History is certainly not everyone’s favorite subject. But truthfully, how could anyone pass a street sign labeled “Aunt Patty’s Lane” and not ask, “I wonder who Aunt Patty was?” Submitted for your approval, as Rod Serling used to say on The Twilight Zone, is the story behind one of Bethel’s most curious street names.
The location of Aunt Patty’s Lane may be unfamiliar to many who read this article. That is certainly understandable, as it is somewhat off the beaten path, or should I say they are both off the beaten path since there are two roads incorporating the same name, Aunt Patty’s Lane East and Aunt Patty’s Lane West. The first is accessible from Codfish Hill Road, while the second adjoins Sunset Hill Road. Both roads end in cul-de-sacs. As you can probably guess, these two divorced roads were once happily married but became estranged over time. This unique feature is just one of many that make this thoroughfare’s past more interesting than most.
The road in its original layout was of such substantial length that it stretched across two different school districts. Its eastern portion lay within the Wildcat School District. Its western part, however, fell within the boundaries of the Wolfpits School District. Both sections derived their names from the four-legged inhabitants that lived there long before settlers arrived. Wolfpits was a district that had many spelling variations. Among them were Wolf - Pit, Wolf - Pits, Wolfpitts, etc. The area remained relatively isolated for a very long time, and its population showed no significant increase until the mid-twentieth century. Initially, this quiet enclave was home to a handful of families, nearly all related in one way or another. Chief among these families were the Hoyts, the Judds, the Morgans, the Taylors, and to a slightly lesser degree, the Shepards. These families scraped out a living primarily through small-scale farming sometimes supplemented, especially in the winter months, by making men’s hats in small shops within walking distance of their respective homes.
Before we go any further, it is time to answer the essential question. Yes, Virginia, there was an Aunt Patty. But here’s the kicker, her name wasn’t Patty; it was Martha. We will return to this facet of the story a little later on, but for now, we will refer to our protagonist as Martha, and here is her story.
Martha Wood was born on January 13, 1789, in Fishkill, New York, the daughter of Isaac and Martha (Way) Wood. On June 24, 1806, she married Allen Shepard in Poughkeepsie, New York. At the time, she was just 17 years old. Her husband had been born in the Wolfpits section of Bethel on August 22, 1781, and so was eight years her senior. It seems that his occupation, presumably related to hatting, brought him to Fishkill while still in his twenties. In the years immediately following their marriage, the couple would have two sons and two daughters born between 1807 and 1813. Records reveal that in August of 1814, Allen Shepard enlisted in a New York militia unit and served in the War of 1812. Throughout his life, Shepard and his family seemed to have lived somewhat of a nomadic existence based on available Census data. In 1810, they lived in Fishkill; in 1820, they lived in New Fairfield, Connecticut. In 1830, they were in Putnam, New York. In 1840, they returned to Shepard’s boyhood home in Wolfpits, but by 1850 the family lived on Main Street in Danbury. This address would be of brief duration as less than a year afterward, Allen Shepard moved his family back once more to Wolfpits and died there on August 9, 1851, just 13 days short of his 70th birthday.
Martha Shepard, now a widow at the age of 62, adjusted to her new life while living in a house located on what was then known as the Fairfield Road, now called Sunset Hill Road. Her residence was just across the road from her oldest daughter, Anna Maria, who had married farmer George Hoyt in 1828. And in fact, Hoyt may have been the owner of the home in which Martha lived. The house was on the northeast corner of a seldom-used, winding dirt road that snaked its way through a vast, unoccupied stretch of land with its terminus close to Newtown’s western border. Little could the widow Hoyt know that her name would become associated with this isolated roadway for generations to come.
Now, to return to the subject of names. In attempting to unravel the origins of the name Aunt Patty’s Lane, the first objective was to try to locate anyone named Patty who had lived in the road’s immediate vicinity before it took on its official designation. The task required a careful check of census records and figuring out the route followed by the census-takers as they recorded the area’s residents. This analysis revealed that before 1900 there was only one possible candidate living on Sunset Hill Road, Martha Shepard. But if her name was Martha, how did she become “Aunt Patty”? Investigating the history of “Martha” and becoming acquainted with the development of traditional nicknaming patterns provided the answer.
Research indicates that “Martha” did not gain wide usage in England until the end of the 16th century. By the 18th century, diminutive names gained popularity with the British, and some came with a twist. Shortening a first name that began with an “M” and then switching the “M” to a “P” became the vogue, with several examples. Margaret became “Meg,” which might then morph into “Peg.” Mary became “Molly,” which then sometimes transitioned into “Polly.” Subsequently, Martha became “Matty,” which in turn became “Patty.”
