Thursday, October 31, 2013

Possum Park

Unlike other times when I've made this statement and been wrong, I'm pretty sure this will be a short post (at least compared to some recent ones). In fact, stick around a few paragraphs and watch me dig really deep for some facts to throw in. This post came about the other day when I was trying to gather some information about the origins of the name of a particular road -- Possum Park Road, to be precise. In case you're not familiar with it, Possum Park Road runs north from Kirkwood Highway to Milford Crossroads, just east of Newark.

The road itself long predates the name, and was in place before 1820. At that time and at least as late as 1912, the thoroughfare was known as the Hop Yard Road. The Hop Yard tract was a large and old property occupying the northern part of Milford Crossroads, on the north side of Paper Mill Road. So when and why did the name change from Hop Yard Road to Possum Park Road? I've never found an explicit explanation, but a big clue lies on the 1868 Beers map, located in the upper right of this page.

"Bossom Park" on the 1868 Beers Map

About halfway up this road from Roseville (along today's Kirkwood Highway) to Milford Crossroads (where the complex formerly known as Louviers stands), there is listed a property on its western side. Although there are likely two separate errors here, it very strongly suggests a source for the unusual moniker. The owners of the property are listed as "H.J. & J.C. Johnston", and above their names is "Bossom Park". Since Bossom Park doesn't make much sense for an estate name, I think it's safe to assume that this is supposed to be Possum Park. In the research I've done, I've not come across any other references to Possum Park other than this map, and of course the later name of the road. This leaves the only other clue as the house and the people shown on the 1868 map.

Here is where we get the other error, albeit a slight one. The men listed on the map are brothers Hiram J. and John C. Johnson. They were born in about 1830 and 1835 respectively, and were the sons of William and Jane Johnson. William Johnson was born about 1799, and is shown on the 1849 map as having his main residence on the east side of the road, just above Possum Park. An unlabeled house is shown in 1849 at the Possum Park location, and William's house is still owned by the sons in 1868. In fact, both properties stay in the family at least through the 1893 map.

As you can see in the pictures, the house I'm assuming is Possum Park is still standing (a fact I wasn't aware of until recently), and currently houses a doctor's office. It's an unusual looking house, and seems to consist of what looks to be an older stone section and a later wood-shingled frame addition. If this is indeed the case, the frame addition was added to the gable end of the older block, and may have changed the "front" of the house from the northward-facing facade to the eastern (road-facing) side. It's possible that the stone section could be a rear addition to the frame part, but that would be an unusual order of building materials.

In either case, the house does have an atypical set-up. This fact became slightly less mysterious when I looked at the census records and learned that Hiram and John Johnson were both "House Carpenters". Knowing this, I think it's logical to assume that they themselves either built, or at least added on to, the house. Since they were home builders, it's believable that they would do something a bit different with their own house.

So far, additional facts (such as they are in this case) are a bit thin. The later maps (1881 and 1893) show both houses as belonging to John Johnson, who likely owned them until his death in 1899. Brother Hiram had either died or moved away, as he doesn't appear after the 1870 Census. Property in this area (presumably Possum Park) was passed on to John's son, also named John. He is seen residing in the area well into the 20th Century.

If more information comes to light about this house whose name is far more well-known than it is, I'll be sure to pass it on. And speaking of the name, one has to assume that it came from the presence at some point of its namesake mammal. The opossum is the only marsupial native to North America north of Mexico. It's technically the Virginia Opossum that we have around here. Possums are Australian marsupials similar to the opossum. The name comes from the native Algonquin name for the same animal, which means "white animal". Opossums have been around for at least 70 million years, making them one of the oldest of the mammals. The more you know...


  1. I'd be interested to know where the Johnson family originated from. Perhaps there was a Bossom or an estate named Bossom in their past? My experience with Beers is that those names like Bossum Park, Forest Oak, Cooper Farms, were all names of Farms/estates etc. Bossum could have had nostalgic value, like Winterthur was the name of the Swiss town where Mrs. duPont hailed from.

    1. Good point, Dee. I'm assuming that it was always supposed to be "Possum Park" and that the map was wrong. It's possible, though, that Bossom was the original name and it changed over the years after everyone forgot what it first meant. Wouldn't be the first time that's happened. I've tried to look into it a little, but I'm only partially kidding when I say I'm hesitant to do too many searches about "bossom" at work. :) I'll keep my eye out and if I ever come across that name anywhere else I'll let you know.