This Town Could Have Been Named - “Vienna”!

Joe Capilllo

Southbridtge Evening News Staff - 1996

Just how did Southbridge get its name? Today, as we prepare to blow out the 180 candles on the birthday cake, one needs to wonder how close we came to be named Vienna or Newbern or Quinebaug.

Before 1816, when Southbridge was incorporated as a distinct community, the territory was a part of Charlton, Sturbridge and Dudley. Sturbridge, in fact, was the greater part of this area, with all the land west of Elm Street belonging to it. Everything north of Main Street was part of Charlton and everything east of Elm Street belonged to Dudley.

Originally, in the early 1800s, the town quickly adopted the designation as “Honest Town,” for its friendly, honest-dealing townspeople. Plimpton’s History of Southbridge, written in 1836, explained Honest Town.
“It may have been attached by someone in the old towns from which we had separated in a moment of resentment or over a mug of flip from some wag or barroom joker or possibly from someone of our own, really honest inhabitants, who firmly believe that there was more true genuine honesty here, than in any other country.” In its incorporation, the first name suggested for the town was Vienna and other two popular choices seemed to be Newbern and Quinebaug.
After several heated town meetings, Vienna was officially proposed but for some reason still a bit clouded in historical records, the name Southbridge was slipped in, with the understanding that if the name was already in use in the Bay State, Vienna would be the preference. The call went to Southbridge and it was written into the records.


Where did the name Southbridge come from? The explanation most often found in historical records is that a bridge once spanning the Quinebaug River, a short distance from the present stone bridge at Central Street, was aptly named “South Bridge.” Since the highway over the bridge was one of the chief routes from Worcester and Boston and south into Connecticut, it became an important landmark. Just about everyone in the towns and parishes knew where the “South Bridge” was located.

As many know, a Scotsman named James Deneson was the first to settle here in 1728, and lived in a cave under Dennison Rock, still intact in the Dennison district of town. By 1816, the population along the Quinebaug had reached 830 and by 1860, 3,575. The early settlers here didn’t like the idea of belonging to three towns and wanted to become a distinct community with a name of their own.

Sometime, say records, about 1801, they began preparations for a separation. There was strong opposition from neighboring Sturbridge, Charlton and Dudley, who were not keen to the idea of having their territory or revenue diminished by a secessionary group. In late 1801, the demand for a separate community was so strong that it was decided to create a poll parish, a preliminary step to becoming a town.

This was done and the community was unofficially called “Honest Town,” for its friendly, honest-dealing townspeople. The name hung on long after Southbridge became a town. Creation of a poll parish gave residents specific rights and privileges, such as spending the bulk of tax money within the parish.

Honest Town was not independent; however, it did as it pleased under the poll parish system for 15 years. As a poll parish, Honest Town erected its first meeting house, on the land at Main and Foster Streets, where Central Baptist Church is located. One of the early town leaders, Col. Benjamin Freeman, donated an acre of land off Main Street, later to be known as Oak Ridge Cemetery.

The interest in becoming a town never waned and in 1813, a group of men met at Freeman’s Tavern, the site of the fire station on Elm Street, and drafted a petition to the General Court, requesting a new town be established and called Vienna. Opposition to the petition was too strong and it was denied but the citizens fought harder and in 1814, a new petition went to Boston with the same request – only the name changed to Southbridge.

On Feb. 15, 1816, the court passed the articles of incorporation and Southbridge, a town “south of the bridge” was born.

History of Southbridge Bridges - Supplied March 2009 by Margaret Morrissey (Jacob Edwards Library Director)

The Vienna Bed and Breakfast

History of the names for the Districts of Southbridge

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