News & Events
Discover Mid-America February 2005
There is no part of
the world where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous and picturesque
as in the United States of America.
Fortunately for today's residents, the city fathers quickly squelched
the name. Can you picture football fans rooting for the Possum Trot Chiefs?
Humansville, a town of 1084 in northwest Polk County not far from Bolivar, inspires smiles from travelers, who assume the earliest residents identified themselves primarily as Homo sapiens. The truth is less interesting. The town was named for James G. Human, a Tennessee native, who settled near a big spring and attracted others to join him.
Devils Elbow, a small town in Phelps County near Rolla, was named by boatmen who had to negotiate a bad stretch of the Big Piney River that flows nearby.
Frankenstein, a village located near the Missouri River in northern Osage County, was named for German settlers before Mary Shelley made the name synonymous with Transylvanian horror.
In a one-of-a-kind October civic event in 1999, a group of 25 skydivers, all dressed in Frankenstein costumes, descended on the tiny town to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the comedy film, Young Frankenstein, and its re-release. At the end of the jump, the monsters handed out copies of the film to the villages 30 residents, whose mayor renamed the town Young Frankenstein in honor of the occasion.
In 2002, ham radio operators in Jefferson City and Warrensburg held a FunXpedition to Frankenstein on Halloween. The group operated several stations simultaneously in and around the village.
Peculiar, located in Cass County south of Kansas City, may be one of Missouris most (ahem) peculiar place names. According to Margot Ford McMillen in her book, Paris, Tightwad, and Peculiar: Missouri Place Names, there are two versions of the towns origin. One story relates how some early settlers, looking for a homestead site, came to the brow of a hill and one of them remarked, thats peculiar. Its the very place I saw in a vision in Connecticut! Another story has it that a Postmaster, exhausted by submitting various names that were rejected, was advised by his superiors in the Post Office Department to submit something new or peculiar.
McMillen writes that Tightwad, a village in Henry County, MO, got its name from the owner of the first store in the settlement then called Edgewood. A mail carrier bought a watermelon from the storeowner for $1.50, and asked him to hold it for him while he delivered the mail in his buggy. A little later, a man from the city came by and offered $2 to the storeowner, who promptly sold the melon and replaced it with another from his garden. The mail carrier came by to get his melon, and realized it was smaller than the one he had bought. As he left the store he yelled Tightwad! Tightwad!
When the post office officially named the town, the name stuck. It is not known whether or not the mail carrier eventually became the Postmaster and got his revenge and poetic justice.
For many years, the Toad Suck Ferry carried cars and passengers across
the river. Then in 1973, the Highway 60 Bridge was built, eliminating
the ferry. But the name was still there, hung on a small tavern located
on the south bank of the river.
Some of Coloradoıs best-named towns were coined during the gold and silver booms, when mining camps took on grandiose titles, only to crumble into slag heaps when the ore petered out.
Names like Beartown, Climax, Lulu City, Nevadaville, Parrot City, Pie Plant, Saint Elmo, Smuggler and Tin Cup stand out as creative efforts, but there are many more. A variety of old buildings can still be seen, most in ruins, but some are still occupied during the summer months. Four-wheelers are recommended, but some of the towns can be visited in the family sedan. An excellent website, www.ghosttowns.com, offers a photo gallery and comments by visitors.
Some of the still-active towns have odd names, although the origins of many defy research. Hygiene is a town of 350, located near Longmont in Boulder County. It grew up around a sanatorium founded by the Rev. Jacob S. Flory and the Church of the Brethren. The church, built as part of the sanatorium, is still standing.
Among saloons, mines and towns, not surprisingly the name Last Chance would be found. One of my research sources speculated that this small town in northeast Colorado at the intersection of Hwy. 36 and 71 in Washington County originated because of the silver rush in the late 1800s, and may have indicated this was the last chance for miners to make their fortune.
However, after driving through the town on my way West, I believe the founding fathers recognized the place as the last chance to rest, eat and get gas before driving the 30 or more miles to the outskirts of Denver.
Towns with Native American origins predominate in Oklahoma, but a few unusual names can be found, including Bowlegs, Cookietown, Frogville, Okay and Slapout.
Cookietown, located in Cotton County in southeastern Oklahoma, is down to a handful of people, according to www.ohwy.com, a source of American ghost towns. Legend has it that a general store owner was generous with cookies, handing them out to the settlementıs children. One little boy, after getting his cookie, remarked, I don't want to leave Cookietown.
Speaking of ghost towns, the above website also mentioned that a settlement called Beertown existed in Oklahoma's wild days of the 1880s. Located in Beaver County, in the panhandle area across from Liberal, KS, Beertown consisted of little more than a tavern and brothel (with talent from Dodge City) run by local outlaws.
Okay, a town of 597 in Wagoner County between Wagoner and Fort Gibson, got its name from a truck manufacturing company that was the townıs largest employer in 1919.
Eliza Steele, a woman traveling in Illinois in 1840, noted that although she hadn't been traveling in a balloon, she visited many foreign-sounding places on her steamboat trip down the Illinois River. Steele reported visiting Marseilles, Florence, Naples, Liverpool, Brussels and Rome on her river voyage. Other European names found in Illinois include Peru, Havana, Baden, Berlin and many more.
Chicago may not seem like an odd name, but its original settlers may have thought their settlement to have its own problems. The Algonquin tribe named the area Chicago, which in their language means onion place or garlic place.
Is everything normal in Normal? In 1857, Illinois Gov. William Bissell signed a bill creating a normal school. The term was based on French teaching schools and was applied to teachers' colleges throughout the nation. Platted in 1854, the town was officially incorporated under the name of Normal in February 1865. The city of more than 45,000 adjacent to Bloomington is located in the center of the state.
Sandwich, a town of 6,500 just west of Chicago, originated in 1855 when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad surveyed land through Almon Cage's property. Cage gave land to build the depot, and the town, a flag stop on the railroad line, was named Almon after its benefactor. Cage offered free lots to settlers willing to build, but decided he wanted a different town name. Newark Station was agreed to, but scrapped due to confusion with another Newark to the south.
Another citizen named Long John Wentworth became a congressman and used his influence to get the trains to stop on a regular basis. For his help, the citizens allowed him to name the town Sandwich after his hometown of Sandwich, New Hampshire
Chew on more Sandwich facts at www.sandwich.il.us.
Get more details
A variety of websites are helpful in finding weird place names, including previously given URLs. Another good website for funny and unusual place names is www.floydpinkerton.net. Also check out www.amusingfacts.com.
County historical societies are helpful. Many have websites that can
be found by searching the Internet.
Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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