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Tiny hamlet, rich in history; Book explores Podunk's origins.

Byline: Peter C. Zimmerman

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is excerpted from "Podunk the Book," by Peter C. Zimmerman, which can be found at www.podunkthebook.com.

Most folks think of Podunk as a dinky little place in the middle of nowhere, as in "You come from that little Podunk?"

An inconsequential village or hamlet that's little more than speck on the map, if even that. However, it turns out that there really is a Podunk after all. It's no mere hypothetical entity, "like the square root of minus zero, an honest congressman, or one drink." (OK, I copped this phrase from the great H.L. Mencken's excellent 1948 New Yorker essay about "The Podunk Mystery.")

In fact, according to the government's Board of Geographic Names - quite a name in itself - there are no fewer than twenty Podunks in the United States. Six of these Podunks are populated, albeit marginally, not counting a "fossil Podunk" that lies underneath present-day Brock, Neb., which was called Podunk for two or three years in the 1880s. The other fourteen are named after various natural features, especially aqueous ones, including five Podunk Streams and three Podunk Lakes. There is a good reason for this. In the Algonquian Nation's Nipmuc dialect, pau-tunke means "where the foot sinks in" - any squishy, waterlogged place, say, a marsh or swamp.

Back when all of New England was one vast, unbroken "forest primeval," a tiny band of Podunk Indians once lived on the east bank of the Connecticut (Quinnehtukqut) River, near what is now Hartford, and ranged as far afield as the scenic Quaboag Hills of south-central Massachusetts. To protect themselves against the hostile and more powerful Pequots and Mohegans, the Podunks teamed up with half a dozen other small tribes known collectively as the Pond Dwellers, including the Machimoodus, Hammonasset, and Wangunks. Because the Podunks disappeared off the face of the map some two and a half centuries ago, we don't know a whole lot about them, only that they slept in longhouses made of rushes, skins, bark, and mud; built dugout canoes measuring up to 50 feet long; fished for sturgeon, shad and pike with spears or nets made from vine or wild hemp; hunted everything from moose to muskrat with bows and arrows, and ground chestnuts and acorns into flour.

Spiritually, they believed in a Good Spirit, who provided them with corn and beans, and propitiated an Evil One, named Hobbamocko, by dancing around a campfire, singing, and making loud noises. Over the course of the 17th century, the Podunks were decimated by several smallpox epidemics and then all but wiped out in the King Philip's War (1675-76), which pitted natives against encroaching pale-faced settlers. (FYI, King Philip was an Indian; see below.) No one has heard from the Podunks since 1761, when it is believed that they were either absorbed into other tribes or fled into the surrounding forests. They left little behind: pottery, shell piles, and a few skeletons. Even though the tribe was small, never more than 200 warriors strong, the Podunks managed to leave a great legacy: their cacophonous name.

The first places to be called Podunk were a couple of meadows, one situated where the Hoccanum River flows into the Connecticut, the other roughly where the largest Podunk (population-wise) is located today, due west of Worcester, Mass. The earliest historical mention of these two locales occurred in 1636 and 1665 respectively, which makes them older than New York City, Philly, and Baltimore, and only six years junior to Beantown. After the Last Podunk retired to the Happy Hunting Ground in the Sky, Podunk fell off the radar for three or four generations. Then, in the mid-1800s, Podunk enjoyed a kind of a backhanded renaissance and conceptual transformation: suddenly it became the Laughing-Stock of the Nation. It all started innocently enough with a series of eight fictitious "Letters from Podunk" published in the Daily National Pilot out of Buffalo, N.Y., and soon reprinted in papers across the country, in which the anonymous columnist painted Podunk as a rustic, backward, unenterprising village, its residents socially starved and intellectually underprivileged. At around the same time, burlesque stage comedians began making fun of its "name of curious sound." Other Indian place-names, too, were singled out for derision, especially those containing a `k' - for example, Weehawken, Squankum, and Squeedunk back East; elsewhere in the country we have Chokoluskee, Winnemuuca, and Lukachukai.

"For some reason (this letter) has always appealed to the oafish risibles of the American people," writes Mencken, in "The American Language." "Its presence in the names of many other places has helped to make them joke-towns." Such hamlets "have acquired more than local significance, as though they were grotesque creations of the fancy," according to George P. Krapp, and yes, that's his real name. The pre-eminent etymologist Allen Walker Read has pointed out that "only a wavering line" exists between beautiful Indian names like Susquehanna and Appalachia, and those "with a jocular flavor" such as Poughkeepsie, Oshkosh, and Kalamazoo.

Podunk, perhaps, is our most emblematic wide spot in the road, too small to merit even its own Post Office, Dairy Queen, or movie theater. The English novelist Thomas Hardy describes "a little one-eyed, blinking sort o' place."

