A morning commute through Chimney Corners is uneventful, most days. A few gas stations, stoplights and road markers generally draw little attention. A particularly congested day at intersection, however, allows for a second look at the green and white directional signs.
Just after the Colchester town line, one road sign heralds “Malletts Bay” ahead. Less than a half-mile later, the directions printed in otherwise identical form point drivers to “Mallets Bay,” dropping the second “T.”
The discrepancy is subtle, of course, working almost like a “spot the difference” game in the Sunday comics. But the small variation offers a look into a widespread uncertainty that has plagued the town for centuries.
As Colchester historian Inge Schaefer tells it, the Malletts confusion stems from more than just a failed spellcheck. In fact, the puzzlement dates back to pre-revolutionary times.
“The bay by any other name may be Mallet,” Schaefer wrote in her book “Images of America: Colchester.”
The scenic body of water is named for Cpt. Stephen Mallett (or was it Mallet?), a reportedly “high-seas swashbuckler,” known for his independent spirit and grouchy demeanor. He built a home and ran a rough and tumble tavern on the bay, Schaefer said, fearing neither “principalities nor powers.”
“He was kind of isolated,” Schaefer said. “It’s kind of comical. Supposedly there are gold coins and different treasures that might have been hidden around Colchester by these questionable characters.”
Some Vermont historians believe Mallett settled in Colchester even before the American Revolution, refusing to fully pledge allegiance to the British monarchy or to the newly formed American colonies.
“It seems that he never accepted the Treaty of Peace which gave control over his lands to the English,” Vermont historian Ralph Nading Hill wrote. “His sympathies were on the side of the rebellion, for he welcomed spies and smugglers into his home all through the Revolutionary period.”
There’s even a firsthand account from Vermont founder Ira Allen, who came across Mallett’s encampment near the end of Marble Island Road. “His settlement had the appearance of great antiquity,” Allen wrote.
Yet the historic documents, all telling Mallett’s tale, are dotted with a wide variety of spellings. Schaefer said she’s seen the pirate figure called Malet, Mallet and Mallett. Even his first name, Stephen, has come into question with some historians favoring Jean-Pierre or Pierre instead.
A Frenchman, Mallett may have originally pronounced his surname (however it was spelled) “Ma-lay.” Schaefer said the rhyming “Ma-lay Bay” may have stuck for a short time, but locals eventually favored the hard consonant sound.
And despite a 1860s campaign to change the bay’s name to Winooski Bay, Schaefer said the scoundrel Cpt. Mallett’s legacy has lived on throughout the town – nearly always with two “L’s” and two “T’s.”
“It is the more accepted spelling,” Schaefer said. “It’s just the one that has stuck for most people that are local here.”
Certainly, most of Colchester’s attractions use that version on clearly labeled signs – Malletts Bay School, Malletts Bay Fire Department and Malletts Bay Cemetery to name a few.
Even so, as a longtime Colchester resident, Schaefer can rattle off several “alternately spelled” signs with ease. Some were replaced, she said, while others remain standing – perhaps a little defiantly. The most popular variation keeps the double “L” and drops the second “T,” she said.
Dozens of online real estate listings regale the beauty of cabins on the sandy cove of “Mallets Bay.” Others review the amenities at the “Mallet’s Bay Campground” and advertise for the “Mallets Bay Boat Club.”
And while internet search engines ask, “did you mean Malletts Bay?” Microsoft Word underlines the moniker in red, suggesting “Mallets,” instead.
“The more you’re unsure, the more apt you are to just use one ‘T,’” Schaefer said. She’s seen the various spellings pop up in town reports, city records and even (gulp!) the local newspaper.
“You know, you want to pull your hair out,” Schaefer said, laughing.
Indeed, The Sun has not been wholly consistent in a few of our printed editions. A photo caption in our June 4, 2015 edition called Dave Scibek the fire chief in “Mallets Bay.” An article published a few months later reviewed a restaurant 45 minutes away from the “Mallet’s Bay area,” apostrophe included.
The Mallett name may be such a bone of contention, Schaefer speculates, because it represents more than just the name of a busy road or local school – it’s personal. Schaefer said the distinct sections of town mean many locals believe they live in Malletts Bay, not Colchester.
“It’s difficult to kind of get that sense of community,” she said. “Spelling the names right would be a big help.”