The Urbanik Preserve: Discovering You are On The Map
I opened the envelope from my parents and pulled out a slightly crinkled tri-fold brochure from the East Haddam Conservation Commission. It was for the Urbanik Preserve, an 86-acre protected parcel of Connecticut that, according to the description, includes a man-made pond, level paths, and a grassy dam “perfect for warming up on winter days or while watching the clouds roll past in early spring.” A map reveals the preserve’s boundary, its topography, and footbridge, and marks the 1.2 miles of short trails around the pond and through the woods. Visitors are permitted to hike, study nature, snow shoe, cross-country ski, mountain bike, and horseback ride, and can obtain permits to go birding, canoeing, and hunting.
It is the first time any of us have seen the brochure since my father sold the property to the Commission in 2003. It took them a decade to get the property formally managed, and my parents’ trip to the area in 2015 for a family funeral allowed them to visit and see the results. My father has known this pond and woods since he was a toddler in the mid-1940s, my mother since she met my father in the late 1960s, and I have known this piece of New England since my birth (i.e., a long time…). I have always, however, known it as either The Pond or The West Road. What struck me immediately from the brochure was the name: Urbanik Pond.
“Did you know it’s on Google maps as the Urbanik Pond?” I asked my father, thrilled with the discovery. “Well, yeah. It’s been on the maps since we fixed the dam in the late 1940s,” he stated. “Really?” I was stunned. All these years and I had no idea I was ‘on the map.’ My father’s nonchalance in the face of such a clearly mind-blowing family history realization for me, as an Urbanik and a geographer, was remarkable. How was it that I went all these years without knowing that the Urbaniks of Salem, Connecticut were up there with Amerigo Vespucci, Alexander von Humboldt, Captain James Cook, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and all the other geographical and historical greats with places named after them?
I remember being upset when my father sold the land even though I understood his reasons for doing so. That he wanted it to be preserved and protected made all the difference to me. No one in the family was going to move there and build a house – not because we didn’t love it – but because our lives have moved on to other places. My mother was raised in a moving military family and I was raised in a moving engineering family. We are a family used to moving on – to letting go – and it hits me how The Pond has been the one constant place in my entire life and, in fact, the only one in my long life of moving.
According to the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) the pond was formally registered as the Urbanik Pond in 1979 and is demarcated as record 211711 (and has the coordinates 41.4870 north latitude, -72.3231west longitude). The GNIS is the program managing physical and cultural geographic features of all types in the United States. It was created in 1890 and formalized into law in 1947 to maintain uniform name usage. According to the GNIS website: “[T]he Board promulgates official geographic feature names with locative attributes as well as principles, policies, and procedures governing the use of domestic names, foreign names, Antarctic names, and undersea feature names.” My search revealed that it is, in fact, the only geographic feature in the US named after an Urbanik. Not as impressive when you consider there are dozens of places named after the greats like von Humboldt and Washington, but I’m not going to complain!
In geography, researchers study toponyms (Greek for ‘place’ + ‘name’) to understand the movements of people across landscapes and the layers of cultural and political history that reveal winners and losers in territorial control and place-naming. It turns out that the town of Salem, Connecticut was named after Salem, Massachusetts (infamous for the witch trials of the 17th century) because Colonel Samuel Brown, from Salem, purchased a large tract of land here in 1718. He bought the land from a Mohegan tribe who knew it as Paugwonk or “Fairy Lakes” in English. In the maps below we can see the different toponyms reflecting the changing control over the Salem area.
Map of Connecticut circa 1625: Indian Trails, Villages, Sachemdoms (source: CT Historical Society)
Map of Connecticut circa 1811 (source: UConn MAGIC Historical Map Collection)
Sadly, there isn’t any grand story about the naming of Urbanik Pond. My grandfather hadn’t swash-buckled his way through terra incognita while fending off beasts and surviving on pine needles and prayer. He had simply purchased it from a neighbor, one Mr. Bailey, in the 1940s. So when the USGS crew came through in the late 1970s, realized there was no name to the ‘geographic feature’, they made an expedient and “scientific” decision to go with the name of the property owner. I can understand why we would have called it The Pond instead of The Urbanik Pond, but I didn’t understand why we called it The West Road. My father says, “Because it is on the west side of town.” But I protest, saying it’s not even on the actual West Road, it’s off of Foxtown Cemetery Road, which is off of Witch Meadow Road, which is off of Route 11, which takes you between Salem and Colchester. He says, “How am I supposed to remember that long ago?” and hands the phone back to my mother. I joke to my husband after I hang up that this is the type of inter-generational communication that left me in “Urbanik Pond ignorance” for so long.
The one photo I have from The Pond - a view through the grass on the dam towards the water (~early 2000s).
Photos of me at the pond are sedimented into boxes, drawers, and closet piles at my parent’s house – impossible to find in any non-geologic timeframe. Surely they exist, dozens of gelatin manifestations of my youth in this location. I don’t know if they would expand my scant memories of the rope swings the ‘big’ kids used on the little peninsula that jutted out from the halfway point, or the creaking of the rickety dock as I jumped into the mineral-tasting darkness of the muddy squish of pond bottom. Or the horror of having to go to the outhouse alone – seemingly miles from everyone in the dark woods with spiders and other monsters. There are also hazy images of picnic tables, lawn chairs strewn about, camp and cooking fires, and the excitement of driving slowly up the winding, bumpy, wooded drive to the top of the ridge where we all parked and had our first view of whatever mood the pond was in that day. What would I have named it back then had I been asked the question? Ice-skating pond? Swimming pond? Picnic pond? Scary outhouse pond?
