10 Small U.S. Towns With Unusual Origin Stories
Some of America's smallest towns have some tall tales in their history.
Some towns have noble founding stories. Tales of intrepid explorers, hardworking salt-of-the-earth folk, forward-thinking visionaries looking to carve out a community of their own. While these towns might have had a few of those types that appear in their origin stories, there was also a bit (or a lot) of quirkiness that contributed to their formation that’s totally unique to these locations. From postmen with illegible handwriting to a haven for practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, here are some of the unusual ways these small American towns came to be.
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If you’re thinking that the name of this town sounds an awful lot like “Milwaukee,” that’s exactly what you’re supposed to think. Two brothers, Daniel and Solomon Johnson, settled in the area in the mid-1800s. Supposedly, in order to piggyback off Milwaukee’s buzz, they gave their burgeoning town the nearly identical name, hoping that people would get confused and instead decide to settle in Zilwaukee. It’s unclear whether or not this gambit resulted in Wisconsin-bound settlers being diverted to and settling down in the heart of Michigan’s mitt, but these were the days before Google Maps, so anything’s possible!
Ken Lund [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr
Cut and Shoot
This Texas town got its name in 1812 during an argument that had divided the community. What that issue was isn’t exactly nailed down. It might’ve been a disagreement over the shape of the town’s new steeple or over a preacher who was alleged to have danced and patronized saloons, saying that he should be allowed to preach at their community hall. Whatever the reason, people were furious enough that the whole town was starkly divided. As tensions were about the spillover into violence, a boy is said to have shouted, “I’m going to cut around the corner and shoot through the bushes in a minute!” This kid must’ve really known his audience because those present found it a striking enough declaration that they named the town after it.
HIM Nguyen [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes you’ve got to know your limitations. For Eighty Eight, Kentucky’s postmaster, Dabnie Nunnally, those limitations were his handwriting. Supposedly, Nunnally concluded that it would be in the town’s best interest to have a number for its name because his handwriting was so difficult to read. Why that number in particular? Apparently, that’s how many cents were in his pockets when he had the idea. A bit unorthodox, but it’s a creative solution. Maybe Nunnally was a proto George Costanza and went on a number-naming streak and there’s a great-grandfather Seven hanging out in the Nunnally family tree.
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Nowadays, the Salton Sea, a large manmade lake about 160 miles east of Los Angeles, is synonymous with the impenetrably weird–a bizarre curio that has the aura of a grungy student art film surrounding it. But perhaps the weirdest thing about the Salton Sea (and the largest town along its shore, Salton City) is that when it was established during the mid-century, its development must have seemed like a no-brainer. Before the salinity began to rise (and higher levels of pollution entered into the equation), Salton City appeared to be a great place to set up a resort town. Like Palm Springs, with a beachfront. But its heyday quickly came and went as the “sea” became inhospitable to fish and birds, and its remote location meant that maintaining the community was incredibly difficult. People left, abandoning homes and structures alike. Despite this mass exodus, Salton City is not a ghost town. In fact, its population is increasing with an estimated total of approximately 3,000 residents.
Jeremy Engleman [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr
WHERE: North Carolina
Getting the chance to name your town is a big responsibility. Do you name it after a local natural wonder? A historical luminary? But what do you name your town when you’re ready to just call it a day? As the story goes, a community meeting was held to pick the town’s name. But one resident got so exhausted by the back-and-forth that he declared, “Why not name the town Whynot and let’s go home!” Sometimes you just need someone to make an executive decision, even a sarcastic one.
GElisbeth [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr
There are a couple of potential origins for this Wisconsin town, but if one particular tale is true, Egg Harbor would have the rare distinction of having a nautical food fight to thank for its name. In 1825, a party of fur traders were en route back to Mackinac Island and decided to stop in (what would in the future be named) Egg Harbor for the night. The traders decided to race to the shore. And then they decided to throw improvised missiles at the leading boat. They started by throwing hardtack but, realizing that would mean they would run low on precious hardtack, decided to throw eggs instead. By the end, the water’s surfaced was dotted with cracked shells.
User Royalbroil on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5]/Wikimedia Commons
This town was founded by miners in the late 19th century. When the time came to establish a post office, however, the community found themselves faced with a dilemma. Because there was a large ptarmigan in the area, the name of the gamebird was suggested as the name for the town, but there was an issue—the spelling. Which, anytime there’s a silent “p” involved, fair enough! Instead, they went with another bird name they knew they’d nail spelling-wise. And, honestly, if it’s good enough for Dakota Johnson’s cat’s name, it’s good enough for a town!
Geoff0522 [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons
Much like a bad movie, a quirky small-town origin story is most enjoyable when the product’s final result is unintentional. Such is the case with Nameless, Tennessee. No marketing gimmicks here, just an honest-to-goodness clerical error that stuck. (At least according to one prevailing version of the story.) Supposedly, while applying for a post office, the section on the paperwork for the town’s name was left blank and so the U.S. Postal Service returned the paperwork with the town’s name shown as “Nameless.”
Mike Goad [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr
Truth or Consequences
WHERE: New Mexico
Technically, Truth and Consequences did exist as Hot Springs, New Mexico prior to 1950. But this town was re-christened after Ralph Edwards, the host of a popular radio quiz show Truth or Consequences , announced that he would air the anniversary show from the first town that changed its name to the title of the show. After a special election, the citizens (who were presumably some combination of big fans of the show and ambivalent about their town’s current name) voted to change their name. The show made good on their promise. Not only was the show’s anniversary special aired from the town but Edwards would return for the town’s Fiesta every year for the next 50 years.
cmh2315fl [CC BY-NC 2.0]/Flickr
Maharishi Vedic City
The story behind Maharishi Vedic City’s founding is unusual, certainty. How many small towns in the United States were established to revolve around Transcendental Meditation? Based on the town’s goals to foster peace, balance, and harmony, maybe there should be a lot more. Officially established in 2001, the design of the city was based on a set of architectural principles established by Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, who in turn derived these principles from Sanskrit texts. For example, buildings should be constructed with their entrances facing the rising sun. Non-organic food is banned as are synthetic pesticides, its electricity is generated from renewable resources, and the town comes to a halt twice a day so that its citizens can meditate.
Jana Taylor [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons