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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.”
‹ Robert Louis Stevenson

When you travel in the Heartland, it's unavoidable not to encounter numerous towns with unusual names. With a healthy curiosity and an interest in history, it's easy to wonder how these names came to be.

What kind of city fathers would name their town Toad Suck? Was Moscow Mills settled by Russians? Were the first settlers of Tightwad really stingy?

Lickskillet and Possum Trot are famous entries on the list of ill-conceived place names. But unless my research is faulty, these names don't apply to real-life towns that exist today. For decades, Lickskillet was a popular epithet for any small town —usually one whose high school football or basketball team was competing with yours. Possum Trot was actually considered in the earliest days of Kansas City, MO, when the town consisted of crude shacks perched on the river bluff and connected with pathways resembling something made by small animals in the woods.

Fortunately for today's residents, the city fathers quickly squelched the name. Can you picture football fans rooting for the Possum Trot Chiefs?

Place names in the Midwest originated from words derived mainly from the Native Americans and the French, only to be corrupted into different English words later. Many were brought to the region with settlers from other states. Some were derived from rivers, mountains, important crossroads, and other landmarks. Others were named for important settlers.

By the time the post office got around to establishing mail delivery in rural areas in the late 1800s, some settlements that went by various nicknames had to decide on their true identities. Many of the smaller villages, bypassed by railroads and interstates, have faded into weed-covered obscurity

Missouri curiosities

A highway map of Midwestern states reveals many names that inspire curiosity. In Missouri, Black Jack comes to mind.

The city of 6,792 in St. Louis County has one group of historians that claim it was named for an African-American settler who is buried in a nearby cemetery. Another reason is given on the city's website,, which references the Black Jack as a type of American Oak. It reports that a trio of unusually large Black Jack trees grew at the crossroads of Old Halls Ferry and Parker Roads in the 1840s, providing shade and shelter for farmers hauling their wares to market. The travelers would rest overnight and resume their journey the next day. The trees became a sheltering point known as “the Black Jacks.”

Thomas Fletcher built a one-room log cabin near the site, and later Joseph Lieber built a general store. Julius Nolte, a Civil War veteran, came home in 1865 to run the general store and become the town's first postmaster. As of 2002, Black Jack boasted some 43 stores, eight churches and three elementary schools

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 village’s 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 Missouri’s 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 town’s 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, “that’s peculiar. It’s 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.

Kansas novelties

Punkin Center, a small town in Reno County in south central Kansas, is one of eight locations with the same name, according to Mike Cox, editor of The other states are Arizona, Louisiana and Missouri, with Texas having four communities originally named Punkin Center.

The origin of the name is obscure, although it's assumed the early settlers may have relied on pumpkins as a staple to get them through the winter. Ironically, according to Mike Cox, the Punkin Centers in Texas are all located in areas that aren't known for growing pumpkins.

No longer on state maps, Buttermilk was the name of an early Kansas settlement. Its origin is obscure, but probably akin to Punkin Center, in that the settlers felt that buttermilk and other homegrown foodstuffs made their lives secure.

Burden, a village of 564 in southeastern Kansas near Winfield in Cowly County, was populated largely by religious people who felt uncomfortable in their previous homes and agonized over the growing dispute of slavery in the Kansas Territory during the years leading up to the Civil War. The exact origin is uncertain, but “laying your burden down” was something the God-fearing settlers did when they arrived in Burden.

Arkansas exotics
Arkansas is a treasure-trove of unusual names, with tiny villages in coves and hollows tagged with creative appellations. Probably the most outrageous town name is Toad Suck, located just west of Clinton on the Arkansas River.

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.

There are many stories told to explain the name. The most common refers to bargemen who drank rum and moonshine at the small tavern, and “sucked on bottles until they swelled up like toads.”

Other researchers disagree. Russ John, who has researched the name extensively, states on that the name may be a corruption of the French eau d'sucre, meaning “sweet water.” Or, he speculates, the tavern which first used the name could have been known as a “sugar shack,” which in French is Taudis Sucre.”

Another explanation might be a geographical feature called a “suck,” caused when a riverıs high water level falls, leaving pools that fill with toads and tadpoles.

Still another version is reported by Tim Albers, a Texan who has researched hundreds of place names. Albers maintains that Arkansas natives call an area of thick mud a “suck” because the goo can suck a personıs shoes off. And the area has many toads.

So take your pick. Whatever its origin, Toad Suck is unique to Arkansas. And although it claims a population of 288, the town isn't listed on most atlases and road maps.

Other Arkansas towns have origins that are less puzzling. Smackover, a town of more than 2,000 located north of El Dorado in Union County, was originally named Chemin Couvert by French settlers. The name translates to English as “Smack Cover.” The post office shortened the name.

Nebraska wonders
Weeping Water, a southeastern Nebraska town of more than 1,000 in Otoe County, owes the origin of its name to an Indian legend. Located on a creek called by the French L'Eau qui Pleure or “The Water that Weeps,” the town was named for the creek and incorporated in 1857.

But the creek got its name from an old story in the Otoe tradition.

According to the Otoes, a powerful tribe lived near the source of the stream. The chief's beautiful daughter was coveted by a neighboring tribe's chief, who abducted her while she was bathing with some other young women in a small lake near the village. The first tribe quickly pursued the attackers but the rescue party was overpowered and killed. The women who had been left in charge of the camp waited for their men to return, then set out to look for them. They discovered the battle scene, and their tears of sorrow formed the Weeping Water River. Wynot, a village of 191 just off Hwy. 12 in northeastern Nebraska, owes its origin to an old German man whose name is lost to history. One of the original settlers, he would answer all questions “W'y not?” He was laughingly imitated by the settlement's youngsters, and the older residents picked up the phrase. The words came quickly to mind when the post office needed a name for the town.

Iowa oddities

What Cheer, a town of 762 in Keokuk County, southeastern Iowa, was first named Peterburgh in 1865, but the name had to be changed to avoid confusion with another Iowa town of the same name. Many of the settlers came from England and Europe. In 1879, the citizens voted to name their town What Cheer, a salutation dating back to 15th century England.

Home of a flea market that attracts thousands to the fairgrounds the first weekend of May, August and October, the townıs other attraction is the What Cheer Opera House. Built in 1883, the restored building hosts shows and concerts.

The village of Beebeetown is in Harrison County, just off I-680 in the southwest part of the state, an area settled by Mormons. Beebeetown was named for the first postmaster, Frederick F. Beebee, who donated land for a country store. The post office operated from 1879 to 1903.

Colorado rarities

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,, 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.

Oklahoma uniqueness

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, 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.

Illinois peculiarities

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

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 Also check out

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

> Discover Mid-America Archive — Past cover stories

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