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Blue Highways: Salem, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

What is in a place name, especially those that evoke other places?  I am of the opinion that place names often help us keep alive those other places that we came from or identify with.  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) swings through Salem, New Jersey we'll see how this little town inspired the names of possibly three other Salems in the United States.  To see the source of this inspiration, please be inspired to visit the map.  The red oak leaf, at right, comes from New Jersey's official state tree.

Book Quote

"Salem, a colonial town to the west, was abundant with old buildings and homes that would be museums most anywhere else in the country, but here they were just more declining houses, even though many stood when the men of Salem sent beef to Valley Forge to help save Washington's troops from starvation.  The town is the birthplace of Zadock Street, a restless fellow who left New Jersey in 1803 to make his way into the new western territory.  As he went, he and his sons founded towns in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, and named them all Salem; in Ohio, his Salem sprouted North Salem, West Salem, South Salem, Lower Salem, and Salem Center.  Americans can be thankful that Zadock Street was not born in Freidberger or Quonochontaug."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12

Downtown Salem, New Jersey. Photo by Tim Kiser, and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Salem, New Jersey

I've had a couple of posts about town and city names, and LHM has succeeded in piquing my interest in a little mystery.  Why would a man named Zadock Street, of Salem, New Jersey spread out west with his sons and name all the towns they founded Salem?  What is it about the name Salem that was so important to these men?

First things first.  How many towns and cities and places are named Salem.  One source, Wikipedia, lists 25.  Another source, on Yahoo, lists 32.  Clearly people had reasons for naming towns Salem.  From what I've gathered online, Salem is a derivation of shalom and salaam, the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace.  Salem was mentioned as a place in the Old Testament, and became part of the name of Jerusalem, founded by King David of the kingdom of Israel.  Jerusalem means "foundation of peace."

Therefore, we can see that the most likely spread of the name Salem came with the spread of religion throughout the country.  Indeed, one source who uses the same quote by LHM above, looks into the story of the towns named Salem and of Zadock Street and wonders if LHM's story is true.  The writer points out that Zadock was one of King David's priests, thus cementing the connection between Zadock Street and religion.  The writer looks at the founding of Salems in Ohio, Indiana and Iowa that LHM says were established by Zadock Street and his sons and finds the evidence less than compelling.  Those Salems were founded by Quakers, the writer claims.  The writer says that there is no evidence that Zadock Street had anything to do with their founding, and there is no compelling evidence that Zadock Street or his sons were Quakers.

Thankfully, the internet can sometimes help clear up mysteries.  Wikipedia's entry states that one of the founders of Salem, Ohio was Zadock Street and an historic home in the city was owned by John Street, Zadock's son, and was the northernmost Ohio stop on the Underground Railroad.  The city of Salem in Indiana appears to have nothing to do with Zadock Street, but there are two other areas called Salem in the state, both census-designated places, that may have had something to do with Zadock Street.  And while I could not associate Salem, Iowa with Zadock Street or his sons, the town was founded by Quakers and was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

What accounts for so many towns named Salem, then?  In the case of the Zadock Street and his sons, it may have been that religion plays a part in their propagation of the Salem name, but I think that there is a greater likelihood that the connection to their original home of Salem, New Jersey played a bigger part.  In a sense, we all have that attachment to home.  I cannot see the name Fort Bragg, even if the name is attached to Fort Bragg, North Carolina rather than my hometown of Fort Bragg, California, without getting pictures and images in my mind of all of the scenes I used to inhabit as a child.  The United States, as a country that was settled primarily by immigrants, would have been an alien place.  Names that evoked the familiar would have been important to people, comforting them with memories of places known in the midst of all the unknowns.

I did a post awhile back where I examined why there were so many towns, throughout the Southwest, called a variant of El Dorado.  In that case, Spanish conquistadors looking for gold, the proverbial El Dorado, left that name all over the region.  That was a case of wishful thinking.  However, in many cases it seems that people named towns and cities after that which gave them comfort and something that evoked memories of the places from whence they came.  I surmise that if you closely into town names, they've either been named for someone, or after something left behind.

