By Robert Russell, February 14, 2004|
As featured in the Winter/Spring 2004 issue of Wilton Magazine
Photo by Peter Baker
They are the ancient milestones that not only represent familiar landmarks along our Connecticut roads, but mark a visible link to our past. In Wilton, there are eight remaining. Their presence, even in diminished numbers, reflects the dedication of amateur archeologists who have repaired, replaced, reset, and generally doted on their chosen relics.
Milestones had their origin as “heaps of stones” to indicate distance along the earliest colonial roads. Benjamin Franklin, as postmaster general in 1754, made a tour of the country, visiting the various post offices in the colonies. He ordered the stone piles be replaced by mile markers. He had attached to his carriage a type of odometer that registered the miles as he traveled and it was his custom to mark the locations for milestones. The milestones not only were to mark the route for the mail rider, but also to aid in figuring the postage rates.
Figuring rates was crucial because as a colony expected to be self-sufficient of the crown, there was no subsidy for postal service. Postmen were paid by the mile. This was still true after independence; a letter from Wilton to New York City in 1792 cost eight cents, while posting to Hartford cost 12 cents.
“An act to oblige the Several Towns of the Post-Roads, to erect Monuments, showing the Distances from the several County Towns on said Roads”; was passed by the Connecticut Colonial Legislature in October 1767 and called the Enabling Act. The Act not only required towns to set up and maintain milestones, but specified their size, location, and what should be marked on them.
There were three basic types of milestones: The colonial or pre-Revolutionary War stones are remembered for their individuality; no two were alike. A suitable stone was located in a nearby field or quarry, and inscriptions were made in a variety of styles with frequent misspellings.
Stones set out between 1776 and 1795 showed greater care in the style of lettering and were smaller and more shapely. The third type is that of the turnpike era, which, in Connecticut, began about 1795 and extended well into the nineteenth century.
The most prolific planting of milestones was probably during 1795-1840 and were of the turnpike variety. Stagecoach companies and turnpike operators, who required a methodical basis of computing transit rates gave the impetus to the mileage marker. Milestones rose like mushrooms along the newly made turnpikes and for a while they held their own. Since they possessed important functions, they were well cared for. But with the advent of the steam railroad about the year 1850, the old stage routes fell into disuse and milestones lost their significance.
It is estimated that, in all, 600 milestones were erected in Connecticut under the 1767 Enabling Act. One hundred milestones disappeared during the next 100 years, and less than 250 could be located in 1931-32 when the Connecticut Highway Department surveyed the known stones along the state highways. Having lost their usefulness, milestones are now but historic relics.
Within the borders of Wilton, twelve milestones were erected, probably between 1773 and 1830. The mileage markers showed the mileage to the nearest major town—Norwalk. The primary colonial roads running through Wilton were from Norwalk to Danbury, via Mather Street and Old Mill Road, and from Norwalk to Ridgefield. The two lines of milestones through Wilton used the first three stones in common and the starting point of both was the Norwalk Town Hall.
The Wilton milestones along the Norwalk-Danbury highway, numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, were of the turnpike variety, irregular in size and shape, made from fieldstone and inscribed with Roman numerals, except for Milestone 6, which used the Arabic figure.
Milestones 4, 5, and 6 of the Norwalk-Danbury series were used in common with the Norwalk-Ridgefield line until one reached the Ridgefield Road, where numbers 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 appear. Two of the milestones on Ridgefield Road bear dates of 1773. The stones also varied in size and shape and the material was a rough, gray stone. All used Roman numerals, except for Milestone 10.
AW Merwin/Wilton Historical Society
Traveling north on Route 7, just after leaving Norwalk, the first surviving milestone is highly visible, and vulnerable, at the former site of the Milestone Garage. It stands just a few feet from the east side of the road, marking the location “IV MS TO NOR.” It is assumed to be one of the original stones. Van Hoosear’s notes from 1893 say that it once stood “opposite Grumman’s beer shop near old Samuel Betts’ place.” It was moved and reset in front of Disbrow’s Milestone Garage. Davis Companies now owns the property and has assumed the responsibility of caring for the historic monument, which is daily exposed to the rushing traffic and highway construction.
