For readers who are bothering to keep score, this is the third and (hopefully) last time I'm writing about the persistent mystery behind the name of a street in Burlington's Hill Section called Iranistan Road.
Back in the December 22, 2010 Whiskey Tango Foxtrot column, I offered up a handful of variously plausible theories that might explain the pseudo-exotic-sounding street moniker. Now I might finally have the answer.
To recap: Back in December, based on a week's worth of library research, phone calls and haphazard Googlage, I concluded that the name had no meaningful connection to the Persian culture, the town of Iranistan, Iowa, or the online video game, "Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures," which features a fictional kingdom called Iranistan.
At the time, the most plausible explanation for the name came from Sylvia Bugbee, a research librarian in the University of Vermont’s Special Collections. While sleuthing with her fellow UVM bookworms, Bugbee discovered that the house at 1 Iranistan Road once belonged to U.S. Sen. Warren Austin (1877–1962), a Republican who represented the Green Mountain State from 1931 to 1946. Bugbee theorizes that the Iranistan name was Austin’s invention, given his interest in Middle Eastern affairs.
Several weeks later, however, I got a phone call from Bill Mares, an author, beekeeper, frequent Vermont Public Radio contributor and former writer for the Burlington Free Press, who offered up another possible theory to the road's origins. Mares suggested that the name derived from a Col. Le Grand B. Cannon (1815-1906). Cannon was a Civil War veteran, and subsequently had a career as a prominent banker, capitalist and railroad and steamboat tycoon. In 1864, he became president of what was then the Champlain Transportation Company.
Cannon owned a sizable tract of land in Burlington's Hill Section bordered by what is now Prospect Street, Ledge Road and Cliff Street. He was also a prolific traveler throughout central and south Asia and named many of the carriage roads on his land after places he'd visited. Iranistan Road, Mares asserted, is the only such extant road.
Just yesterday, however, I got a phone call from a Burlington woman whose name is recognizable to anyone familiar with Queen City real estate: Grace Pomerleau, daughter of Tony Pomerleau. For those who don't know the man for whom the Burlington Police Department Building is named, Tony Pomerleau pretty much developed half of modern-day Burlington. Alexis Drive in the New North End? That's named after Grace's daughter, Tony's first granddaughter. Needless to say, when someone calls with that kind of street cred — literally — I'm interested in hearing what she has to say.
It seems Grace Pomerleau has lived at 59 Iranistan Road for the last 17 years (though, evidently, she doesn't read Seven Days every week, as her sister forwarded her my December WTF column last week.) Grace's dad lives across the street and her brother, Ernie, of Pomerleau Real Estate fame, lives on the other side. “We have a little Pomerleau compound going here," she jokes.
Turns out, the question of who, or what, was behind the Iranistan name was as much of a nagging itch to Grace Pomerleau as it was to me. About 10 years ago, she says, "I did about as much research as you did because it was driving me crazy!"
Ms. Pomerleau reports that her research led her to determine that the houses at 1 Iranistan and 27 Iranistan were the original two homes built on the street, which at the time was a dead end. Curiously, 27 Iranistan was actually the earlier of the two houses built, in 1939. One Iranistan went up the following year, Pomerleau says, though she speculates that both houses are even older than indicated in their deeds.
Pomerleau also confirms that the land in that neighborhood, including the property where her own house now sits, was once part of the Overlook Estate owned by Gen. Cannon. "In my backyard when I was taking down trees, I found half a wagon wheel, a bunch of spoons and countless number of animal bones and a pocket watch," she says. It's believed that section of the hill long served as a trash dump for the mansion. Sadly, there's never been an archeological study of that particular area. (Do I hear UVM graduate project? Anyone?)
Pomerleau further reports that during her own poking around, she spoke to a then-90-year-old woman who years earlier lived at 29 Iranistan. That woman, Mrs. “Happy” Berger, moved to the street in the 1940s. Reportedly, she told Pomerleau that several years earlier, the street was in need of a name. Mrs. Berger claimed that the man who lived at 27 Iranistan was, in fact, the person who originally named the street. One Iranistan Road was Mr. Austin’s home, and he offered to allow his neighbor to name the street in exchange for the use of the number one as his street address. Hence the reason why 27 Iranistan is older than 1 Iranistan.
Still, that begs the question: Why Iranistan? Well, according to Pomerleau, who heard it from Old Lady Berger, the man who lived at 27 Iranistan picked that name because "He was friends with the Barnum family." Turns out that old Phineas Taylor, aka PT Barnum had a daughter who moved to Burlington. As I initially reported in my WTF column, Barnum built a gargantuan mansion in Bridgeport, Conn. in 1848, which he named Iranistan. That "Oriental villa" combined elements of Turkish, Moorish and Byzantine architecture. It was razed by fire in 1857.
So, there you have it. Of course, I'm taking Grace Pomerleau's explanation at face value. But, as with any story related to the life and times of the showman who believed a sucker was born every minute, a healthy dose of skepticism is still in order.