Imagine the map without names like Lazbuddie, Texas; Bowlegs, Okla.; or Braggadocio, Mo.; or the West Virginia towns of Left Hand and Cucumber, of Odd and of Shock.
There's not much to eat in Grubville, Mo., or to see in Art, Texas, but those names are a feast for the eyes. Life sounds sweet in Honeydew, Calif., and Beetown, Wis. Just from its name you know Dwarf, Ky., is a little town.
You'd be crazy not to miss Battiest, Okla. Who's deaf to the poetry of Bergoo (W.Va.), Wikieup (Ariz.) and Mizpah (Minn.)? Or immune to the intrigue suggested by settlements named Chinese Camp, Calif., and Panther Burn, Miss.?
The Postal Service, which loses about $36 million a day, wants to close more than 3,700 smaller post offices (more than a tenth of the national total) in these and other communities. Although some will survive, and although a town that loses its post office doesn't necessarily disappear, postal closings will hasten the homogenization of our national map.
Unusual local place names, often chosen by pioneer settlers to make a joke, mark an occasion or grind an axe, are slowly being squeezed out by ones fabricated by developers to market real estate, according to Mike Hill of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.
Provocative old monikers will not soon disappear. But over time fewer settlements will be called things such as Zap, N.D., Jay Em, Wyo., and Fisty, Ky. - all post offices slated for closing. And more will have synthetic names that spell harbor with a "u" and town with an "e."
Hill calls this process "suburban swallow up;" colorfully named places are slowly eased out by subdivisions, some named after the natural features (Bretton Woods) or creatures (Grouse Run) they obliterate or displace.
"For the most part," he says, "we stopped making good new place names a long time ago."
Many strangely named old communities are fading. Although the U.S. population increased almost 10% between 2000 and 2010, it dropped in many places faced with a post office closing, including Chinese Camp, Braggadocio and Mizpah, as well as Quail, Texas; Driftwood, Pa.; Crowheart, Wyo.; Alligator, Miss.; Coin, Iowa; Zwingle, Iowa; Maxbass, N.D.; Muddy, Ill.; Bone Gap, Ill.; and Umpire, Ark.
Many others increased less than the national average, including Rosie, Ark.; Bromide, Okla.; Stout, Iowa; and Krypton, Ky. With 90 residents, the future is dim in the West Virginia coal town of Twilight.
These names tell stories from a wilder, younger country, one of gunfighters and moonshiners, cowboys and Indians, miners and trappers, of tent revivals and covered wagons. They aspire (Ideal, Ga.), boast (Admire, Kan.) and exaggerate (Pep, Texas, is a sleepy town that's never had a population above 100). Recluse, Wyo., lamented the distance between its post office and its ranches.
Their loss would be our loss. As the writer H.L. Mencken observed, the U.S. map is dotted with "examples of the most daring and charming fancy." Poet Steven Vincent Benet agreed: "I have fallen in love with American names."
We love our place names so much that we steal them.
In Bug Tussle, a dusty crossroads on the plains of North Texas, the highway markers have been stolen so many times - around 70, according to residents - that the state has stopped spending the $500 it costs to replace one.
When a Bug Tussle sign was hung on the empty general store that used to house the post office (which closed in 1894), someone stole that, too.
From fraternity boys to curio collectors, "everyone loves that name," says Jan Allen, one of about 15 local residents, who markets a salsa with the Bug Tussle brand. "They have to have it."
'Dull dogs,' those Englishmen
America's English colonizers had no knack for names. They memorialized what George Rippey Stewart, author of the magisterial Names on the Land, called "the periwigged Lords of London," who did nothing for America "to deserve the naming of so much as an outhouse."
Mencken decried the "unimaginative town names of the New England Puritans. ... The early English settlers were dull dogs, and very few of the names they bestowed upon the land showed any imagination." Exhibit A: Plymouth Rock.
Or they adopted Indian names, which sound funny (Exhibit B: Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.) only to those unfamiliar with the language.
With exceptions such as Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand, Pa., it was not until Americans moved west that they rolled up their sleeves and produced the names that still enchant. And they did so, notes Frank Gallant, author of a book on U.S. place names, "without worrying what people back East would think."
Behind almost every off-beat name is a story or legend (usually several, often conflicting). Few are wholly plausible; fewer are verifiable. Many involve a post office.