My parents filled in some additional details with their own memories. My father explained that the three-sided lean-to we used as the storage and buffet area was built by my grandfather out of chestnut (which he apparently thought was a waste of excellent wood but it was the only wood around); and how my Uncle Marshall built the outhouse that was not the “horror” I remember but quite nice with plenty of space and screened roof windows. He said I probably remember it as scary because it was surrounded by pine trees and so usually very shaded. My mother described the joy of dogs racing along the dam, leaping in the water, and doing Bambi spins on a frozen lake while following us kids. And she reminds me that I probably experienced the pond when I was still in the womb, and certainly as a baby on her back. She, along with my grandmother and other family gardeners, used the pond property as a plant exchange and tree nursery – “back when people did things themselves,” as she says.
By the time of my grandfather’s parents’ arrival in Salem (from Poland via Oklahoma), the area of the Urbanik Preserve had been lived upon by Native Americans and European settlers, and was marched across during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In a quick review of available online historical maps, I found that the cemetery of Foxtown Cemetery Road dates back to 1725 and that Witch Meadow Road was named in the early 1800s after a toothless old woman who apparently homesteaded alone. The pond was built sometime between 1868 (see the map which shows Witch Meadow) and 1934 (see aerial map comparison). The aerial view of 1934 shows how the land surrounding the pond was a mix of fields, farms, and woods. It is probable that The Pond was also once traversed by now locally extinct mammals such as the gray wolf, the eastern cougar, and the eastern woodrat, or full of now gone plants such as field pussytoes and white milkweed.
1868 Map of Salem (source UConn Historical Map Collection click here)
Aerial map image of The Pond in 1934 compared to the present day satellite image. (Click here for source)
My grandfather’s roots in Salem ran deep since he arrived there as a child. As an adult he was a long-time First Town Selectman (equivalent to mayor), a representative to the state House, a lifelong Republican, and celebrity enough to merit a multi-page spread in the October 5, 1954 issue of Look magazine. Described as a “muscular, Lincolnesque American” he worked as a school bus driver, a farmer, a road supervisor, a boat builder, and in his political positions. In his later years when we would visit and the weather was good we always took him for a drive out to The Pond. He couldn’t walk very far and we had to stay close to make sure he didn’t trip on the uneven ground, but he would always walk down the hill to the dam and stand there looking across the pond and into the distance. His hands would be in his pockets and the woolly caterpillars he had for eyebrows often wisping in the breeze. He was of the generation that didn’t speak much or share feelings, but it was the ritual of going that connected us to each other and to the pond itself.
Two of my grandfather's five jobs from Look: as First Selectman and School bus driver (my father and aunt running in front of him).
Geographers use the term topophilia (‘land’ and ‘love’) to describe human attachment to places. Do I have topophilia for the Urbanik Preserve? While I know it only as the ‘West Road’ and ‘The Pond’ – I do have a deep love for it. I never lived there as Thoreau lived at Walden pond, but it is in some ways my own Walden. It is not only a living connection to three generations, but I often use the pond as a meditation image. I visualize lying on the grassy dam watching the clouds of my thoughts clear from the sky or sometimes I try entering the muck of the pond itself – cool, still, present but immune to the ripples above. It is a place of beauty and peace; a place with the karma of New England woods, and a place that knows its own security and timelessness. A place that is comfortable with its own being and its being ‘on the map’ of the bees, the ducks, the geese, the deer, the coyotes, the foxes, the turtles, and the humans who drift in and out with the seasons and the years.
I am ‘on the map’ because my great-grandparents chose to step off into the unknown. I am ‘on the map’ because my grandfather bought and cared for the land to provide for his family. I am ‘on the map’ because my father chose to protect the pond rather than let it be developed. In light of my new understanding, it feels silly that I, the eldest granddaughter/geographer acted as if I had ‘discovered’ the Urbanik pond in the “Googleverse” – claiming it for myself digitally as so many explorers have done in person - overlooking that it had already been there – discovered, tended, lived in and on by humans, plants, animals, water, soil, and stone alike.
My father and grandfather at The Urbanik Pond on the grassy dam. The pond itself is to the viewer's right and the outhouse was behind them to the viewer's left. (~early 2000s)
Update July 2018:
I received a "surprise" in my email this week from one of my father's childhood friends, David Bingham. I knew his name from stories my father told about running feral through the woods back in the days when "kids could do those things." David is a conservationist and avid birder and he filled me in on a few more tidbits about the landscape around the Pond - which he is working to protect through the Wild and Scenic 8-Mile River Organization.
From David, I learned that the Pond lies right on the edge of the Honey Hill Fault, a geologic fault line. North of the line, the surface rocks are schist, while south of the line it is granite. When Pangea was formed, connecting the North American continent with Africa, there was a large island in the area, Avalonia, squashed between the continents, throwing up some of the rugged terrain in this locale into ridges in an east-west alignment. But when the continents separated, cracks in the mantle occurred in a north-south alignment, leaving rivers flowing south through cracks in the ridges. Then the glaciers plowed over the land, leaving a remarkable patchwork of soil types that has dictated what plants and animals emerged and could be sustained over the millennia. A remarkable diversity of habitats are now found within a short hike from any house in this region.
Thank you for providing more layers of connection and understanding to this wonderful place!
Julie Urbanik is co-founder of The Coordinates Society.