Many flunk Taft Corners spelling test

Creative usages abound for crossroads

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Taft Corners may be Vermont’s best-known place name. Used loosely to describe anything within about a mile of the intersection of U.S. 2 and Vermont 2A, it is widely associated with big-box stores and debates about sprawl.

But can you spell it? Two seemingly simple words have tripped up historians, advertisers and local media. Even some state and town officials can’t get it right.

Is it really Taft Corners? Taft Corner? Taft’s Corner? Tafts Corners? Taft’s Corners? How about Tafts’ Corners? Each has been used.

“Yes, there is confusion about it,” said D.K. Johnston, Williston’s zoning administrator. “I don’t think the world knows how to spell it.”

Despite the many variations, there is one official usage. In September 1993, the Selectboard considered the matter because someone noticed a sign on northbound Interstate 89 near the Richmond exit had the intersection spelled incorrectly.

“After a little bit of discussion, it was determined that the proper spelling should be Taft Corners,” minutes from the meeting say.

The word was passed on to former state librarian Patricia Klinck, who under state law had the final authority on spelling place names. She agreed with the Selectboard.

Sybil McShane, the current state librarian, said some state agencies, including the Agency of Transportation, were notified, though it is unclear how widely the ruling was disseminated.

Yet to this day, the Interstate 89 sign still misspells the name as “Tafts’ Corners.”

A survey of books, maps and official documents and various publications show the sign’s name confusion is hardly unique.

For example, the latest Williston Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth and development, repeatedly spells it “Tafts Corner.”

Town Planner Lee Nellis said he settled on that usage based on a gazetteer published by the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies. He said the previous plan had it spelled various ways, and he was striving for consistency this time.

Nor are local media immune from the spell cast by the name. Most local newspapers and television stations get it right. But not all.

“The next Tafts Corner?” asked a headline above an online story about development north of St. Albans published by the St. Albans Messenger. The story then refers to it as “Tafts Corners” several paragraphs later.

Williston retailers sometimes get the name wrong, particularly national chains. Men’s Wearhouse recently misspelled the name in television advertisements. Its Web site gives directions to the store at “Taft Corner.”

Kathy Smardon, assistant town clerk, said she regularly fields questions about how to spell the name. She gives a stock answer: “One Taft, four corners.”

People ask about the spelling for numerous reasons, sometimes out of curiosity or to settle an argument, Smardon said. Taft Corners is by far the most frequently asked-about name.

George Gerecke, who was on the Williston Selectboard when it discussed the name in 1993, said he recollected the board wanted to be consistent with similar place names in the area such as Chimney Corners near the Colchester-Milton town line.

The name apparently originated with the Taft family, early settlers in Williston. A map dating from 1868 shows two property owners by that name adjacent to the intersection. An 1886 book, “The History of Chittenden County Vermont” indicates a John Taft settled in Williston in 1818. His grandson George was a Williston farmer.

But even the history books are unclear on the corner’s spelling. “The Williston Story” published in 1961 includes a map that refers to the intersection as “Tafts Corner.”

The saga of that Interstate 89 sign perhaps best shows how the corner causes spelling fits.

North Avenue News co-owner Cliff Cooper said he had long been annoyed about the sign’s spelling, which told motorists to use exit 12 to reach “Taft Corner.” In 2003, he said he mentioned the sign to second-grade students from J. J. Flynn Elementary School in Burlington.

The students, who were studying grammar at the time, reasoned the sign couldn’t be correct because among other reasons there was more than one corner, Cooper said. They wrote a letter to Gov. Jim Douglas.

Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi said the state settled on an alternative spelling after researching various sources. The sign cost $1,305.63 to replace.

It’s tough to know if the state altered the sign back in 1993 when the Selectboard first noticed the goof. Zicconi said he could not determine if it was changed.

Minutes from the meeting say the sign originally read “Taft’s Corners,” a different spelling than reported by Cooper a decade later. Perhaps the state has actually made two changes, both wrong. Or maybe the minutes misstated the sign’s spelling.

McShane said the name has proven unusually difficult to spell because there is no widespread agreement on its usage, even among usually authoritative sources.

“I think despite everyone’s effort to get it right, it’s a moving target,” she said.