A Look Back: I-89’s arrival made Purmort, Montcalm real


For the Valley News

Published: 05-02-2023 12:38 AM

‘Twas 63 years ago when the Enfield board of selectmen — Charlie Tupper, Isaac Sanborn and Henry Laramie — sat down with representatives of the state highway department to discuss whether the town had any wishes for naming its two exits off the new superhighway that was going to be coming through from down Concord way.

The maps the highway people brought along showed a pair of exits tucked between steep hillsides in the southwest corner of town; the exits were identified on plans as “North Pass” and “South Pass.” Perhaps the good people of Enfield might offer something better, even though the primary exit linking their town to the new highway was to the north, in Lebanon along the banks of the Mascoma River.

It wouldn’t have made any sense to designate those unnamed exits “Enfield,” for motorists could be misled off over wandering back roads or even to dead ends. The Enfield selectmen gave considerable thought to the situation and then offered up two names that would eventually become official: Purmort and Montcalm.

The name Purmort recognized a prominent family that once occupied the area. They were descended from Philomon Purmort, the first schoolmaster of the Boston Latin School in 1635. Purmorts lived in the area of both exits, actually, but the line gradually died out, ending with the death in 1902 of Mark Purmort, who had been a prominent merchant and town clerk in Enfield. The Purmort name can still be found in the Newport area, and some far-flung relations have been known to visit Enfield just to see the road signs bearing the family name.

Montcalm was the name given one of Enfield’s school districts after a tall hill on the east side of what is now Interstate 89. There is some lore that holds the hill was named for a famous 18th century French general, Marquis Montcalm.

I-89 reached the Upper Valley by fits and starts. Sections were gradually completed through Hopkinton, Warner, Sutton, New London, Springfield and Grantham by 1971. But a two-lane leg had been constructed between Lebanon and Grantham in the mid-1960s, and then the other two lanes were added soon after the four lanes around Lebanon and coming to Grantham from the south were completed.

Signs proclaiming the new Purmort and Montcalm exits went up when I-89 in the area was still a two-lane affair, but they sparked considerable chatter among motorists and folks who had only heard about the strange new Upper Valley locales. Where is Montcalm? Is it a village we’ve never known about? Purmort? Never knew there was such a place.

Eventually, people got used to the mysterious names, though probably a majority took to referring to the exits by their numbers, Exit 15 and Exit 16. Over time, Exit 15 would lead to a humane society shelter and a private golf course, while Exit 16 got a gas station, a truck stop and connected to the Whaleback Ski Area. It also became the terminus of the Methodist Hill shortcut to I-89 for Plainfield and Cornish residents bent on avoiding Lebanon traffic.

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On one occasion, a freelance reporter filed what he thought was scoop for the Manchester Union Leader that got picked up by UPI and found its way to a small spot deep inside The New York Times. He took a picture of a Purmort sign and captioned it a blunder by state highway sign makers — it had to be “Piermont,” a town 40 miles to the north, he thought. No siree, he had it all wrong.

Weather is hard on roadside signage, and from time to time the state replaces old ones with new. A few years back it was decided to downgrade Purmort and Montcalm signs and replace the quaint names with more descriptive lines like “Smith Pond Road” or “Methodist Hill Road.” Hold on, said some purists, and eventually the place names were kept, but with smaller type size.

Six decades-plus later, those long ago Enfield selectmen would be pleased.

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden, and contributes occasionally to the Valley News.