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What's in a name?

There's plenty of dissension when persnickety residents object to their town's handle, such as Bedbug, Dead Dog, Henpeck, or even Chagogagochabunagungamaug.

When people get fed up with the names of their towns, stand back. It's even worse than arguing sports or politics, and it can divide the closest of friends and families into opposing factions. Recent battles over new town names have taken place in Hamilton, Ohio; Westhaven, Illinois; and Shirley, New York.

City fathers in Hamilton decided their town needed more oomph, so they suggested renaming it Hamilton!, Ohio. They thought that the exclamation point would be just enough pizazz to attract business. But most folks voted against it with a definite no! at the polls.

The citizens of Westhaven, Illinois, decided their town was no haven-especially because of a recent political scandal-and voted in favor of a change to Orland Hills. But new complaints soon cropped up. Dissenters said there were no hills in the town.

Perhaps the most vociferous battle took place on Long Island when word got out that the community of Shirley, New York, was scheduled to be renamed either Brookhampton or New Hampton. Two opposing groups formed: the Committee to Rename Shirley and the Committee to Keep Shirley Shirley. Folks in favor of a change suggested Floyd Harbor, ignoring possible confusion with the community of Lloyd Harbor, also on Long Island. Dissenters who pointed out that Shirley has no harbors were reminded that there are some nearby, which apparently was close enough, and anyway, they said, the William Floyd Parkway runs through Shirley.

William Floyd was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. But he lived in Mastic Beach, near Shirley. And Shirley, by the way, started out in the 1930s as Mastic Acres, because it was near Mastic Beach. But in 1952 Mastic Acres was changed to Shirley because of Walter T. Shirley, a developer. People liked him because he bought the community a post office. Well, he didn't actually buy it. You can't go to Sears and buy a post office, but he did donate a parcel of land and put up the money for a building to keep stamps out of the rain, and folks thought it would be fitting and proper to rename the town after him, so they did and no one complained until 35 years later. They finally settled their differences at the ballot box, and the community is still called Shirley.

This kind of dissent is nothing new. Even when the Indians were running this country, there was dissension about community names. Indian placenames have plagued people all over the United States. Consider a community in Massachusetts whose original name meant: "You fish on your side. I'll fish on my side. No one fish in middle." It was one word: Chagogagochabunagungamaug. They finally renamed the town Webster.

When the first Dutch settlers arrived on what would become Long Island, they began changing names, much to the chagrin of the Delaware Indians of the Algonquin family, who roamed what they called the Territories of the Long House. But the Indians themselves often changed placenames because they were crafty and suspicious of each other, and it was a jungle out there.

The Dutch settlers, having no truck with odd-sounding Indian names, but not wanting to disturb the ambience, changed spelling only slightly to more pronounceable names, such as Massapequa and Merrick. The Dutch had a little trouble with Acombamack, so it became Bellport.

Assawanama eventually became known as Huntington. And in the 1800s a community was called Huntington South simply because it was directly south of the village of Huntington, situated on the north shore. But people in Huntington South became restless for their own identity and demanded a name change. Historical records show that residents gathered one night at a local meeting house and soon got into a spirited and heated discussion over a new name. One man kept standing up in the middle of the chaos to shout repeatedly, "We must have amity here! Amity!"

They called the man a big-mouth and told him to shut up already, and he left in a huff. After calm was restored, they reached a decision and renamed the village Amityville. Records, unfortunately, don't indicate who the mentor was, because he was offended and moved to another community.

Many years ago in the town of Victoria, Arkansas, folks wanted to rename their community, so they held a meeting in Strong's Hardware Store, and today the city is known as Strong. Well, neither Hardware nor Store seemed appropriate, no one else had a better suggestion, it was getting late that night, and everyone wanted to go home.

In 1893, the refined people settling in a patch of Vermont called Sodom objected to the name. One man, who circulated a petition demanding a name change, was described as particularly adamant. And in 1905 officials named the local settlement Adamant.

One town in California, settled in 1848, went through several name changes, including Dead Dog and Bedbug. Someone obviously remembered the heroine in The Last Days of Pompeii, and the town had a new image as Ione. In a community in Texas someone apparently read Shakespeare's Othello and renamed the town Iago.

Wytopitlock, Maine, may look unpronounceable. But it becomes easy to say when you find out that the town was named after a widow named Pitlock. People kept saying, "I'm going to see the widow Pitlock."

One day in 1967 a few people in East Northport, New York, feeling particularly cranky, decided that their community ought to go back to the original name it had until 1909: Larkfield. They said one reason to change back to the old name was that one of the main streets is Larkfield Road. And anyway, they said, East Northport isn't really east of Northport, it'ssouth. Continuing that logic, another asked, "Why not change it to South Northport?" and someone else came up with Southport. But then the purist among the group pointed out that all those souths would be too confusing, because they live near the north shore. Peoria was also ruled out, because some folks in Illinois were using that name at the time (and in fact still are, so apparently that name really caught on). But the Larkfield contingent failed and it's still East Northport.

In March 1986, President Reagan said, "I've had it up to here with bankers. They're sitting on their keisters when they should be lowering interest rates."

Well, that didn't sit too well with the residents of Kiester, Minnesota. Officials of the town sent word to the White House that the word keister doesn't always apply to one's anatomy. Besides, they pointed out, the town's name is spelled differently. Someone suggested changing the name, but the residents said no, they would just have to continue being the butt of jokes.

The residents of Henpeck, Illinois, apparently tired of explaining that the community was named not for a husband with a tyrannical wife, but after a prominent citizen, Henry Peck. By 1883 they had come up with Oblong. Don't ask why. By the way, Oblong is in the same state as Normal, and a recent newspaper headline in those parts was: "Normal Man Marries Oblong Woman."

But don't get the impression that people everywhere are dissatisfied with the names of their towns. There are many places around America where people are content and quite proud of those names, thank you very much.

If you're drowsy in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, you could rest in Stopover, Kentucky, and snooze at Goodnight, Texas, or in Ten Sleep, Wyoming.

Visit Tomato Arkansas before you drop into Turkey, Texas, and then Sandwich, Massachusetts.

Someone in Friendly, West Virginia, must have a pal in Friend, Nebraska, and he could go to Smile, Kentucky, or Smiley, Texas. Then it's on to Fair Play, Missouri, and Happy Jack, Louisiana. They can all meet in Harmony in either California, Minnesota, or Pennsylvania.

In the 1800s there was a community in California known as Eagle Creek. But since 1882 people there have been saying, "Oh, no. This is now Ono." Oh, and let's not forget Ono, Pennsylvania. One wonders if Yoko Ono would consider living in one of those towns.

At long last, at the tail end of our journey is Utopia, Texas. The folks there most likely do know the way to San Jose, and surely to Shirley, Floyd-if you're still looking for a safe harbor.
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Title Annotation:town names
Author:Bohannon, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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