What’s in a Name? Part 1

Hi everyone,

Welcome back to another edition of Traveling With Tom, my 338th post. Last week, I shared stories and photos from my last stop at national parks on our November trip to Death Valley and back again. Click here if you missed my story on Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

We left for that trip on Saturday morning October 30. It was a bright and sunny day with very little wind. The Red Rover was chewing up the miles. After crossing into Iowa, my Traveling Partner and I started wondering why towns along the route had the names they did. Was it named after the first settlers? Or a place from their previous home? Or after the niece of the fella building the railroad? Or after the first postmaster? Or an interpretation of the name given to this place by the indigenous peoples? Or after a nearby geographic location? I’m guessing there are hundreds of different ways town, villages, and cities get their names.

On this trip, I wrote down the names of some of the more interesting town names, to us anyway! After we returned home, using my friend Google, I searched for information on the town names. Here’s what I found.

Anamosa, Iowa

Traveling down Highway 151 Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, we came to Anamosa. We’ve passed by this town a number of times but never stopped. We didn’t this time either. We wondered how Anamosa got its name? Its original name was Buffalo Forks then changed to Lexington a few years later. Lexington was a popular town name resulting in confusion in mail delivery. There are a number of stories how it came to be known as Anamosa. The most popular is that it was named after an Native American princess that passed through town with her family. They stayed with a local family for a time and the young girl endeared herself to the townspeople. Her name was Anamosa, translated to white fawn.

With a population of about 5500 residents, Anamosa is the pumpkin capital of Iowa. It’s also home to the National Motorcycle Museum with over three hundred vintage cycles on display plus photos, exhibits, and memorabilia. The next time we are in the vicinity, I plan to stop. There must be a quilt shop nearby for my Traveling Partner to wile away a couple of hours! For more information on Anamosa, click here.

Wyoming, Iowa

About ten miles east of Anamosa is the town of Wyoming with a population of about five hundred people. We wondered if the early settlers moved east from what would become the State of Wyoming. Nope, that’s not the origin. It’s named after Wyoming County, New York when the early settlers move west and brought the name of their old home with them. For your information, the State of Wyoming is named after the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. It’s derived from a Native American word translated to “at the big river flat.” I think that fits the state!

What Cheer, Iowa

One of my favorite town names on our route west is What Cheer. When I saw the sign for What Cheer, we were on I-80 about half way between Iowa City and Des Moines. This town of about 600 people, is about twenty miles south of I-80. In addition to its unusual name, What Cheer was once a prosperous coal mining town with over 5000 residents. The mines petered out in the early 1900s and the population steadily declined.

Like a lot of towns on my list, there are several versions of how What Cheer got its name. It started off as Petersburg after it’s founder with the first name of Peter. This name was rejected by the Post Office and renamed What Cheer. One theory is that the Scottish miners used a common English greeting, what cheer, after a coal vein was discovered. There are other more elaborate and complex theories but I’ll go with the simplest, invoking Occam’s Razor.

Atlantic, Iowa

The word Atlantic comes from Greek mythology meaning “the Sea of Atlas” because it lay beyond the Atlas Mountains. Well, Iowa isn’t anywhere near the sea or another large body of water, nor do they have a mountain range named Atlas. By they way, if you’ve ever been to Iowa, you’ll know they don’t have mountains of any type!

The legend goes like this: the founders of this town determined it was about half way between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They flipped a coin and Atlantic won the toss. How bizarre is that theory?!

Atlantic lies about eight miles south of I-80 halfway between Des Moines and the Nebraska border. Its population is nearly 6800 people. The city is known at the Coke-Cola Capital of Iowa with a bottling plant that was founded in 1905. There is a daily paper, a medical center, and the town serves as a retail center for the area. There seems to be a lot to like about Atlantic, Iowa.

Friend, Nebraska

After crossing into Nebraska and flying down the racetrack, also known as I-80, between Lincoln and Grand Island, the sign pointing out Friend made me smile. What a great name for any town, especially one located on the Great Plains.

Friend is named after one of the first homesteaders, Charles Friend. The original name for the town was Friendville, when the railroad showed up they shortened the name to Friend. Pretty simple explanation.

The population of Friend is just under 1000 people. Much of the surrounding area is devoted to agriculture. When I looked through the list of business in Friend, the Farmers Union Co-op stood out as did a number of trucking companies. They likely haul agricultural commodities, corn, soybeans, pigs, and cattle. I’m guessing Friend is pretty friendly little town!

Grand Island, Nebraska

Our destination for the evening was Grand Island. We’ve stayed there a few times on our travels to and from the west. I often wondered why a town on the prairies of central Nebraska would call themselves Grand Island. Again, not much open water out here on the Plains.

In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Grand Island does get its name from an island. Early French explorers gave the island its name, La Grande Isle. German settlers from Iowa moved west to settle on the island at the junction of the Wood and Platte Rivers. They raised crops and produce but didn’t have much of a market until the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush began in 1858. This was the last stop to purchase provisions for the trip across the prairie into Colorado and the gold fields. Now it’s a thriving city having grown well beyond the island.

The railroad showed up in the area about ten years later and laid out the town of Grand Island. It became and still is a railroad town. Agriculture is big in Grand Island and surrounding areas. The JBS meat packing plant employs over 3,600 people, many of them immigrants. Nearly one fourth of the population of over 53,000 people identify as Hispanic or Latino. That is quite a change from it’s beginning. Grand Island serves as a regional center for health care and retail services. Click here to learn more about Grand Island.

Stayed tuned next week for Part 2 of What’s in a Name?

Until then, happy travels!