April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
A small but dependable pleasure of travel is encountering such blazons of civic pride as “Welcome to the City of Cheese, Chairs, Children, and Churches!”
Stephen Vincent Benét confessed that he had fallen in love with American placenames, and George R. Steward, author of the classic Names on the Land, wrote that he was born with rapturous feelings towards the names and cities that “lay thickly over the land.”
Yet neither the poet who sang of “Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat” nor the historian who savored American place-names investigated the informal and usually unofficial nicknames or slogans that make pithy comment on states, cities, even counties and villages. Travelers who run across them in regional promotional literature or on the placemats of roadside restaurants will find that in their tiny way they can be eloquent about the historical, cultural, social, and economic development of our Republic.
The most interesting slogans, mottoes, or nicknames are rooted in history or tradition. Memories of the Horse Age are preserved at Westfield, Massachusetts, which is known as the Whip City because of the town’s early pre-eminence in the manufacture of buggy whips. Before it lapsed into morality, Dodge City, Kansas, was known as the Wickedest Little City in America, invoking memories of cowtown davs when Dodge knew Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday, the gun-slinging dentist. Similarly, Cheyenne, Wyoming, once known as Hell on Wheels, now prefers to be known by a flaccid and colorless name: the Capital City.
Every state in the Union has an array of nicknames, though not all convey a clear sense of uniqueness. Fourteen employ the word America’s, as in America’s Dairyland (Wisconsin). Four work in the word corn. The Corn Cracker State is Kentucky, referring no doubt to the traditional skill of Kentuckians in distilling corn whiskey, taxed and untaxed. Arkansas calls itself the Toothpick State because of the reputed dexterity of its citizens with the “Arkansas toothpick"—the bowie knife. The mildly belittling designation of North Dakota as the Flickertail State derived from the ground squirrel of its western region (Citellus richardsoni), which panics at the slightest sign of danger and disappears into its abode with a switch of the tail. The descriptions of North Dakotans as flickertails is especially relished in bordering Montana.
There are some sixteen ways to sum up Missouri, one of which is perhaps the best known of all efforts to delineate a state in a pungent phrase. Missouri is the Show Me State. The full expression is “I’m from Missouri; you’ve got to show me.” Although no one knows who originated the statement, it is often associated with Willard Duncan Vandiver (1854-1932), who served three terms in Congress and was a popular after-dinner speaker. Vandiver made such effective use of the Show Me anecdote at a festive occasion in Philadelphia in 1899 that the statement traveled around the world, giving Missourians a reputation for heavy skepticism.
Below the state level many of the 3,049 counties in the United States also have a nickname (from “a nekename,” incidentally, which is Middle English for an also name). Some are unlovely. Klamath County, Oregon, offers a mindnumbing specimen of how a public relations effort can go astray. Klamath is, they say, the Center of the Great Western Market in Southern Oregon’s Finest Recreationland. And from New Mexico comes a recently unveiled slogan with a long reach, Albuquerque—a Little West of Washington, a Little East of L.A.
Happy the community that can lay claim to something more specific. In Farmington, Maine, a hundred and eighteen years ago one Chester Greenwood invented earmuffs and made Farmington the Earmuff Capital of the World. In Deaf Smith County, Texas, the county seat, Hereford, provides its citizens with natural fluorides and iodides that it proclaims itself the Town without a Toothache.
Crystal City, Texas, calls itself the Spinach Capital of the World, and in 1937 city fathers reinforced the claim by erecting a statue of Popeye the Sailor Man. Some nicknames have the ring of an old truth to them. Consider the title American vernacular nomenclature bestowed on Muskegon during the white pine era. Forty-eight sawmills once tore, snarled, and whined on the shores of Lake Muskegon, and some three hundred women provided entertainment along the six busy blocks known as Sawdust Flats. The “Sawdust” made Muskegon the Red Light Queen.
Some of these nicknames and slogans are famous; others never caught on. Some are the result of legislative action, but most reflect private economic interests and celebrate a dominant industry or hustle for tourism. The sampling below has been chosen from among literally thousands available, each vibrating with local pride.