Hodunk and other stories from the road
In our power-up-and-go society, road names have become just a nugget of information we plug into the GPS, part of the equation that leads to a destination.
But when it comes to those names, maybe we should stop and savor the journey.
Roads and their names have a history that's older than the automobile or even the horse-drawn carriages that preceded them. That's no exception in Walworth County.
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"A lot of the roads here started out as Indian trails," said Larry Price, operations director for the Walworth County Public Works Department. "They were basic lines or routes that they followed."
One of those trails -- now County Highway ES -- stretched from Milwaukee to Galena, Illinois. Before Interstate 43 crossed Walworth County, Highway ES, then known as Highway 15, was the route drivers took to Milwaukee, Price said.
County highways got their start in the 1920s when auto travel rolled into gear. Most county highways, with one, two or three letters in their names, were marked sequentially when they were mapped out. Some, however, had local connections, according to Ken Amon, a lifelong resident of the town of Lafayette, who began working with his father, a rural contractor, in 1946. Amon mentioned the old County Highway RW, which stood for Richmond and Whitewater, and SD, for Sharon and Darien.
Smaller roads in cities, towns or just along the countryside had much more varied -- and interesting -- names.
"To my knowledge, most all of the roads got named after World War II, and probably by the town boards," said Amon, whose collection of old plat books includes an 1857 map of Walworth County.
The names could be descriptive, historic or practical.
"Back Road always has been called 'Back Road' because it is the back road to Lyons. Likewise, Short Road is the shortest road to Lyons, both as opposed to Sheridan Springs Road," said Lake Geneva historian Patrick Quinn.
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How other roads got their names:
Lover's Lane, Town of LaFayette:
Sometimes there are even phantom roads. As late as the mid-1990s, in the Town of LaFayette, the east end of Kniep Road was marked on maps and even with a street sign as Lover's Lane. Today's it's Kniep Road up and down its stretch between Wisconsin Highway 120 and Bowers Road.
Lover's Lane might have earned its name by once being a secluded road that would have attracted couples looking for such a spot, said Larry Price, Walworth County's highway operations manager.
And the missing signs? “It could be due to a simple matter of the 'Lovers' Lane' road signs being stolen, and it was costing the town too much money (to replace them),” joked Barbara Fisher, Town of LaFayette's clerk and treasurer.
Snake Road, Cranberry Road, Lake Geneva:
“Snake Road is so named because it 'snakes' its way through the woods along Geneva Lake's north shore,” said Patrick M. Quinn, Lake Geneva historian. But he disputes the idea that Cranberry Road had anything to do with the fruit. “Cranberry Road is a developer's conceived name,” Quinn said. “There is no cranberry bog near the road. There are a few boggy areas in Walworth County, but no roads are named after them.
Skunk's Misery, Town of LaFayette:
And though it has no sign, Skunk's Misery was the well-known name for a steep, hilly stretch of Bower's Road that winds into a valley in the town of LaFayette. Price's father told him the name reflected the skunks in the area who, on their stubby legs, were either constantly climbing up or gingerly moving down the road.
“He said those skunks were always in misery.”