Place names are a very simple part of a complex process.  No matter how adventurous or how exploratory we are, or how much we push the boundaries of our experience, we seem to need that touchstone to what we were and where we've been.  Two of the most poignant examples of this comes from our explorations into space.  The first example occurred when astronauts first left the safety of our atmosphere and went into space.  The poetic descriptions of the seeming fragility of our world when viewed from space indicated just how much "home" means to us when we look back at it.  As Alfred Worden wrote:

Quietly, like a night bird, floating, soaring, wingless
We glide from shore to shore, curving and falling
but not quite touching;
Earth: a distant memory seen in an instant of repose,
crescent shaped, ethereal, beautiful,
I wonder which part is home, but I know it doesn't matter . . .
the bond is there in my mind and memory;
Earth: a small, bubbly balloon hanging delicately
in the nothingness of space.

The other example came from even farther out in space, when the Voyager probe, close to leaving our solar system, trained its cameras back on Earth which hung like a small speck of dust in the vastness of space.  Carl Sagan said: 

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future

A sense of home, of belonging and of origin, is important.  It is an indelible part of our identity and it provides us with comfort.  As such, it is natural that we take a piece of that which is important with us, and make it a part of any place we go.

Musical Interlude

I couldn't have picked a better song to illustrate my point than Joe Diffie's Home.  This was a nice discovery, since country music is not a genre that I dip into regularly, but I'm often surprised when I do.

If you want to know more about Salem

Discover Salem County: Salem Salem County News
Salem County Chamber of Commerce
Salem, New Jersey
Visit Salem County
Wikipedia: Salem

Next up: Leipsic, Delaware


Blue Highways: Greenport, New York

Unfolding the Map

Getting gas in Greenport with William Least Heat-Moon lets us reflect over the words of the gas station attendant about what belongs where.  Does Long Island belong to Connecticut, New York, or should it just be its own state.  I'll discuss what attaches us to place, and if it really means anything.  To attach yourself to Greenport, check out the map.  At right is the Eastern bluebird, the state bird of New York.  The image is from Wikimedia Commons.

Book Quote

"Don't call me a New Yorker.  This is Long Island....

"Manhattan's a hundred miles from here.  We're closer to Boston than the city.  Long Island hangs under Connecticut.  Look at the houses here, the old ones.  They're New England-style because the people that built them came from Connecticut.  Towns out here look like Connecticut.  I don't give a damn if the city's turned half the island into a suburb - we should rightfully be Connecticut Yankees.  Or we should be the seventh New England state.  This island's bigger than Rhode Island any way you measure it..."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 7

Greenport, New York. Photo by americasroof and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Greenport, New York

With whom and with what place does one identify?  For many of us it is easy.  Our ties to home, to family and friends, make our identities pretty strong and ones that stay with us throughout life, despite where we live.  You can take some boys and girls out of _____ (fill in your place name here) but you can't take the _____ out of those boys or girls. 

I grew up in such a place.  Everybody I know who lived or currently lives in my home town thinks its a little slice of God's heaven on earth.  It is a small town, situated on the coast of Northern California, north of San Francisco and just south of the intriguingly named Lost Coast.  It's rugged and beautiful.  People have continued to live there despite economic slowdowns and loss of industry.

Of course, we all thought that the north coast of California was the best place to be.  If you couldn't live in my home town, at least you wanted to be somewhere in the north coast region.  The Bay Area was nice but too crowded, so you wanted to stay away from there.  But if you couldn't live near the coast, being in Northern California was good enough because it is beautiful and not too crowded.  The Bay Area was crowded, it is true, but it was certainly preferable to Southern California, which was way too crowded and busy and all that traffic.

But hey, California, even with southern California, was preferable to anywhere else in the country.  Where else could you find such coastline, such mountains, such wonderful farmland, such variety, such entertainment?  So don't mess with California, it is the best place on earth!  And even if you couldn't live in California, then at least if you lived somewhere in the west you were doing better than if you had to live in the harsh Midwest, the steamy South or the uptight and overpopulated East Coast.  But you had to feel lucky that you were born and lived in the United States of America, the best nation on earth.

And so on...

I could go backwards to, down to the very street and acreage on which I grew up.  The point is, our thought processes about places resemble concentric circles.  I have put a graphic below...

If you think of the middle, small circle as the point of origin, such as your neighborhood or your town, then it is a small part of a bigger area, such as your region in the state.  We belong to many different localities and identify with many different places.  That's why I could proudly be a Fort Bragger, but also a Northern Californian, a Californian, a westerner and an American.

