WTF: How Did Iranistan Road in Burlington's Hill Section Get Its Name? | WTF | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » WTF

WTF: How Did Iranistan Road in Burlington's Hill Section Get Its Name?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...


Published December 22, 2010 at 1:23 p.m.

Iranistan Road
  • Iranistan Road

East of Shelburne Road, above the rotary in Burlington’s Hill Section, lies a short street whose name has befuddled many local residents for years: Iranistan Road. Most Queen City streets are named after indigenous flora (Pine, Maple, Spruce), landmarks (Battery, College, Church), dead white guys (Champlain, Chittenden, Ethan Allen) or, allegedly, developers’ daughters (Caroline, Catherine, Charlotte, Margaret and Marion). But the Iranistan moniker seems plucked from thin air. WTF?

The search for the story behind the road that connects Chittenden Drive with Ledge Road led us to, among other historical figures, P.T. Barnum, the “Lion of Kashmir,” and the inventors of Kool-Aid and Conan the Barbarian.

The word “Iranistan” is a mystery. At first glance, it’d be easy to assume recent origins. During the last decade, as U.S. forces have waged simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Iranistan” has occasionally been used collectively to describe the conflicts and their aftermath. For example, an October 10, 2004, story in the New York Times suggested that the overthrows of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq gave Iran an opportunity to “create a kind of Iranistan” in southern Iraq.

But Burlington’s Iranistan predates both wars by many decades. Originally an unnamed lane on private land, the street first appeared on city maps as Overlake Terrace in 1937, according to the Department of Planning and Zoning. By 1944 the name had been changed to Iranistan Road, for reasons unknown to P&Z staff.

As mid-20th-century Burlington lacked a notable population of Middle Easterners, it’s unlikely the street was named to acknowledge an immigrant neighborhood. Perhaps it was picked for its exotic allure. An illustrated world atlas published in 1859 by G.W. Colton and Richard Swainson Fisher includes the chapter heading “Iranistan or Persia,” in which the terms are used interchangeably.

But Colton and Fisher’s sobriquet for Persia never caught on among historians — or Persians. According to Quinn Mecham, an assistant professor of political science at Middlebury College and a former state-department expert on Middle Eastern affairs, “Iranistan is not a term that is used in any discussions of Middle Eastern politics or history of which I am aware.”

So much for Iranistan’s overseas connection. Perhaps it has more domestic origins. Turns out Iranistan was the name of the first town established in Cass County, Iowa, which was later relocated two and a half miles west to the present site of Lewis, Iowa. Lewis (pop. 438) is the boyhood home of Edwin Perkins, inventor of Kool-Aid. However, there’s no discernible link between Burlington and the sugary beverage.

A more plausible connection can be made to American entertainer and businessman Phineas Taylor Barnum, aka P.T. Barnum. In 1848, Barnum, who earned fame for creating enormous public spectacles, built a mansion in Bridgeport, Conn., that he named Iranistan. Barnum’s “Oriental villa,” which combined elements of Turkish, Moorish and Byzantine architecture, was destroyed in a fire in 1857.

The Burlington connection: Barnum’s second cousin, George P. Barnum, was a well-known (for his time, anyway) veterinary surgeon and liveryman whose parents came from Vermont. According to the 1889 historical tome Valley of the Upper Maumee River, George Barnum made his way to Burlington at the tender age of 13, where he secured a position in a local veterinary hospital. Barnum later moved to London but returned to the Queen City to marry Burlington native Eliza Curtis in 1852.

The marriage was short lived, as Eliza died in 1856. The following year, Barnum married Mary White of Jones County, Iowa — which, incidentally, is on the opposite side of Iowa from the Kool-Aid king’s hometown. Since there’s no evidence that George Barnum was a major Burlington landowner or named any of its streets, this connection seems sketchy at best.

So much for the greatest showman on Earth and his veterinarian cousin. Perhaps Iranistan had a fictional significance to early Burlingtonians. The word appears in the work of early-20th-century pulp-fiction novelist Robert E. Howard, best known for creating Conan the Barbarian. His tales were later adapted into comic books, films and the online computer game “Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures.”

Howard, often regarded as the father of the sword-and-sorcery genre, invented a fictional kingdom he called Iranistan, which also appears in the online computer game. According to the Age of Conan Wiki, Iranistan is “located south of the Vilayet Sea and west of Vendya” and is “renown [sic] for the quality of its fruits and wines … [and] also produces medicines, textiles and precious stones.” However, the absence of references to cheese, ice cream or maple syrup makes a link to Burlington dubious.

The most promising lead yet on Iranistan’s origin comes from Sylvia Bugbee, a research librarian in the University of Vermont’s Special Collections. While sleuthing with her fellow librarians, Bugbee discovered that the house at 1 Iranistan Road once belonged to U.S. Sen. Warren Austin (1877–1962), a Republican who represented Vermont from 1931 to 1946.

In August 1946, Austin relinquished his Senate seat to become the first U.S. representative to the United Nations Security Council, where he served until his retirement in 1953. Austin died on Christmas Day in 1962 and is buried in Burlington’s Lakeview Cemetery.

Bugbee theorizes that the Iranistan name may have been Austin’s invention, given his interest in Middle Eastern affairs. British Pathé, an international film archive, has footage of Austin showing off a collection of submachine guns at the UN. That same film includes a clip of Nasrollah Entezam from Iran, fifth president of the UN General Assembly, banging his gavel. In the 1940s and ’50s, Entezam led Iran’s UN delegation, and the two men reportedly knew each other.

That’s not all. Austin’s name shows up on the website of the weekly newspaper Kashmir Life as the first American official with whom Sheik Mohammed Abdullah (1905-1982) — a Kashmiri nationalist known by his people as “the Lion of Kashmir” — discussed the possibility of creating an independent Kashmiri state.

Do homeowners on Iranistan Road owe their address to a 19th-century veterinarian, a pulp-fiction writer from Texas, America’s first UN ambassador or none of those? The trail goes cold here, leaving the name a mystery.

Fill out my online form.