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Wilton’s silent policeman: The Main Street ‘dummy’

Historic traffic signal may be the last of its kind in existence

Wilton's 1920s traffic "dummy" stands, recently restored, on Main Street.

Wilton's 1920s traffic "dummy" stands, recently restored, on Main Street.

Wilton’s “dummy” stands alone at the westerly end of Main Street, performing silent duty of an obscure nature. It blinks yellow from two directions, red from another. It seems a bit like a traffic light, but not completely.

A more familiar signal would hang from above. It wouldn’t hunker below, in the middle of the street, tucked in a garden of yellow lilies. Though Wilton people stand and admire, out-of-towners scratch their heads over this quirky monument, if they think about it at all. It might be the least understood landmark in the Souhegan Valley.

Back when the dummy was erected, in the fall of 1925, the westerly end of Main Street was not really the “end” of anything. It was the first of many sharp turns in a difficult stretch of the Southside Highway, the main east-west artery crossing the state. In another 30 years the Wilton bypass would straighten out that section, but in 1925 every bit of traffic heading toward Keene had to rattle through the town’s center, turn left at the bridge, and climb Burns Hill.

The turn was poorly lit at night, and early-century headlights didn’t help much. Plus, it was more complicated than most. Some drivers traveling west wanted to split off toward Lyndeborough. Others descending from Burns Hill wanted to go there as well. Many coming from Lyndeborough planned to go straight ahead down Main Street. Their paths would cross. Drivers would hit the brakes. It was a lawless world and there were collisions.

If Wilton had been a bigger place, there might have been a policeman there to keep order. But the town had no budget for that. It needed a silent policeman, one that asked for no wages. In that day “silent” people were (inappropriately) said to be “dumb.” The solution in Wilton, therefore, was a “dumb policeman,” or “dummy” for short.

A company called AGA specialized in beacons that performed such silent labors. It was an American spinoff of a Swedish company that had developed — and now was producing — automated lighthouse mechanisms for the Great Lakes. Before long, AGA had extended its technology to self-powered lights on channel buoys and along remote air strips.

In the automobile’s early years, the company looked for vehicular applications. After all, intersections like the one in Wilton were isolated in their own way, with no overhead wires or underground cable yet with a need for power out there in the middle of traffic. To meet this need, AGA dummies often ran on acetylene, the pressure tank stowed away in the dummy’s hollow base and swapped out every two months when the gas ran low. AGA’s initials stood for American Gas Accumulator, which made complete sense.

Once Wilton’s dummy was installed, it was a lot safer to drive at that spot. The silent authority of the flashing light told you to slow down or stop, depending on which way you approached. Lettering on the side said to stay to the right. Some AGA dummies instructed you to use your turn signal. It was more explicit than the usual traffic light, and in the mindset of the ’20s, comforting to have an officer there to bring this semblance of order.

Of course, the times changed. In 1953, a new Wilton bypass took away most of the traffic, so the silent policeman didn’t have as much to do. When the beacon broke, it was discarded rather than replaced. By the 1970s only its stub remained at the top of the post, and later that too disappeared, leaving a ragged hole that funneled snow and rain into its interior until the paint peeled and rust holes developed here and there. Now without a light and with its instructions peeling off, a more cryptic policeman remained on duty, mystifying some people but, in its scruffiness, inspiring a protective love from Wiltonites. They supplied their own message now: Don’t mess with the dummy.

That sentiment has continued to this day, and that’s a good thing. There are only a handful of dummies left in the U.S. — some on steel poles or spindly legs, others bolted to massive concrete slabs. But Willis Lamm of Nevada, an expert on such matters, says that Wilton’s may be the last of the AGAs. There used to be one in Corinna, Maine, he says, but it was removed some 25 years ago when the street was redone.

Many in town feel that Wilton’s should not suffer the same fate. About a year ago, Chuck Crawford, at Kimball Physics, took action by fabricating and installing — at his own expense — a beacon that closely resembled the original. That was followed, this year, by the Wilton Main Street Association’s push to restore the dummy stand itself. They researched the best way to do that, and the town stepped up to see that the work was done. A refurbished dummy reported for duty a few weeks ago.

Wilton’s dummy is a treasure, quite possibly the last of its kind on Earth. It doesn’t yet have Historic Landmark status, but it should. And perhaps that’s the next step.

Tom Belt is a Wilton resident, former English teacher and local historian.

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