Since I owed a visit to my old high school friend Fred von Krusenstiern in Boston, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and drop in on Podunk along the way. Although Podunk doesn't show up on a road map, I had done a little homework and knew roughly where it was. I pulled into West Brookfield at 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, checked into the Copper Lantern Motor Lodge, and rushed out to find some realtors before they closed their doors in order to get directions to Podunk. William H. King provided me with a USGS topo map of the area, which was nice of him, considering that he must have deduced that I wasn't looking to buy. At Century 21, Mary Hicks seemed amused that anyone would be looking for Podunk at all, and warned me that "it's easy to get lost."

But I managed to find it after only a few wrong turns. Good thing I had that map. Almost all of Podunk lies within the boundaries of the Township of East Brookfield, which in turn is surrounded by the townships of Spencer, North Brookfield, and Brookfield. It's located a mile south of Route 9, which runs east-west from Worcester to Northampton, and literally a stone's throw from Route 49, known locally as the Podunk Pike. Podunk is oval-shaped, bracketed by Podunk Road and Howe Street, along which most of its five or six hundred residents live. The area measures roughly two miles wide and three miles from north to south. In the center is densely wooded Teneriffe Hill (named after one of the Canary Islands), a former glacial ridge now crisscrossed by ATV trails. According to old-timers, on top of the hill is a rock formation called the Devil's Thumbprint, but no one has been there for years, because no one except the old-timers can remember where it is. The Podunk neighborhood resembles a giant spermatazoa, with the tail extending south towards touristy Old Sturbridge Village.

Along either side of Podunk's low-lying roads are swampland, seeps, and vernal pools. This mucky habitat is home to the rare and elusive marbled salamander (ambystoma opacum), a kind of New England version of the spotted owl. You'll probably never see one, since they hide out under rotting logs and only come out at night. You will, however, undoubtedly hear plenty of "podunkers," which is a humorous synonym for the common frog. People from Podunk are simply called "Podunks."

Since Podunk shares East Brookfield's 01515 zip code, it doesn't rate as a town per se. For the most part this is a quiet residential neighborhood. However, there are a number of businesses based in Podunk. At the Glenco general store, Kitty and Louie can notarize your documents and set you up with a hunter's license while you're shopping for fishing supplies, ice, beer, and snacks. There's also a salvage yard, tree farm, car mechanic, and well-drilling concern, as well as several home vendors selling everything from flowers to quilts and carpets.

At the Mason's Lodge, meetings are held Wednesdays on or before the full moon. In a pinch, one can even get buried at the Podunk Cemetery, which has a number of tombstones dating to the early 1800s. Speaking of which, Podunk has produced its fair share of notable people. Back in the 1790s, one Diederik Leertouwer, esq., the local Dutch Consul, planted the first asparagus beds in the New World (asparagus likes to be well-watered). Lucy Stone (1819-1895) was the first Massachusetts woman to earn her baccalaureate degree (albeit in Ohio). Baseball legend Cornelius McGillicuddy (nee Connie Mack, 1862-1956) still holds major-league baseball records for most games managed, most wins, and unfortunately, most losses as well (more than 4,000). Mister Mack, as he was known, coached the then-Philadelphia Athletics (now the Oakland As) for fifty years, and won five World Series, before finally hanging up his cleats at age 88.

Far and away the most illustrious hometown hero, Elsie the Cow (given name Lobelia) was born and raised on Elm Hill Farm. The ever dewy-nosed Elsie (1933-1941) toured the country by charter plane promoting Borden milk. In her time she was better known than Einstein; she received honorary keys to dozens of cities and hobnobbed with the likes of John Wayne and Sinatra.

Nicknamed the Baby of the Commonwealth, East Brookfield wasn't incorporated until 1920, but Brookfield proper was first settled in 1660 by some men from Ipswich on Native American lands called Quaboag (QUAY-bog). In 1675 they were attacked by Indians - likely including some Podunks. One garrison house "defended to the last" but the natives prevailed. A dozen years later, however, the settlers reoccupied the fort, and the Podunks relocated to points unknown.

Just to the west of Podunk are a couple of decent-sized ponds, Quaboag and Quacumquah-sit (quah-cum-QWAH-sit). Massasoit ("Yellow Feather"), the Wampanoag chief who signed a peace pact with the pilgrims in 1621, is said to have been buried on Quaboag's north shore. He died while visiting his relatives in Podunk. Ironically, fifty years later his son, Metacom aka King Philip, was murdered by Colonial soldiers who proceeded to put his head on a stake and parade it through the streets of Plymouth. Now that's gratitude for you.

ART: PHOTOS

PHOTOG: (1) LIBBY DAVIDSON; (2) T&G File Photo/DAN GOULD; (3) PETER ZIMMERMAN

CUTLINE: (1) An image from a book by Peter Zimmerman on communities named Podunk. (2) A copy of a 1940 photo of Podunk's Elsie the Cow, born and raised on Elm Hill Farm, at a celebration after her appearance in the movie "Little Men." (3) A farm truck exemplifies the rural nature of Podunk.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 9, 2012
Words:1819
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