Sweet Home, Texas, got its name before the Civil War when settler Solomon West moved his family from Alabama to 2,200 acres along Mustang Creek in Lavaca County. "Pa, this would be a sweet home!" his daughter Mary exclaimed.
Battiest, Okla., was named for a Choctaw Indian judge. Bowlegs was a Seminole family surname. Braggadocio, according to Our Storehouse of Missouri Place Names, referred to the comic knight Sir Braggadoccio in Edmund Spencer's epic poem, The Faerie Queen. Chinese Camp was a segregated mining town.
Many frontier settlements had no formal name, just whatever people called them, often because of a geologic formation or general store. But when it was time to apply for a local postal branch, someone had to write something down and send it to the Post Office Department in Washington.
There were more than twice as many postal branches in 1900 as today, and many names were rejected because other post offices in the state already had them.
Otherwise, Pep, Texas, would still be the less energetic Ludwig; Likely, Calif., would be the generic South Fork; Sacul - "Lucas" spelled backwards - would be Lucas, Texas, in honor of a town father with that surname.
Lazbuddie, in the Texas Panhandle, is named for Luther "Laz" Green and Andrew "Buddie" Sherley, who started the general store in which the post office opened in 1926 and operates today.
Nowthen, Minn., supposedly was so named in the 1890s because its first postmaster had the habit of saying, "Now, then ..." What is today Peculiar, Mo., ("Where the 'odds' are with you") had several names rejected as duplicates. Finally, the postmaster told the U.S. postmaster general, "We don't care what name you give us so long as it is sort of peculiar." He probably meant "unusual."
Several U.S. towns are Nameless. After the one in Texas failed to get Post Office approval of six suggested names, someone wrote Washington in 1880: "Let the post office be nameless and be damned!" Done!
Today, as the result of proposed closings, several towns could lose the very post offices that helped give them their names. Odd, W.Va., the story has it, was named when residents gathered to name the post office and one said of another's suggestion, "That's odd!"
Similarly, Art, Texas, was Plehweville until World War I. Then the Post Office ordered a new name, because chronic misspelling of the old one was leading to lost mail. Postmaster Eli Dechart renamed it - with the last three letters of his surname.
From Romance to Hell
If fans of America's peculiarly named communities are worried about the future, it's because so many already have disappeared.
Four different Missouri settlements called Hog Eye were renamed something more dignified, and one in Texas simply disappeared. Skunktown, N.J., a market for skunk pelts, prettied itself up as Sergeantsville in 1827 when the post office opened. Bugscuffle, Texas, became Valley Spring for the same reason in 1878.
The California mining town of Dry Diggings, aka Hangtown, became Placerville in 1854 at the behest of temperance activists and church members. (Dry Diggings referred to how miners moved cartloads of dry soil to running water to separate gold.)
But a catchy name also can be a ticket to survival.
Many communities have name that allure. They include Frostproof, Fla., (which really isn't); the nation's 12-plus Paradises and 25-odd Edens; and Fertile, Minn., whose farmland may be rich but whose post office could be closing.
Frank Gallant, author of A Place Called Peculiar: Stories About Unusual American Place Names, says "some small towns have always done whatever they could to attract attention." That includes trading on a distinctive postmark.
Romance, Ark., allegedly was named by a teacher who found the view from the town's bluffs romantic. Now, each Valentine's Day the local post office issues a specially designed postmark. Annually, it handles about 7,500 valentines and wedding invitations sent from around the world to receive the postmark.
People even come there to get married; a minister and a justice of the peace are standing by.
At the other end of the lexicon is the summer recreation hamlet of Hell, Mich. (five hours south of Paradise, Mich.)
Local people disagree on whether its name stems from the mosquitoes, swamps and thickets encountered by settlers; or from a German traveler who remarked one sunny day, "So schön hell!" - "So beautifully bright!"; or from a town father who, asked what to call it, replied, "Name it Hell for all I care."
The town leverages its nominal connection to the hereunder. The annual car show features hearses, and a road race is called the "Run Through Hell." You can slurp ice cream at a parlor called Screams; eat at Hell's Kitchen; buy an "I've been thru Hell and back" T-shirt at the Hell in a Hand Basket Country Store.
The store also sells Hell-themed post cards (including "Wish you were here") with singed edges, which can be mailed with the hand-stamped postmark "Hell Rural Station - Have a Hell of a day."
Ask Karen Haigh, the store manager, if it's true that some people come to get the infamous postmark on their tax returns and divorce papers. Her reply: "Hell, yeah!"
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