Street Name Irks City Historian
Lebanon — The city historian is fuming over what he termed “willful ignorance” on the part of other city officials in changing the name of a road off Route 4 to Tannery Lane, despite the fact that its historical namesake was actually located about a mile away.
“The city was very ignorant in their decision to name (the street) Tannery Lane knowing full well there was never a tannery there,” City Historian Carl Porter said of what used to be called Dulac Street Extension, the road leading to the newly-opened Rivermere affordable housing complex. “It confuses people who are looking for the true history of Lebanon.”
The street name was changed in February from “Dulac Street Extension” based on a recommendation by the Public Works Department. City Engineer Christina Hall cited the need to comply with “E911” guidelines, which are in place to prevent confusion among emergency responders, as the main reason the moniker had to go. As for Tannery Lane, Hall said that the department was looking for something “historically significant” and wanted to pay homage to the E. Cummings Leather tannery that was active in Lebanon from the late 1930s until it closed in 1980.
Hall conceded that the name Tannery Lane hasn’t exactly been popular, and not just in historian circles. She said the residents of the two households that existed on the street before Rivermere was constructed were displeased with the department’s decision at the time it was made public.
“They didn’t like the name Tannery (Lane) because they didn’t like the tannery when it was there,” she said.
Albert Craig, who lives on what is now Tannery Lane, said in an interview earlier this month that the name brought to mind the foul smell typically associated with tanneries. Craig did not return calls for comment this week.
But while Hall and other Public Works officials were operating under the mistaken assumption that there was a tannery located across Mascoma River from the renamed street, more than one Lebanon history buff has said the tannery actually operated about a mile away near High Street downtown.
Porter said that city officials were likely “trying to harken back to Lebanon’s industrial past, which is good if you’re doing it in the right context and the right area.
“If they’re looking for historical context, they should not be pulling from their own minds,” he said. “They should be looking to the (Heritage Commission) to perhaps lend some advice and lend some support.”
Porter said that the area around the street used to be referred to as “Scytheville” in homage to the farm equipment that was manufactured nearby. That was echoed by City Councilor Erling Heistad, who also criticized the street name and said historical experts should have been consulted in the renaming process.
“You destroy the very thing you’re trying to protect when you change history,” Heistad said.
While Heistad voted for the name change at the Feb. 20 City Council meeting when it was unanimously approved, he said he didn’t realize the historical mix-up until Porter’s concerns were brought to his attention Wednesday. Heistad, a Lebanon native, said city officials have rarely taken advantage of opportunities to educate the public on the area’s history.
“I think this town is very lacking in stimulating interest in the town itself,” he said.
Like Porter, Heistad said the Heritage Commission should be consulted when exploring possible Lebanon street names in the future.
City Councilor Carol Dustin, who is the council’s representative to the Heritage Commission, said that Porter raised a “very good point,” and added that the street naming process could well be revisited when it comes to consulting historians.
“We need a protocol, which we don’t have,” Dustin said.
Hall said the Public Works Department looked at other possible street names and solicited residents for their input, but settled on Tannery Lane for lack of a better alternative. She added that E911 guidelines warn against naming streets after proper nouns such as last names — which she said are commonly proposed by residents as naming options. Even titles that rhyme with existing street names are off-limits, Hall said.
According to Hall, there are several streets in the city that already conflict with the guidelines, which also state that municipalities should avoid duplicate names such as having an Elm Street and an Elm Street West, as is the case in Lebanon.
Porter said that “almost every street (in Lebanon) has some kind of correlation to history,” and gave some examples from around the city.
Crafts Avenue, he said, was named after a “gentleman who owned much of the land there,” and Poverty Lane has its own folklore.
“The story I heard is, back in the 1800s, some guy was going door-to-door and trying to get some help, but everyone turned him away,” Porter said. “As a result of being turned away, he said, ‘This must be Poverty Lane, everyone here doesn’t have any money to help.’”
Heistad said he still has vivid memories of the E. Cummings Tannery, which he said was visited by every first- and second-grader in town on school field trips. He added that boxcars full of hides would be shipped in and sit in the August sun, giving off the tannery’s signature aroma.
“The tannery was almost like a haunted house,” Heistad said, but he added that he always thought of it as a “wonderful place.
While Heistad said that school kids often joked and held their noses, they also learned valuable lessons at the tannery.
“Seeing what happens when a horse or cow or whatever was skinned, then it was scrubbed and cleaned and shaved,” Heistad said. “All these processes, and as a little kid it was quite interesting. You got to see what was happening right in your town.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The E. Cummings Leather tannery in Lebanon was active from the late 1930s until it closed in 1980. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on its years of operation.