I think the next big concentric circle that is in the process of becoming part of our identity is regional, or perhaps continental.  Europe took that big leap starting in the 1950s, but while many people who live there consider themselves European, most of them identify more with their country of origin.  There has yet to be forged a consistent and strong pan-European identity.  However, you see baby steps toward this regional identification in places like Asia and even in the Western Hemisphere.  The identification is loose because the integration is occurring economically, not politically.

In the end, borders are just made up markers on a map.  As the Long Islander who identifies with Connecticut and New England more than New York in the quote above demonstrates, borders don't often truly delineate who belongs where.  This is especially true in countries where borders were haphazardly drawn, such as in the Middle East, or where borders were defined by acts of aggression or the taking of territory through war.  Much of the Southwestern United States fits this description.  I've been told that the US-Mexico border in Texas is just a place where guard stations are erected.  The real border is a fuzzy zone stretching from San Antonio to somewhere inside Mexico.  Southern California is as much Mexican as it is American.  Except for a different systems of government, and excepting Quebec, much of Canada looks like the northern U.S. states it borders, and its people have remarkably similar appearances and values.

Will people one day identify with each other on a planetary basis?  I've been watching the old Star Trek series lately, and the idea of a Federation, in which humans identify with each other and the Earth as their common home, seems very far away.  I suppose it's a historical process, evolving just as our awareness of what constitutes our "neighborhood" evolves also.  At one time most people couldn't imagine what lay beyond their sight.  Now, we can imagine, so much so that I see writing about our neighborhood in our galaxy.  As our ideas and goals get bigger, so does the sense of what and where we belong.  And I think that's all for the good.

Musical Interlude

Here's a wonderful song by a group named Pangea, consisting of the US band Flying Machines, and musicians Cheng Lin from China, Kailash Kher from India, Khaled from Algeria/France and King Sunny Ade from Nigeria.  The song is called Citizens of the World.  Enjoy this global music supergroup!

If you want to know more about Greenport

New York Times: Greenport, New York
New York Travel Magazine: Greenport
Village of Greenport
Wikipedia: Greenport

Next up: Riverhead, New York


Blue Highways: Conquest and Cato, New York

Unfolding the Map

If you're a map lover, or you like stories about where towns get their names, or you are into irony, then there's something of each in this post.  If you love all three, you've hit the jackpot!  We'll pass through Conquest and Cato with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), and then move on.  But before we do, see where these places are located by referencing the map.

Book Quote

"Off I went, hoping Conquest would find me.  In the dairy country, chewing Holsteins and Guernseys switched their tails and flicked their skins.  On the other side of Johnny Cake Road lay Conquest.  Then I began the game again, looking for Cato.  Along the roads were cottage industries selling clothesline poles, purple martin houses, potted plants, AKC pups."

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 8

Sign depicting the intersection of Cato, Ira, Victory and Conquest, New York. Photo by "Dougtone" and hosted at Flickr. Click on photo to go to host page.

Conquest and Cato, New York

Sometimes you wonder how towns got their names, especially if those names are interesting.  Many towns are named in honor of people, some are taken from place names already in the area, some are named after cities of antiquity.  In fact, as we travel with LHM through this area, we'll find cities like Palmyra, New York, named after an ancient city in Syria, and Syracuse, New York, named after a city established by the ancient Greeks on the island of Sicily.

I have two directions that I'm going to go in this post.  One of my previous posts explored city names with an ironic twist.  In the case of Conquest and Cato, there is an irony.  I think that LHM thought he was looking at a little bit of irony when he mentioned in Blue Highways that Conquest is just down the road from Victory.  But there's even more irony here than that, but it's a little convoluted.

First, Cato.  Cato is one of a number of towns established in a large tract of land, called the Central New York Military Tract, that was reserved for ownership and settlement by New York veterans of the Revolutionary War.  The idea of setting land aside was conceived by the U.S. Congress to compensate veterans, and was to consist of 100 acres of land per soldier.  However, New York was slow in getting this land together, so the state legislature set an additional 500 acres per land, for a total of 600 per soldier, in a series of 28 contiguous townships in the middle of the state.

