I have some bigger posts in the works, but since none of those are ready, I thought I’d look into a favorite subject of mine: weird place names. I love looking at maps and finding towns with names that make me laugh, but they also make me wonder – where did the name come from? And why did it stick? Today, I’ll give you the histories (or theories) of the origins of six of the weirdest town names in Michigan: in the Lower Peninsula, we have Bad Axe, Hell, and Climax, and up in da UP there’s Paradise, Christmas and Vulcan.
In 1861, Rudolph Papst and George Willis Pack took a trip through the wilderness of the thumb to survey the region. At one of their overnight campsites, they found an old, damaged axe. Pack suggested they use the name “Bad Axe Camp” in the survey and placed a sign along the trail. Oddly enough, the name stuck. The town incorporated as a village in 1885 and as a city in 1905. Now the second largest city in the thumb (after Caro), the city is also the county seat of Huron County. It’s a nice little town that provides many services to residents of the thumb. Oh, and they have an annual hatchet festival in honor of their name. Awesome!
There are a number of stories of how Hell, Michigan’s best known weird town name, got it’s name. Many stories revolve around George Reeves, who moved to the area in the 1830s and soon set up a sawmill, gristmill, distillery and general store/tavern. In one version of the story, when asked what he thought the town should be named, Reeves answered either “I don’t care, you can name it Hell for all I care” or “Name it Hell, that’s what everyone calls it.” Another version claims that when local men would go to help with the work in the (illegal) distillery, their wives would explain their absence by saying they had “gone to Hell.” A few other stories don’t involve Reeves at all. One story states that the name comes from two German travelers, who, when exiting a stagecoach at the location, were heard saying “So schön hell,” which translates as “So beautifully bright.” Finally, some folks claim the name just comes from the hellish conditions encountered by early settlers – it was very swampy and full of mosquitoes.
Today, the “town,” which was never incorporated, fully embraces its name. It has turned into a year-round Halloween themed tourist attraction, with Screams Diner and mini-golf and a few small shops selling kitschy souvenirs. You can even get married in Hell, at a tiny 8 seat wedding chapel. Best of all, all mail sent from Hell is burnt around the edges by workers at the tiny post office.
A small town just minutes north of I-95 near Kalamazoo, Climax’s name is not exciting as it sounds. According to the Kalmazoo Public Library, “When Judge Caleb Eldred came to Climax in 1834, ending months of weary travels to find a farm site, the area was a vast prairie for miles in the newly-formed county. To get a better view, his son Dan climbed a tree and said, ‘this caps the climax of everything we saw.’ So they named the place Climax Prairie. ” Despite this boring story, the town induces giggles to just about everyone who finds it on the map.
Not only do we have Hell, but we also have Paradise, Michigan, in the northeast part of the Upper Peninsula. I couldn’t find any information of how it got its name, only that is was founded in 1925. I would guess, however, that whoever gave the town the name really, really liked the place. Like Hell, Paradise capitalizes on its name for tourism, employing the slogan “Regardless of the season, wouldn’t you rather be in Paradise?” Close to many Northern Michigan attractions such as Whitefish Point Lighthouse, The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and Tahquamenon Falls, Paradise receives a great deal of tourists interested in saying they vacationed in Paradise.
Also, I find it hilarious that the bottom the Wikipedia page for Paradise says “See also: Hell, Michigan”
Another odd Upper Peninsula place name is the community of Christmas, Michigan. The history of the unincorporated village is not very long – in 1938, a factory was built in the area to manufacture holiday items. The factory burned down in 1940, but the name stuck and it has become a typical kitschy tourist trap, ready to stop visitors heading to nearby Munising and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Christmas consists of a few of gift shops, restaurants and, of course, a 35 foot tall Santa Claus statue.
Perhaps the least well known of the odd town names on this list is the small town of Vulcan, in the western Upper Peninsula. Sadly, this town is not made up of logical thinking, pointy-eared aliens. Rather, it is named after the now-defunct Vulcan mine, which was in turn named after the Roman God Vulcan, the god of fire, who was often depicted as a blacksmith. The Vulcan mine was one of many that mined iron from the Menominee Iron Range from the 1870s to 1978. The names of many towns in the region were taken from the local mines that provided jobs for the residents. The mines were named by their owners, who occasionally used intellectual names like Vulcan in an effort show off their education. Another example of this is the Cyclops mine, named for mythological creatures who forged armor and weapons for the gods. Most mine names, however, came from the names of people involved in the operation, the mining company itself, or local landmarks.
This list really just scratches the surface of weirdly named towns in Michigan. I haven’t even touched on the towns of Acme, Fruitport, Colon (named after the shape of a nearby lake. No, really), Paw Paw, Gay, Temperance, and Slapneck. And then there’s the many melodious Native American and letter-dropping French names that trip of out of state (and sometimes in-state!) visitors: Ishpeming, Negaunee, Mackinac (always pronounced Mackinaw), Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Sault Ste. Marie (Soo-Saint Marie – why we say “Sault” the French way but Americanize “Detroit,” I’ve never understood) and Point Aux Barques, just to name a few!
What are your favorite crazy town names, in Michigan or elsewhere?
“About Us,” Paradise, Michigan Chamber of Commerce
Blouin, Lou, “The Devil May Care: One Man’s Quest to Save Hell, Michigan” Found Michigan, October 12, 2012
Carlsen, Judy, “Where Did Norway Get Its Name?” Norway, Michigan (city website)
“Christmas, Michigan Welcomes You,” Exploring the North
“Climax,” Kalamazoo Public Library
“Exploring Paradise, Michigan,” Exploring the North
“Hell, Michigan,” H2G2
“History of Hell,” Go to Hell, Michigan
“Local History: How Bad Axe Got It’s Name,” Huron County Historical Society
“Mining in Michigan,” Michigan Historical Museum
Stiffler, Donna, “The Iron Riches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” Michigan DNR
“The History of Christmas, Michigan“