Friday, September 2, 2016

The joy and mystery and history of American place names

Ink, Ark., and all that: How American places got their names, which I finished earlier this year, is a pleasant-enough book that lives up to its title.

At the start, author Vernon Pizer attempts to interweave early American history with various place names, to give a better context to his short anecdotes about why, for example, Fredonia, New York, and Frostburg, Maryland, have those particular names.

While there are certainly bigger and better books on the topic (this 1976 volume checks in at 122 pages), Pizer's book can serve, I think, as a nice introduction to the topic. In the final third of the book, the narrative disappears and the reader is presented with an alphabetical directory of dozens of American place names and their origin stories. That section is ideal for browsing.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is how many Pennsylvania locations are mentioned. I have long been interested in the tiny towns, the unincorporated places, the ghost towns and the "blink and you'll miss it" locations within Pennsylvania.

Some of the Pennsylvania places mentioned in Pizer's book (available cheaply on Amazon, if your interest is piqued) include Conestoga, Cyclone, Hop Bottom, Scalp Level, Moosic, Red Lion, Slippery Rock (and the short-lived attempt by the Board on Geographic Names to make it Slipperyrock), Towanda (and its start as Meansville), Scranton (and its wonderful start as Skunk's Misery), Forty Fort, King of Prussia, and Ashley, which is an innocuous-sounding borough in Luzerne County these days, but has a long and tangled history of previous names that includes Scrabbletown, Coalville, Skunktown, Peestone, Nanticoke Junction, Hendricksburg and Alberts. I think it should have stuck with Scrabbletown.

I wish I had kept track of all the places I've driven through in Pennsylvania's 67 counties over the years. Joan and I meandered through many different out-of-the-way spots, and I think my tally would be pretty impressive. Maybe I should just start from scratch.

As a possible good starting point, Wikipedia has a list of unincorporated communities in Pennsylvania by county. That could make a dandy checklist — there are hundreds of entries! — of odd, forgotten and out-of-the-way places in the Keystone State. And every one of them has a history to be remembered. Just looking at Washington County, for example, where the place names include Cecil, Condit Crossing, Cracker Jack, Gambles, Ginger Hill, Good Intent, Hazel Kirk, Laboratory, Log Pile, Lover, P and W Patch, Prosperity and Raccoon.

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