The townships were allegedly named by a clerk in the New York Surveyor General's office, who was an avid reader of classical literature.  Thus, the township name of Cato was joined by other townships named Lysander, Hannibal, Brutus, Camillus, Cicero, Manlius, Aurelius, Marcellus, Pompey, Romulus, Scipio, Sempronius, Tully, Fabius, Ovid, Milton, Locke, Homer, Solon, Hector, Ulysses, Dryden, Virgil, Cincinnatus, Junius, Galen and Sterling.

Conquest was a settlement within the township of Cato, but became independent of Cato after a political dispute.  Upon achieving their desired political aims, Conquest immediately declared victory by starting a new town called Victory, and later giving LHM something to wonder about when he sees the two places on the map.

However, the Cato-Conquest-Victory saga is not free of irony yet.  Cato Township could have been named after Cato the Elder, a Roman military commander and statesman.  If that were the fact, then Cato Township having birthed Conquest and Victory has no irony whatsoever.  However, it is more likely that the township of Cato was named after Cato the Younger, a Roman statesman and philosopher of the school of Stoicism.  As a Stoic, Cato the Younger would have held the belief that emotions can be destructive forces, especially if used to try to control inevitable universal forces, and that reason and ultimate happiness came from keeping oneself under self-control and evincing fortitude.  One cannot control what the universe and should not try, and if one is virtuous and in control, one is immune to misfortune.  The early Greek Stoics even eschewed politics because they believed in cosmopolitanism - that one is a citizen of the greater world and not just of one political entity.  Thus, the irony.  The town of Conquest was born out of political dispute with the township of Cato, complete with the investment of anger on both sides, and is an example of petty and small political concerns over brotherhood and equality that Cato the Younger would have emphasized.

That's an interesting little story, but here's the other point I want to make in this post.  Many place names in the United States are derived from ancient Greece and Rome, or from Europe.  This makes sense, as the U.S. is a nation of immigrants.  Therefore, the first English settlers on the East Coast gave their towns and states and regions names that evoked their homeland, such as Dover (Delaware), Cambridge (Massachusetts), Camden (New Jersey), New York City, and Plymouth (North Carolina).

Of course, other ethnic groups that made up this country named areas that evoked their own homes.  We have many place names in the Southwestern U.S., for instance, that are Spanish.  Germans added places in the U.S., often multiple times, as Berlin, Potsdam, Hamburg and Hanover.  Names that evoke Italy include Milan (multiple states), as well as Rome (multiple states), Naples (Florida), Venice (multiple states), and Florence (multiple states).

New York was New Amsterdam in its early years as a Dutch settlement on Manhattan.  In the middle of Texas, you can find Czech town names.  French place names are found all over the United States, given that much of the middle part of the country was explored by French explorers and trappers.

It all makes me wonder, given that the United States is in a period where it is the preeminent power in the world, if that a thousand years from now the names of our great personages will dot the globe.  Will we see a village, town or city of "Gates" spring up in China, or a "Jobs," India?  Will someone name a town after Jefferson in Africa (the capital city of Liberia, Monrovia, is named after President James Monroe)?  Will the U.S. even have people, academicians or politicians or celebrities or captains of industry, who are deemed important enough to name places after in other parts of the world?

Let's take our query a little further.  Will the U.S. have enough impact on the world that someday we will see a New Chicago spring up in another country?  Will a Houston or Dallas appear in some other region of the world to one day rival the memory of their American forebears, just as New York dwarfs Old York, and Boston, Massachussetts is more well known than its English namesake.  Does the United States have anything to offer the world so that even one day, when our empire crumbles as it will, as it must, some place names will evoke the country that pioneered a working, large scale democracy for the world?  Or will something happen that causes American emigration - a huge diaspora to other regions of the world - so that those peoples, in foreign lands, remember their lost homeland by naming their settlements and towns after the places they left?

We see the remnants and memories of some past great civilizations every day in the names that we have chosen to give to places in the U.S.  When our time is past, will we be worthy of such remembrance, or will we fade into obscurity like other civilizations whose memories are locked in museums and books.  It's interesting to think about and speculate.

Musical Interlude

I'm not sure why I thought of this song, I Don't Wanna by the Asylum Street Spankers, except that it has a lot of place names in it.  It's a catchy tune, though.

