Unfolding the Map
What's in a name? Evidently not much, if your town is Nameless. But wait, if it's Nameless, does it have a name or not? Perhaps Nameless is a name, or perhaps it could be a state of being. Now I'm confusing myself. Follow us as we track William Least-Heat Moon (LHM) on his journey around America. To see where Nameless lies, click on the map. Even though it's Nameless, I can guarantee this is the place.
"Nameless, Tennessee, was a town of maybe ninety people if you pushed it, a dozen houses along the road, a couple of barns, same number of churches, a general merchandise store selling Fire Chief gasoline, and a community center with a lighted volleyball court. Behind the center was an open-roof, rusting metal privy with PAINT ME on the door; in the hollow of a nearby oak lay a full pint of Jack Daniel's Black Label. From the houses, the odor of coal smoke."
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 16
Why is Nameless Nameless? LHM gives an account of the reason the town has its name in Blue Highways, quoting from Thurmond Watts and his wife, Virginia:
I stepped in and they both began telling the story, adding a detail here, the other correcting a fact there, both smiling at the foolishness of it all. It seems the hilltop settlement went for years without a name. Then one day the Post Office Department told the people if they wanted mail up on the mountain they would have to give the place a name you couple properly address a ltter to. The community met; there were only a handful, but they commenced debating. Some wanted patriotic names, some names from nature, one man recommended in all seriousness his own name. They couldn't agree, and they ran out of names to argue about. Finally, a fellow tired of the talk; he didn't like the mail he received anyway. "Forget the durn Post Office," he said. "This here's a nameless place if I ever seen one, so leave it be." And that's just what they did.
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 16
Apparently, this is not the only story of Nameless. According to Wikipedia, another legend is that when the application for the post office was sent in, the name of the community was left blank, and the word "Nameless" was stamped on the returned application. Wikipedia also reports that a local official wanted the town to be named Morgan after the county's attorney general, but the Post Office demurred, saying that the name was still too freshly connected with a Confederate hero. The official then said that if the name Morgan couldn't be used, he'd prefer that the community remain nameless. And now it is.
Place names can evoke lots of feelings, both pro and con. According to my sister, my hometown in California had a recent debate about placenames. Seems that some, perhaps new residents of the town, wanted to change the name. "Fort Bragg" was too confusing to people as it has the same name as a military base in North Carolina. It also, according to these people, had a bad past in terms of its conduct toward the local native population as it was founded as a reservation. These people suggested the name "Braggadoon" to evoke a sense of the magical and whimsical associated with the musical Brigadoon about a Scottish village that appears once every 100 years. Perhaps not coincidentally, a local art and sign shop in town is called "Braggadoon," so it stood to make a lot of business if the name change was effected. As you can imagine, there was lots of debate on each side. I'm sitting here now, in my mom's house in Fort Bragg, so obviously the name change didn't happen. But what was really interesting, especially reading the posts on the local newspaper's web forum, was how passionately people felt.
The interesting thing to me is speculating on whether Nameless, if given the chance today, would be able to get such a name at all. A post office was established there, but being an unincorporated city, it is doubtful that it would get a post office at all if it applied for one today. The Postal Service is cutting back, not adding, service. It now delivers mail six days per week, but is considering cutting back to five. The price of stamps seems to go up every six months or so as the Postal Service competes with e-mail. Applications by small communities that want a post office would probably be denied. So 100 years ago, Nameless could be Nameless. Today, Nameless would be part of a larger district, and people would address their letters to Cookeville, with a special zip code for people in Nameless. And therefore, today, many small, aspiring towns would truly be nameless, except in the minds of the locals. Is that sad? I'm not sure, because the feelings and thoughts of the residents are what truly matters. If residents wish to be Nameless or nameless, it's their business.
If you want to know more about Nameless
Cookville Herald-Citizen articles about Nameless
Nameless, Tennessee (Song by The Travelers)
Online excerpt from Blue Highways: Nameless
TripWow slideshow of Spring City and Nameless by Mary Pardue (including a photo of the Watts Store where William Least Heat-Moon visited)
Next up: Cookeville, Tennessee