Milestones 5 and 6 were not so fortunate. Attempts at preservation were made, but twenty years later, after extensive road construction, they are gone.
Probably the reason Milestone 7 still exists, one of the precious, original stones, is that the Danbury Road was straightened in 1926 and bypassed the old marker, which stood on the old road. Ogden’s historical committee wisely decided to reset the “VII MILES TO NOR” where it had always stood on the abandoned old road. It is currently carefully protected and preserved by the owner of the property where it stands.
To trace the Norwalk to Ridgefield milestone line, stones 4, 5, and 6 on Route 7 were shared with the Danbury line. Turning west and then north on Ridgefield Road, the message “VII MS TO NOR” is chiseled into the milestone in front of the entrance to Hillside Cemetery and its letters are painted black, probably done by Ogden’s committee. Further probing disclosed the horizontal line and letters “VAN,” telling us it is a Van Hoosear replacement. This stone has many a story to tell about its battle to survive. It was at one time used in the building of a stone bridge, but in the spring of 1900, it was necessary to lower the bridge and it was removed and put back in its original place. Several years ago, an alarmed resident called the Wilton Historical Society to report that he had chased two men who were trying to dig up this milestone. Did they also want it to build a bridge, or a stone wall, or did they covet a historical relic for themselves?
With remarkable accuracy, one mile further north on the west side of Ridgefield Road is Milestone 8, just south of Signal Hill Road South. One of the surviving original milestones, the marker continues to assure the weary traveler today as it did in colonial times that he is on the right road and tells him that it is only “VIII Miles To Norwalk.” Clerc Ogden, aided by historically-interested friends, reset the stone in 1958 after an auto accident. Weathered and worn by the years, it still exists, although currently askew after being hit again.
Milestone 8 has had many close calls during its lifetime. Originally, it stood near the northeast corner of the Cannon School at the intersection of Olmstead Hill and Danbury Roads. Then it was put into the wall of a bank of earth. Then it was replaced by Van Hoosear on the east side of the road, and reset by Ogden. In later years, it became half-buried and covered with undergrowth only to be unearthed in the 1970s by a bulldozer during the building of a driveway to a new home on the hillside above it. In November 1984, during a particularly snowy day, once again a car skidded off the road and ran into the milestone, knocking it askew. Lewis Weinstein, owner of the land at the time, had it reset and the land cleared and graded around it so that it continues to mark “VIII MS TO NOR.”
Today, the second of three original milestones on Ridgefield Road is found on a bank on the east side of the road across from Kent Pond. Often covered with vines and weeds, it is difficult to read its unique inscription: “IX Miles to Norwalk, 1773, MM.” It is one of two stones with a date and the only one with initials. Legend says that Matthew Mead, Wilton’s most famous Revolutionary War hero, having served through the grim winter of Valley Forge and the siege of New York City, erected this stone.
Also difficult to see, but precious to the milestone searcher, is an original marker claiming “10 M TO NO-LK.” It is located on the west side of Ridgefield Road on the former Harry Marhoffer property, south of where the Bald Hill Methodist Church parsonage once stood. Like many of its fellow markers, this stone was once used as part of a stone wall. It has since been dug out, cleaned up, numbers painted black, and reset.
Milestone 11 is set in a stone wall in front of the house at 1042 Ridgefield Road.
At the turn of the century, thanks to David H. Van Hoosear, Wilton was the only town in Connecticut to have a complete set of milestones. It is interesting that the five original stones located by Van Hoosear in 1893 remain today. The four that have disappeared since then were replacements.
The continued survival of Wilton’s milestones, our “vanishing footnotes of history,” depends upon the awareness and desire of each of us to participate in the preservation of our past for others in the future.