How many of the place names in the song do you know or have you been to?  See bottom of page.*

If you want to know more about Conquest and Cato

An 1879 History of Conquest
Town of Conquest
Village of Cato
Wikipedia: Town of Cato
Wikipedia: Village of Cato
Wikipedia: Conquest

Next up: Somewhere on the north side of Oneida Lake

*Place names in song:  Scotland, Wales, England, France, Moscow, Malta, Spain, Cuba, Brooklyn, Paris, Rome, Teapot Dome, Orleans, Cairo, Broadway, 21, India, Georgia, Pismo Beach, Smithfield, China, your house.


Blue Highways: Thief River Falls, Minnesota

Unfolding the Map

Thief River Falls sounds like an ominous place, but actually appears to look quite nice.  It also has an interesting history about its unique name.  I'll examine the allure of secret places in this post.  To locate this once hidden and secret location, steal on over to the map.

Book Quote

"Thief River Falls, another town of Nordic cleanliness, reportedly got its name through an odd mingling of history and language.  A group of Dakota Sioux lived on the rich hunting grounds here for some years.  Although the bellicose Chippewa controlled the wooded territory, the Dakotas managed to conceal a remote settlement by building an earthen wall around it and disappearing inside whenever the enemy came near.  They even hunted with bows and arrows rather than risk the noise of guns.  But the Chippewa finally found them out and annihilated them.  Because the mounds hid a portion of the river, the Chippewa referred to it as 'Secret Earth River.'  Through some error, early white traders called it 'Stealing Earth River'; through additional misunderstanding, it came to be 'Thief River.'"

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 10

Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Photo at Menupix. Click on photo to go to host page.

Thief River Falls, Minnesota

I remember the first "big" book that I ever got.  I can't remember the exact date but I must have been about 10 or 11.  It was a thick paperback book, and it had more pages than I'd ever seen in my life.  I was a good reader, but I felt a little daunted by this book and masked it with indifference.  I couldn't see why I should read it, after all, I was doing just fine.  I was a good reader, and had impressed my third grade teachers by reading at an eighth grade level.  But as I looked at this heavy book, it made me nervous.

I eventually read it, and I was glad I did.  It was the perfect book for young kid who thought that going outside and playing army men and riding his bike was the epitomy of a perfect day.  I couldn't put the book down, and when I finished, I was sorry that the book had to end.  It also cemented my love of fiction, works that (prior to my knowing about Homer) had an Odyssey like quality to them (predating my love of travel books) and also sent me down the fantasy road that introduced me to works like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Silverlock.  What, you haven't read Silverlock?  Well, go get yourself a copy and read it as soon as you can!

The book was Watership Down, and I'm associating it with this post because of the quote above.  In Watership Down, a group of rabbits is driven by a tragedy at their original home to travail cross-country to find a new home.  They encounter and surmount dangers, and find a new home in an abandoned rabbit warren under a copse of trees on a small hill.  The hidden and isolated nature of their new home protects them from predators and from being discovered by other rabbit warrens.  Eventually, their need for females to help populate the new warren brings them into contact with an authoritarian and fascist warren and they eventually are discovered.  Unlike the Dakota Sioux in LHM's quote, however, they survive being discovered after winning a decisive battle.

There are lots of references to groups of people who have used the hidden nature of their surroundings to thrive and survive.  J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the aforementioned Lord of the Rings, writes in The Silmarillion about the hidden and mighty city of Gondolin in the age before the events of the Lord of the Rings.  Those who entered the city were never permitted to leave.  It was only when Gondolin was betrayed that it was destroyed by the forces of evil.

In Turkey, in the Cappadocia region, there are as many as a hundred hidden underground cities near established towns and villages.  They were used by villagers to escape wild animals and people that meant them harm.  Carved in the tufa, or ancient volcanic rock, they could use up to 5000 people on multiple levels.  They were utilized by early Christians to escape persecution, and some fine Byzantine-era churches complete with fantastic frescoes can be found carved in the rock there.

Of course, there have often been cities and cultures hiding in plain sight among us.  National Geographic recently had a feature on the catacombs underneath Paris that draws a whole host of "cataphiles," even though it is illegal to go there.  I've read about underground scenes in other cities as well.  I took a tour of the Seattle underground, and New York has a whole set of abandoned subway stations.  So does Berlin - phantom stations that were closed off after the Berlin Wall was built.

