How the Streets Got Their Names: Young History Scholar Maps Norwich’s Past
In one of his many fascinating blog posts for the Norwich Historical Society (NHS), summer intern and Norwich resident Kevin Hybels remarked about a set of old photos that he’s been digitizing and unearthing the stories of: “Although many of the locations pictured here still look roughly the same, it is easy to tell by looking at the cars that they were taken in another era.”
Isn’t that something? In Norwich, as in most towns in the Upper Valley, the streetscapes have changed so little over the years that the make and model of a car is often our best indicator of when a photo was taken.
Yet as Hybels has dug further into the archives, sharing his discoveries in a series called “Street Smarts,” the streets these evolving cars have traveled have, subtly or not, changed character quite a bit, too. Many of them, by their name, unlock stories of the people who built Norwich, and Hybels has dutifully followed these trails to help write those stories.
We caught up to Hybels in the last week of his internship, before he heads back to college, and had a few questions about his local findings, which have served as the basis for the NHS's current exhibit, also called "Street Smarts," open to the public.
So, how did you come to be involved with the Norwich Historical Society this summer, and how did you land on the idea to investigate the history of Norwich’s streets?
Kevin Hybels: This is my second summer as an intern at the Norwich Historical Society. I got started last summer after I’d talked to them about my interest in working on a project with them. I was happy that they were so enthusiastic about giving me the project of scanning their collection of street photos (last summer) and school photos (this summer). NHS’s Director, Sarah Rooker, has been especially helpful to me by teaching me about historical research and writing. I have enjoyed writing about historical people, places, and events in Norwich. I have really enjoyed finding a piece of history, perhaps a photograph, and then linking it to other historical information I’ve researched at NHS. Both of my internships have been generously funded by the Norwich Women’s Club.
I love the story of Mechanic Street, which no longer exists in Norwich but had quite an important role in the life of the town. What has this research done to change how you see and experience this place?
KH: I have definitely learned something new with each post I have written. It has helped me to see all of the layers of history in Norwich. I have tried to cover many historical eras. For example, I have written about Paul Brigham, who was an early governor of Vermont, and I also put together a collection of photos of cars.
It has also been fascinating to see all that the Norwich Historical Society has in its archives—everything from photographs to documents to 3D artifacts such as toys and farm equipment. Mechanic Street was especially interesting for me to research and write about because the name changed; what was Mechanic Street is now parts of Beaver Meadow Road and Hopson Road. And the name tells of how it was an important part of town for manufacturing.
Are you studying history in college? What got you interested in stories of the past, and what do you hope to pursue in this field after graduation?
KH: Yes, I am going into my junior year as a history major at Cornell University. I have been interested in history for most of my life, and I used to live in the oldest house in Norwich. The stories that can be uncovered are fascinating to me, and whenever I travel I like to take some time to learn about the history of the area I’m in.
I hope to pursue work related to history, perhaps working at a museum or in archives. I love spending time around historical artifacts and sharing with people the fascinating stories that they tell.
Hybels knows where the street maps are kept.
What’s been the response from folks in the community about your “Street Smarts” blog?
KH: I have loved hearing from people who have enjoyed what I have written about and have learned from it. One of my most recent posts was about recipes I found in a nineteenth-century account book used by the Bragg family, after whom Bragg Hill Road is named. It included a recipe that didn’t say what it was making, so I asked readers to write in if they had a guess as to what it was for, and so many people did! I got so many responses that I am actually going to write another post about the ideas readers had.
Look out for the new post—and what of that mystery recipe—under “Street Smarts” on the Norwich Historical Society’s website.