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A Connecticut Town’s Tribute to a Bullfrog Battle

article-imageThread City Crossing Bridge (via Wikimedia)

Drive through tiny Willimantic in Eastern Connecticut, and you may notice an amphibian obsession. Many local businesses are named after frogs, or feature frogs in their logos. Colorful statues of frogs dot Main Street. Frogs even feature in local graffiti.

Willimantic’s more rural borough, Windham, sees even more frogs turning up in schoolyards and on houses. And near Willimantic’s center is a bridge flanked with four columns, each topped with an 11-foot-tall frog staring majestically into the distance.

article-imageWillimantic Brewing Company, a Local Microbrewer (courtesy Willimantic Brewing Company)

So what’s with all the frogs? The answer rests in the town’s early days. One summer, in the 1750s, the town had been suffering a heat wave of several days’ duration, when late one night they were woken up by terrifying noises in the woods, unlike anything anyone had ever heard. Some thought it was attacking wolves or bears, and others feared it was an invading army. Still others were terror stricken that it was trumpets heralding the end of the world.

The terrified town posted a guard overnight, and come morning — when the noises finally ceased — they sent a search party to investigate. About 100 yards into the woods, they reached a local pond, and discovered it was nearly dried up. Lining the pond’s dry bed were the carcasses of dozens and dozens of bullfrogs. The frogs, they sheepishly realized, had been the source of the noises which had terrified everyone the night before.

article-imageWindham Historic Frog Pond (photograph by the author)

Windham faced an uncomfortable few years as the story of their cowardice got out. But then, rather than trying to live it down, Windham chose to embrace the story as part of its identity, giving a frog a place of honor on the official town seal. Frogs and Windham have been linked ever since.

The site of the “Bullfrog Battle” — located near Windham’s border with nearby Scotland, Connecticut, alongside a state highway — is now privately owned. The town erected a marker next to it in the 1920s, but recently moved it to Windham’s green after underbrush threatened to obscure it. Fittingly, the town green is where many residents huddled in fear of the froggy chorus.

article-imageWindham Green With Frog Pond Marker (photograph by the author)

The biggest frog landmark in Willimantic is a bridge, officially named “Thread City Crossing.” The original state DOT design was more straightforward, but residents turned it down, asking for something with more “character.” Designers then added the frogs, perching each one upon a spool of thread in homage to Willimantic’s former heyday as a textile mill town.

The frogs even have names: “Willy” and “Manny,” after Willimantic; “Windy” for Windham; and “Swifty,” after Willimantic’s purported Algonquin meaning, “land of the swift running water.” The bridge opened in 2000, and won a Federal Award for Excellence in Highway Design in 2002.

article-imageThread City Crossing Frog Sculpture (photograph by the author)

The frog statues’ design inspired a “Frog Parade” in 2005, akin to similar community art projects in other cities. Local artists each decorated one of 20 fiberglass frogs, which were then displayed around town before being auctioned off for charity. Some of the sculptures can still be spotted throughout town. One sits beside the door to Windham Center Elemetary School, near Windham’s Green, while another adorns the lobby of WILI-AM, the local radio station. Still another sits eight miles away in Storrs, Connecticut, in the University of Connecticut’s biology department building. 

article-imageUConn Frog (photograph by the author)

Speaking of UConn’s biology department, one of their Assistant Professors-in-Residence, Susan Z. Herrick, grew up in Windham herself, and has an interesting theory about the original incident. Traditionally, the story claims the frogs were fighting for the dwindling water in the pond, but Herrick, who specializes in frog behavior, suspects the frogs may have been trying to make love, not war. In bullfrogs — the species in Windham’s pond — males usually carve out their own territory on a pond bank, then call to attract a mate.

“The noises are what we call ‘advertisement’ calls,” says Herrick. “An advertisement call tells other males about the male making the call — body size, condition, the fact that he has a territory, the fact that he is in the market — and is also telling females about the male making the call.”

But rather than trying to out-shout each other, Herrick’s research has found neighboring frogs will take turns. First one calls, then the other. Other species take a less-cooperative approach — rather than picking a territory and luring females in, they crowd together where females may be, all shouting for attention. “Kind of like the single’s bar scene in humans,” Herrick jokes.

article-imageWillimantic Frog Sculpture (photograph by Cometstarmoon/Flickr user)

article-imageFrog View Marketplace (photograph by Doug Kerr)

In the course of her research, Herrick learned that in extreme situations, other frog species sometimes switch from one mating strategy to another, and she suspects that may have been the case in Windham:

“As the shoreline shrank, the males were losing their territories physically, as well as getting pushed closer together. At some point, they reached the situation where there were simply way too many males in far too small of a pond. I think all the males gave up on having any territory at all and focused strictly on at least getting a female. With no coordination of calls, it must have been a God-awful noise, and I think this is what the villagers heard.”

Herrick is continuing her research into frog behavior, and credits the famous story with sparking her interest in the first place — one more monument to Windham’s frogs.  

article-image Windham Town Seal (photograph by the author)