TOWNS AND NAMES By John Watts

Town names are a fascinating thing to think about.  Some are named for places saluting an original place with a more illustrious past.  Some are named for geographical uniqueness, (my favorite type) and some enterprising towns actually find a way to artificially generate their own legacy for something NOT originally natural to their area.

In today’s age it seems that every product, town or corporation is desperate for permanence and a claim for bragging rights for some historic connection and venerable lineage that must make them reliable and proven.  From big companies like “Johnson & Johnson” to some local county business, EVERYONE wants to blare out on their billboard—“for 50 years our family has been serving the Northern Virginia area with pride!”

With new web-sites and internet innovations replacing what was state of the art just a few days  before, advertisers now keenly recognize an empty place in the hearts of consumers that needs tapping into—the desire to hold on to something that lasts.

This returns me back to the naming of towns as my main subject.

Certainly there are every day reminders all around us of what is NOT connected or rooted in the past.  Scatterings of instant and “soulless” towns and outdoor shopping centers seem to spring up overnight; all full of great aesthetic symmetry and quality stores, but very low on uniqueness and history.  I have witnessed so many scatterings of school names while driving that seem randomly titled oblivious to their surroundings.  Case in point:  Elementary schools like Willow Brook that have no willows or brooks anywhere to be seen or Stone Bridge High School with no stones or bridges to back it up.

Of course the biography angle of naming middle schools for poets etc. is a fine tradition in its own right.  Still, generic names like Liberty Elementary School or Little River Elementary School are probably just names.  Nothing wrong with that.  At least they sound good and seem very appropriate.  But they miss out on that extra special CONNECTIVITY with the places around them.  Think of Main Street, USA and you get a nice stereotype image but nothing unique and identity grabbing.

This is true of so many towns that seem to pick their names out of a hat—(like street name authors thinking, “well let’s say Sycamore here on this sign since we already said Maple and Elm Street”)  that have no tie in at all the geography or the history of the area.

You don’t even need distinctive physical geography.  Old manmade places like Lighthouses and battlefields also have the contagious ability to cause multiple streets and businesses to name their places after them–

We all know the many repeated ones that stem from more famous old world origins abroad—Vienna, Paris, or Winchester even.  Or consider all the classic Greek and Roman town names—Greece, Athens, Sparta, Attica, Achilles and Alexandria.

But I particularly love the town names that connect themselves with some natural, physical geographical feature in or around them.  Consider names like Natural Bridge, Virginia or Redwood City, California.

Morro Bay, California is a natural extension of the physical contours of the shoreline and was reportedly named by the Spanish explorers for the rounded “morro” rock (or the Gibraltar of America).  Likewise the town of Salem, New Jersey is linked with the majestic Salem Oak tree and features pictures of the majestic geriatric tree amongst its business logos.

In Maryland there is a state park called Wye Oak State Park which is named for the 460 year old Wye Oak Tree that finally succumbed to a lightning strike in 2002.  Although it isn’t technically a town, there are a number of businesses around the park that get their LOGO and name from the Wye Oak tree.

It doesn’t have to be a town per se either.  The Texas suburb of Flower Mound derives its name from an actual hill of bluebonnets, pansies and foxgloves.

In the Civil War the Union named battles for nearby creeks and rivers (physical geography) while the Confederacy chose the nearby towns and cities for their titles.  Hence places like Gettysburg and Manassas and Antietam are forever linked with the epic battles that occurred around the area.

Another town with a great connection to its history is old town Manassas.  All around it are reminders of its vital railroad roots—including names of businesses and murals of trains on sides of buildings.  And of course there is the DOUBLE image that boasts the preserved old trains sitting side by side with the very current new passenger Amtrak trains rushes past on its schedule.

The funniest scenarios are those enterprising towns that sense a need and fill it—namely a desperate need to find tourist dollars and notoriety to get them noticed on the map.  Take Glasgow, Virginia, where as a visitor, I was quite taken aback to behold a dozen full-size fiberglass dinosaurs while driving down the main thoroughfare.  Was this due to some geological discovery in and around the rocks of Glasgow?  Not at all.  Actually this was the brainchild of just one man, Mark Cline, Glasgow resident and fiberglass artiste who, frankly, just likes making dinosaurs.  So there you go:  PRESTO!  In instant marketing scheme that gets people to remember the town better.

Other variations of this include the chamber of commerce charity drives that feature cows and horses standing out by businesses and sidewalks, decorated by local artists and going for auction.  Of course it seems almost every town likes to advertise itself as a Landmark Tree Town and who can argue with them on that?

There is also the bizarre case of small towns that feature some Guiness book of world records within their limits also for the sake of tourism and the residual trickle down revenue that comes with dropping by motorists.

When I think of even greater desperation I think of Chugwater, Wyoming.  A town that was little more than small ranches, ramshackle bars and taverns, and some trailer parks until the Chugwater Chili Corp. was founded in June 1986 by 5 farm and ranch families.  The notion by these core families to band together and market Chugwater Chili has been a God send for the entire economically depressed area.  And while the name Chugwater reportedly came about as a description of the sound the stampeding Buffalo made as they were tricked off the cliffs in the area—the CHILI part is  not colorfully connected to anything and was plopped down like manna from heaven as an inventive stroke of entrepreneurship for survival.

So I guess my point is to look around at the towns around you.  The names matter.  There are so many fascinating stories contained organically as well as those that are brought in from outside sources.  The best, healthiest towns are those that have a history that is still preserved and pointed to, with names that celebrate this and in the process dignify and educate the younger generations growing up inside its limits.

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About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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