No.VI

For starters, I want to apologize for being pretty darn terrible at blogging this month. I have no excuse, I’ve been a little busy but not that busy, certainly I could have spent less time checking Facebook and more time blogging. But! I’m working on convincing myself that although I am no longer in school, September means it is time to buckle down, so I should be getting back into my once weekly posting schedule again. The upside to taking all this time off is that I’ve had lots of time to think about some good topics (and go on some weekend trips where I literally ran into some history), so half the work is already done!

welcome to noviToday’s post is going to burst some bubbles, I’m afraid. It always happens when I bring this up. Most recently, I was at a party, meeting some new people, when one person mentioned they were from Novi. “Stagecoach stop number six!” he said proudly, referencing the popular belief that the town gets its name from the roman numeral used to note the sixth stop out of Detroit: No.VI. “Actually,” I said, “that story isn’t true.” And I swear, three people looked at me in shock, eyes wide and mouths agape. Apparently Novi-its (Novations?) are very attached to this story, and are not thrilled by party-pooper me telling them it us just an urban legend.

The first hint that the story isn’t true is that it isn’t even always the same story. Sometimes people claim that Novi was the sixth stagecoach stop, other times it’s a train station, or a toll-gate. Sometimes the story doesn’t even include a transportation line, but claims that Novi was actually township number six. The other weird part about this story is that roman numerals are not often used on maps. And if that practice was prevalent, wouldn’t people know they were roman numerals and not a name? The story is already pretty fishy, and that’s before even getting into the facts!

So here are the facts: The town was incorporated and officially named in 1830. The Grand River toll road (which the stagecoach ran on) wasn’t constructed until 1852, and the Holly, Wayne and Monroe Railroad didn’t exist until the 1870s. As far as the town being part of the sixth township, that’s not true either. After being established as a county in 1819, Oakland was split into two townships. In 1827, Michigan Territory’s legislative council further split the county into five townships: Farmington, Bloomfield, Troy, Oakland and Pontiac. The town that is now Novi was a part of Farmington Township, and was actually known as West Farmington until it incorporated as Novi. Fun as the story is, township No.VI never existed.

You may be asking yourself by now, alright, so what is the real story behind the name? Well, that I cannot tell you, because nobody is really sure. There are a couple more theories. According to Samuel Durant’s “History of Oakland County,” when the townspeople voted to incorporate as a village separate from Farmington, they wanted a short name, as “they had quite enough of long names, which were bothersome and difficult to write, like Farmington.” A Dr. Emery recommended Novi at the suggestion of his wife “which, being sufficiently brief and easily written, and yet by no means commonplace or homely, found favor with the townspeople.” The problem with this story is that Dr. and Mrs. Emery were born in 1817 and 1825 respectively, making them 13 and 5 years old at the time of this meeting. Not likely to be married, or a doctor, or attending important town meetings.

A recent rumor puts a romantic tale into the controversy. This story claims that the name Novi was coined by a young Yugoslavian woman, who had run away with one of Napoleon’s soldiers to make a home in the Michigan wilderness, and named the town after her hometown in the Balkans. While there’s no proof either for or against this story, I think I have to assume it was just made up by somebody wanting a nice story. It just seems too unlikely.

Mostly likely the second story, about the townspeople wanting a name that was short and sweet, is closest to the mark. Perhaps the players aren’t quite right, but the story fits. This tact seems to have been taken by Novi’s neighbor, Lyon township, as well. Novi might have been annoyed with the long name of “West Farmington,” but according to Durant, Lyon was known as “West Farmington, Junior.” Talk about a mouthful!

I’m very sorry if I’ve ruined anybody’s favorite town origin story. That’s just what I do, swoop in and throw facts at fun stories! (Of course, not all history is boring – at this same party, I fascinated a group of medical students and newly minted doctors by telling the story of William Beaumont and his crazy experiments)

Sources
Durant, Samual, “History of Oakland County,” (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co.,1877). Digitized by the University of Michigan
Early Oakland County,” Oaklandweb.com
History of Novi’s Name,” City of Novi website
Martin, Lou, “A Brief History of Novi’s Name,” The Novi Information Network

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Crazy town names

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.

