Podunk: A State of Mind in the Town of Ulysses

By John Wertis

Etymologists tell us that “Podunk” is a term of mild derision that has been used to refer to a small, insignificant settlement.

There are references from the 1600s to an indigenous term resembling “Podunk” from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Long Island. The term appears to have been used by speakers of the Mohegan-Pequot language shared by various Indian nations living in Southern New England and eastern Long Island and is thought to mean “a boggy place.”[1]

Its earliest documented colonial use dates to 1636, when various property deeds and other documents mention the Podunk Indians and a meadow and stream in Connecticut that share the name.[2] In a letter written in 1666, Connecticut governor John Winthrop Jr. (1606-1676) noted that “yesterday there was a party of . . . Mohaukes at Podunk (a place between this town [Hartford] & Windsor) who were discovered by the Indians, & as sone [sic] as discovered they fled.”[3]

 

NEWS Married at Podunk IJ and Advertiser March 23 1853
By the first half of the 1800s, the name “Podunk” had come to be used as a generic term for a fictional place, usually one that was off the beaten track. A satirical poem describing the marriage of Mr. H. Hoe and Miss Ann Handle “at Podunk” appeared in the March 23, 1853 edition of the Ithaca Journal and Advertiser.

In Ulysses the name Podunk has long been applied to a region surrounding the junction of Bolter Creek with Taughannock Creek. This area lies at the southern terminus of Trumansburg’s South Street, one of the earliest roads opened by the Town of Ulysses. This directionally named street ran from Abner Treman’s (1761-1823) cabin on the Ithaca-to-Geneva Turnpike, due south, to a mill site operated by David Atwater in 1804.

MAP Podunk area TC Atlas 1866
The 1866 New Topographical Atlas of Tompkins County map of Ulysses shows homes, a shoe shop, mill, and schoolhouse clustered around the area known as Podunk. (Cropped image from Bill Hecht’s Scanned Images of Maps, nytompki.org/hecht_index.htm#1.)

The first known reference that names this area in writing appears in the Town of Ulysses “Record of Commissioners of Highways, 1846-1898” as part of the description of another road described “running as per record of servay [sic] entered in the Town Book April 21, 1866 ending at the Podunck Road.” (Today’s Podunk Road (CR 146) runs between Trumansburg’s South Street Extension and Mecklenburg Road/NYS 79 in Enfield.) While Stone and Stewart’s New Topographical Atlas of Tompkins County of 1866 clearly shows a cluster of residences and businesses at the location, no identifying name is given.

Perhaps the best descriptions of Podunk at the high point of its residential and commercial development are to be found in two newspaper articles published in 1890. The first, published in flowery editorial style in The Sentinel in January 15 of that year, identified the numerous businesses that had flourished in the hamlet in the post–Civil War era, beyond the original saw and grist mills that relied on water power. The Spicers operated a “steam barrel factory.” The “Pollay Brothers carried on a sash, blind, and door factory.” Mr. Franklin operated a “carriage (wheel) ironing blacksmith shop.” There was a cobbler shop. There was an ice house. There was a grocery store and a saloon. The “Daggetts made the best brick that were ever made in this section.” The Podunk School (District # 4) housed its pupils in a neat brick school house! On the periphery were several prosperous farms whose owners considered themselves “Podunkers.” The writer of this article also felt it necessary to rehash the details of the murder of Ann Cox Mason that had occurred in the hamlet in 1888.

A second article appeared in the competing Trumansburg Free Press of January 25, 1890. The writer was simply identified as “A Podunker.” The writer states: “History to be history, should be correct,” and went on to detail the names and occupations of the then current residents of the hamlet. From this listing it is clear that Podunk’s commercial and manufacturing days were past and the hamlet had become more of a residential suburb of Trumansburg. Community pride was still evident in that the writer identified Orin Clark (1817-1898) as the presumptive mayor of the hamlet.

MAP Podunk crop TCDA Ulysses 1937
An inset in the 1937 Tompkins County Development Association map of Ulysses features residences and road names in Podunk. (Note that local historians have found discrepancies on these TCDA maps, and road names sometimes differ from those commonly used today. For example, today’s Rabbit Run Road is labeled Halsey Creek Road on this TCDA inset map.)

The radio journalist Lowell Thomas (1892-1981) alleged in a December 1930 national radio broadcast that there was no such place as “Podunk.”[4] Long-time resident and self-appointed mayor Milt Cuffman (1863-1946) set the record straight in an interview with the Ithaca Journal published on June 6, 1931. First, admitting that at the time of this interview that only “eight homes make up the ‘town’ proper,” he described the Podunk of his youth and recounted the disappearance of the several mills, retail businesses, and the district’s one-room schoolhouse.

Several years later, Cuffman was writing a regular column for the Trumansburg Leader called “History on the Cuff.” In the April 28, 1939 edition of that publication he gave his explanation as to how the hamlet got its name:

“The legend of the name is that a mill was erected on Bolter Creek with a large ‘Flutter Wheel’ for power. The builder over estimated the constant flow of water and when the stream was a little weak, it was all the poor Bolter could do to turn the wheel, so that each time a paddle hit the water, it was with a slow motion that resulted in a loud noise like, ‘po-dunk’.”

PHOTO Geneva There is a Podunk IJ Apr 17 1949_edited
Amy Costley points to “Podunk” on this ca. 1940s wooden directional sign. The Podunk signs were stolen so often by souvenir-seekers that the Ulysses Town Board suggested printing extras to sell during the Trumansburg centennial in 1972. (Photo of undated newspaper clipping; courtesy of The History Center in Tompkins County, Scrapbook Collection.)

Notably absent from all historical accounts of the hamlet is mention of a Podunk post office. Having a named post office put hamlets on maps and into “official” records as independent entities. Living less than a mile from the center of Trumansburg, hamlet residents have always received their mail through that village’s postal designation.

Perhaps it is best said that our Podunk has long been a state of mind, an independent community with a pride of place expressed through the local use of its unofficial name.

 

PHOTO John Wertis_smallJohn Wertis worked part-time cataloging historical collections at Cornell’s Department of Regional History and University Archives as an undergraduate student. Upon graduation in 1956, he was employed as the university’s Assistant Archivist, while pursuing a graduate degree in science education. He interrupted his archival and historian career with a 35-year hiatus as a public school educator in the Trumansburg, Newfield, and Ithaca school districts. After a second career as a livestock raiser on his farm in the Town of Ulysses, he was appointed Ulysses Town Historian in 2013.

ENDNOTES

[1] Read, Allen Walker. “An Updating of Research on the Name ‘Podunk,’” in Murray Heller (ed.). Names, Northeast Amerindian Names, Publication II, Northeast Regional Names Institute, Saranac Lake, NY, North Country Community College Press, 1980, pp. 86-99.

[2] Read, p. 87.

[3] Read, Allen Walker, “The Rationale of ‘Podunk’,” American Speech, Vol. 14, No. 2, April 1939, p. 100.

[4] “Podunk Doesn’t Exist? Lowell Thomas Wrong; It’s Near Trumansburg,” Ithaca Journal, December 20, 1930.

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