It is interesting to note that this last example sometimes took an additional step, with “Patty” evolving into “Patsy.” Two of the most famous examples are Martha Washington, called “Patsy” in her husband George’s private correspondence, and Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, whose family and friends invariably called “Patsy.” The mid to late 18th century seems to have been when “Martha” was most popular. (Martha Shepard was born in 1789, the same year that Martha Washington became our nation’s First Lady.) Owing to these now quaint and somewhat inexplicable customs, Martha Shepard became Patty Shepard, and census records attest to this fact.
The U.S. census instituted recording all household members’ names and not just that of the household head in 1850. This census recorded Mrs. Shepard as “Martha,” but in both the census taken in 1860 and 1870, she chose to employ her sobriquet, “Patty.” At the time of these last two tabulations, she lived adjacent to the western end of the road that today bears her nickname.
As far as the “Aunt” part of the name Aunt Patty goes, there are two distinct possibilities. While her parents’ side of the family remained in New York state, her husband, Allen Shepard, had two brothers in Bethel. The first was Oliver Shepard, who would eventually come to live at what is now 54 Milwaukee Avenue. This brother became a successful hat manufacturer and politician. It was Oliver Shepard who, in 1855, presented a petition to the Connecticut State House of Representatives to have Bethel set off as a separate town from Danbury.
Her husband’s other brother was Daniel Parsons Shepard, a successful hatmaker who situated his home and business along what is today called Putnam Park Road. Accounting for all of their offspring, Martha “Patty” Shepard would have been “Aunt” to a total of thirteen nieces and nephews who continued to live in the area. Of these, a nephew named William H. Shepard, who lived on Maple Avenue and died in 1905, seems to be the most likely suspect in popularizing the name “Aunt Patty’s Lane” in referencing the road close to her home. This speculation is due to his remaining in Bethel throughout his life, living into the twentieth century, and maintaining ties to the Wolfpits district.
The second possibility for the appellation of “Aunt” is that the title was sometimes kindly applied to a woman of great age living in a small community who was well-known to the general populace. We have other local examples of this. There was an early saltbox style house that once stood north of the corner of Grassy Plain Street and Mansfield Street that was called the “Aunt Laura Nichols” home. Bethelites from a century ago knew another early colonial house situated on Vail Road as the “Aunt Sally Beebe” house. With this in mind, it would appear that either theory is plausible, and the true origin might be a combination of the two.
The road that possesses Aunt Patty’s name seems to have suffered difficulties at its earliest stages. The first map to show the outlying areas of Bethel dates from 1856. Even by that time, the road must have been infrequently used as its opposite ends appear as two unconnected stubs. Later maps from 1858, 1867, and 1889 also do not provide the road’s entire length.
Strangely enough, it is a 1960 map that depicts Aunt Patty’s Lane in its original and complete form, and it appears with this article. The map portrays the roadway’s middle section as a dotted line indicating that it was essentially only a footpath and no longer an actual road. There might have been multiple reasons for the road’s early neglect. Travelers may have found the passageway too uneven, too hilly, too roundabout, or may have simply preferred Wolpits and Codfish Hill Roads for reaching their desired destination. In any event, it appears that once the route fell out of use, the town of Danbury, and later the town of Bethel, failed to recognize it as a public thoroughfare and accordingly ceased to maintain it. The land that made up the central part of the defunct roadway eventually passed into the ownership of Archer M. Huntington, a prominent philanthropist who was married to the renowned sculptress, Anna Hyatt Huntington. Upon the death of Mrs. Huntington in 1973, this and additional land in Redding was willed to the state and became Collis P. Huntington State Park, named for her father-in-law, a prosperous railroad tycoon of the Gilded Age. With the creation of this 1,017-acre park, it now seems doubtful that any future developments will ever reunite the two truncated ends of Aunt Patty’s Lane. (Another ancient path located slightly further south known as Dodgingtown Road in Redding, and Old Dodgingtown Road in Bethel, suffered a similar fate).
“Aunt Patty” lived to the remarkable age of 90 years, eight months, and 16 days. Upon her death on September 29, 1879, she was buried beside her husband in the small Wolfpits Cemetery located just a few hundred feet north of her home. Her tombstone is easily seen from Sunset Hill Road, as it sits close to the cemetery's front fence and is composed of a granite column topped by a stylized funeral urn.
There is a belief that people only truly die when the living cease to speak their names.
If this is true, somewhere, Aunt Patty Shepard is smiling, knowing that she is still remembered.
(This article is respectfully dedicated to Eileen and Don Goodrich, two residents of Aunt Patty’s Lane who have devoted much of their lives to making Bethel a better place for all of its residents.)