Bad Axe

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!

Hell

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.

Climax

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.

Paradise

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”

Christmas

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.

Vulcan

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?

Sources:

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

Are We Michiganians or Michiganders?

People from Michigan have long debated what to call themselves. Most states have fairly straightforward demonyms, such as Ohioan or Georgian, and other have unique but commonly used terms, like Hoosier for people from Indiana. People from Michigan, however, simply cannot make up their minds about what they should be called. Michiganian and Michigander are the two most popular terms, although a few others are in the mix as well, such as Michiganite and Michiganer (I even had one friend who used Michigonianite!). I’ve always been a fan of Michigander. It just feels more fun than Michiganian, and I knew it was coined by Abraham Lincoln, which I think is a perfectly valid reason to approve of something. However, I was curious about the full history of the two terms, so I did a bit of research – and learned some interesting facts about my favorite term along the way.

Michiganian is the “official” term for a person from Michigan, according to the U.S. Government Printing Office. The Michigan Historical Center also uses Michiganian, and it is the term of choice in the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, a 40 volume collection of reminiscences, transcripts of historical documents and other historical material about Michigan life dating back to the 1870s. However, according to a 2010 article on mlive.com, our leaders are divided: former Governors Jennifer Granholm, John Engler and Jim Blanchard all used Michiganian, but current Governor Rick Snyder favors Michigander. The two major Detroit newspapers are split on the issue as well, with the Detroit News using Michiganian and the Detroit Free Press choosing Michigander.  When it comes to the everyday people however, Michigander is the clear winner according to the polls.

It’s not clear who first used Michiganian, but we know exactly when Michigander entered the lexicon. Like I said before, it was coined by none other than Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize was that Lincoln actually used the term as an insult against former Michigan Governor Lewis Cass. At the time (1848), Cass was running for president and Lincoln was just a congressman for Illinois. Lincoln accused Cass and the other Democrats of exaggerating their military accomplishments and relying too much on former Democratic president Andrew Jackson’s legacy. His use of the word “Michigander” as a combination of “Michigan” and “Gander,” was done to call Cass, essentially, a silly goose from Michigan. Here’s an excerpt from Lincoln’s speech:

“There is one entire article of the sort I have not discussed yet; I mean the military tail you Democrats are now engaged in dovetailing onto the great Michigander. Yes sir, all his biographers (and they are legion) have him in hand, tying him to a military tail, like so many mischievous boys tying a dog to a bladder of beans. True, the material they have is very limited; but they drive at it, might and main. He invaded Canada without resistance, and he outvaded it without pursuit. As he did both under orders, I suppose there was, to him, neither credit or discredit in them; but they [are made to] constitute a large part of the tail.” (source)

Yes, it turns out my favorite identifying term is actually pejorative portmanteau employed against one of my least favorite historical Michigan figures (I should really do a Famous Michigander Friday listing all the reasons I dislike Lewis Cass). Does this mean I’m going to stop using the term? Absolutely not. Despite its origins, Michigander is less stuffy, more whimsical and all around a better term to describe the people of the Great Lakes State. Besides, it’s not like Lincoln continued to hate on us – he’s also famously quoted as saying “Thank God for Michigan” when Michigan troops were the first from a western state to arrive in Washington after the Civil War began. So I will forgive Lincoln for insulting the state and just be glad he created such an awesome term. I am, and always will be, a proud Michigander.

Abraham Lincoln as a young Congressman, around the time he insulted Cass but gave us the best demonym ever.

Abraham Lincoln as a young Congressman, around the time he insulted Cass but gave us the best demonym ever. (source)