I wonder how the Dakota Sioux were able to get away with such a ruse in what would become Thief River Falls, Minnesota?  Did the Chippewa just not traverse the area very much to see the earthen wall?  Did the Dakota do such a good job of building the wall that it appeared a natural feature of the riverbank?  Was there some superstitions at work that are an untold part of the story?  Was the place sacred to the Chippewa and therefore they overlooked a people living right under their noses until one day they discovered the affront to their religious sensibilities?

In my experience, we tend to see things that we want to see and miss things that we don't.  In my personal life, I'm often amazed how I can be frantically looking all over the place for something, like car keys, that are hanging on a hook that my eye gazes at over and over.  Why don't I see the keys?  Or, I might be looking for something in the refrigerator that is front and center and I just don't register it.  Perhaps the Dakota had the right idea - if you don't want to be seen, hide in plain sight.  Our paper just had a story about a man who was indicted for murder and who was just caught after 25 years on the run.  He had been a street musician in San Francisco, seen by a lot of people every day.

I recently read a book called The Secret Garden, which was not only a coming of age book about children but also a study in selective perception.  The father in the story, a hunchback, lost his beautiful wife at a young age and as a result lost his ability to enjoy life.  He began to selectively ignore and avoid anything that reminded him of his wife, particularly the beautiful garden they built together and the young son they made.  The garden, the son, and the girl who befriends him were all metaphors for beauty ignored and left to develop on its own.  It becomes flawed, but will spring back if given the right attention, love and care.  Finally, the father is able to see his son after he and the garden have been tended and become strong and beautiful again.

We daily use such selective perception, which can serve us well or ill.  It would not be a stretch to think that hidden places that elude our awareness exist right in front of us, and will be revealed, if ever, in their due time and when we are ready.

Musical Interlude

I found this 70s progressive rock song completely by accident.  It is called Secret Places, and was recorded by Gary Moore.  The lyrics are very appropriate to the theme of this post.

If you want to know more about Thief River Falls

City of Thief River Falls
Northland Community and Technical College - Thief River Falls
Thief River Falls Times and Northern Watch (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Thief River Falls

Next up: Bagley, Minnesota


Blue Highways: Culbertson and Plentywood, Montana

Unfolding the Map

William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is about to exit Montana via Plentywood, and we're riding along with him wondering about the irony of a town named Plentywood with no trees.  Before we get into North Dakota, I'll stop for a minute to examine irony in relation to place.  Ironically, it will be fun.  I promise.  To see where Plentywood is located, and maybe find some other ironically named places, here's your passage to the map.

Book Quote

"US 2 followed the Missouri River for miles.  At the High-line town of Culbertson I turned north toward treeless Plentywood, Montana, then went east again down forsaken blue highway 5, a road virtually on the forty-ninth parallel, which is the Canadian border in North Dakota."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7

Downtown Culbertson, Montana. Photo by Colin Holloway and seen at City-Data. Click on photo to go to host site.

Culbertson and Plentywood, Montana

The quote today from Blue Highways got me thinking about the concept of irony.  What is irony, you may ask, as opposed to humor or sarcasm.  Let's check the definition.  According to Merriam-Webster Online, irony is:

1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony

2 a : the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c: an ironic expression or utterance

3 a (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity b : incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony

Definitions 1 and 3 don't really fit into what I'm going to discuss in this post, except for maybe the idea of incongruity.  Definition 2 though really fits, especially when one examines place names which seem out of character with the actual physical reality of the place.

Some place names are simply named in honor of someone.  Culbertson, for example, was named in honor of Major Alexander Culburtson, who headed Fort Union in Montana for the American Fur Company.  Other place names are indicative of settlers' desires - their hope for beauty, tranquility, solace, etc.  Sometimes place names come from natural features of the area.

However, some place names, either by design or by accident, are truly ironic.  Plentywood is a prime example, and LHM points it out in the book by calling it "treeless Plentywood."  According to Plentywood's Wikipedia entry, the name was meant to be ironic.  It was established when, on this treeless plain of Montana, a chuck wagon cook was unsuccessfully trying to build a fire out of wet buffalo dung, to the frustration of the hungry cowboys.  One finally one told him to go 2 miles up the creek where he'd find plenty wood.

