing research for an article on the history of Wintergreen Woods, our town's nature preserve which 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.
The proximate cause of my newly restored interest was the 1928 "Plan of a Residence Community" prepared for the town of Wethersfield. That document first proposed the roadway schematic that ultimately resulted in the construction of Folly Brook Boulevard. The roadway was however originally planned as a four-lane highway named the Goodwin Parkway.

"... 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 report 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.

Beaver Brook? Even though it was not that germane to the subject of my inquiry, I rerouted my research through the online archives of the Hartford Courant and found the following story from September 7, 1935.

"A sign near the city line designating a Wethersfield brook as 'Folly Brook' has been removed at the suggestion of Jared B. Standish and a new sign reading 'Beaver Brook' will be placed there by the State Highway Department, it was learned Friday. Mr. Standish, who is a member of the Town Board of Parks as well as town historian, will also endeavor to have the name of the Metropolitan District Commission's new development of Folly Brook Boulevard changed to West Swamp Parkway, he said. "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 Board some years ago. It was taken 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."
Wow! Wow! Much funkier than I had imagined -- and apparently an issue that has bubbled under the surface in our town for years.

And, better yet, no animals were harmed in the making of this street name.


andy said...

I saw headline "where is folley brook" and said to myself, "I know, in Wethersfield!" If IU had noticed the author, I would have realized that. Having said that, the question remains, why then is it Beaver Brook, as I never saw a beaver in the general area.

Jim said...

Apparently there were broad-tailed rodents in the area in the early 1600's. Wethersfield lore has it that Beaver Brook got its name as the source of the beaver skins that the local Native Americans traded with John Oldham and the "Adventurers" who founded the towne in 1634.