At the end of the movie "Cast Away," Tom Hanks' character Chuck Noland stands in the center of a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. The symbolism is obvious. Based on the circumstances of his life he can't turn back. Does he make a 90 degree change of life to the left or to the right? Does he choose to forge straight ahead to pursue a new opportunity that just presented itself? The viewer is left to decide which road he takes.
Centuries ago In Ireland, outdoor dances were held on summer evenings in rural crossroads. This was the logical meeting place for the scattered locals coming from many directions. Many of the set dances that were performed still exist today even though the events moved indoors long ago.
What do crossroads have to do with anything? Well, I think it may have something to do with why Norton is so quirky. We have no crossroads, per se. For the purposes of this writing a crossroads is defined as two major roads coming together forming four 90 degree angles. A crossroads is not to be confused with an intersection. We've got plenty of those, dangerous ones too. Basically, an overhead view of the major roads of Norton looks like an X-ray of my wayward teeth when I was in third grade.
The dominant intersection in town is the junction of Routes 123 and 140. If Hollywood decided to use this intersection for the Cast Away final scene, forging ahead would have Tom Hanks plowing into the church or smashing through the low railing of the town square (ironically enough, a triangle) taking out the bandstand in the process. His path of destruction would depend on whether he was coming from Mansfield or Taunton. While it would make an interesting ending, I don’t think that would offer the thought provoking scene that the director was looking for.
Having driven in Norton for many years and examining the map, the closest thing I could find to a pure 90 degree crossroads is where East Main Street bisects North and South Washington Street. Looking at the map it's a little crooked and it’s not a four way stop. Without a four way stop it’s not really a crossroads. The intersecting roads need to have equal footing in the relationship.
Looking back at Norton's history we see that it is a confederation of little villages, Norton Center, Barrowsville, Chartley, East Norton, Winnecunnet, and my favorite name, Norton Furnace (it reminds me of Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen).
These villages were simply too small to lead to classic crossroads. They were little more than a couple of streets that developed around a mill or a factory. It seems as though the villages of Norton ultimately intertwined on an as needed basis, not part of any master plan. The roads in town twist and turn to avoid rivers and ponds and any farmhouses that happened to get there first.
It appears to me that Wheaton College has always dominated the center area of town. I am sure they developed things in a manner that suited their academic purposes, as one would expect. During the horse and buggy days, I doubt anyone was overly concerned about rush hour traffic coming up from Route 495 or potential backups after a Jimmy Buffet concert.
So after three hundred years of linking farms, mills, warehouses, and factories we are left with haphazard old Norton, an evolving entanglement of winding roads connecting small working villages. We may not have an ideal crossroads for a Hollywood ending or hold a dance under the stars but Norton is a great place to live just the same.