The ironic nature of the name got me thinking about whether there were other ironic names for towns and cities, and I decided to do a little Googling.  I found two things.  Yes, there are ironic names for places in America, and there are many people who don't understand the concept of irony.

For example, this website asked people to contribute ironic names for places.  One ironic place mentioned was Nowhere, Oklahoma (which is really somewhere, obviously).  How interesting to find out, truthfully, that Sutherland is the second northernmost county in Great Britain.  Or that Great Britain has other interesting and ironic place names, such as No Place, or perhaps Pity Me, which to me would be ironic unless the townspeople are really miserable.  I keep seeing references to Who'd A Thought It, Alabama, though I can't find it in Google Earth or on Wikipedia, which would make for a double irony.  It would be ironic if it existed because obviously, somebody thought it, but if it didn't exist even though there's numerous references to it, then there's obvious irony because nobody a thought it!  There is evidently an area in Cape May, New Jersey that is known ironically as Poverty Beach because it now sits near mansions for the well-heeled.

However, this same site also showed that people don't quite understand irony.  Some wrote about place names that were simply funny or strange.  Like Why, Arizona - though you could make the argument that somebody thought "because" and established the town.  Somebody very pruriently suggested Beaver Slide, Montana, because, they added with great color and imagery, it was filled with unsavory people who "couldn't get laid in a monkey whore house with a bagful of bananas."  However, that irony is based on assumption, not fact.  Ironically, Beaver Slide doesn't seem to exist, though I'm sure people would manage to have sex in Beaver Slide - just very ironic sex.  Others named places I couldn't find.  One just had to add Fucking, Austria (pronounced foo-king) because...well, obviously.  But just because a town in Austria is named Fucking doesn't make it ironic, though I would suppose it would be if the town was full of celibates.

There was a nice column by a guy who went to a place in Virginia called Dulles Town Center, only to find there was no town to have a center in - simply a shopping center and subdivision.  He used the column to look a little more in depth about how places are named, and discovered that subdivisions and developments are often named ironically.  I started thinking about it, and my wife's parents live in one such development called The Meadows in Sarasota, Florida.  It was built by an English development company that basically cleared a bunch of wetlands, put in grass, houses and condos, and a golf course, and gave everything English-style names.  For example, her parents live in the section called Heronmere.  What was swamp ironically became The Meadows.  With alligators.

So, when you drive past subdivisions with names like Quail Hills, you might wonder if there really are quail.  Or if you in the vicinity of a place called Paradise Park, is there really a park?  Names like Valley Heights are kind of ironic in that they don't make any sense.  If you want to have some fun, make your own subdivision name here.  Or, for even more fun, you can generate positive or negative subdivision names at this site.

Do you ever notice that when something's right in front of your nose, you often don't see it.  It was almost like a smack upside my head, after I started writing this post, when I realized that I grew up in an ironically named place!  Fort Bragg, California sounds like a military establishment.  It is not.  There is a true military base called Fort Bragg in North Carolina.  But Fort Bragg, California has no fort.  The original fort for which the town got its name existed for about 10 years from 1857 to 1867 to maintain control on the now long disbanded Mendocino Indian Reservation.  Over the years, the town has been mistaken for the military base.  I don't know how many times I've had to disabuse people of the notion that their father/brother/uncle had served there.  A teacher of mine drew a popular cartoon put on local t-shirts with a tourist on it wondering "Where's the Fort?"  I even heard a story about a draftee in World War II from San Francisco who was elated when he found out he was being sent to Fort Bragg because it was close to home and he would get to see his family.  He took the bus up, got off, looked around, and became more and more confused until finally somebody asked what was wrong.  He was gently told that he was supposed to go to North Carolina because there was no fort in Fort Bragg.  I believe the story related that he was given leniency for the mix-up.

So, in this post about ironically named places, I almost forgot all about the town where I grew up.  Now isn't that ironic?

Musical Interlude

Alanis Morrissette explains irony beautifully in her song Ironic.  "It's like rain on your wedding day.  It's a free ride when you've already paid.  It's like good advice you just didn't take.  Who would have thought?  It figures."

If you want to know more about Culbertson and Plentywood

Culbertson, Montana
Culbertson Searchlight (newspaper)
Sheridan County, Montana
Wikipedia: Culbertson
Wikipedia: Plentywood

Next up: A radar station in western North Dakota