Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2007 | Features

Name That Town

By Tom Savage
A road trip across Iowa -- or even a glance at the state map -- inevitably raises questions. Like, who on Earth decided to call a town "What Cheer"?

A new book from Iowa alumnus Tom Savage delves into the history and the mysteries behind Iowa's 1,188 communities. Town founders turned to some obvious sources of inspiration, such as people's names, other towns or countries, geologic features, Biblical phrases, and Indian words. But, did you know that places in Iowa also immortalize a winning race horse (the town of Dexter) and a dog that was run over by a train (in Colo, Story County)? Buckle up for a quick detour through the genealogy of some of the places that make Iowa so memorable.

Abingdon was founded by Colonel Thomas McCulloch on August 30, 1849. The colonel named the town for Abingdon, Virginia, where he had once lived. The town was informally known as Bogus since one of the early settlers was alleged to have been a counterfeiter.

Amana was founded in 1855. The name for the colony was brought to Iowa by members of the Amana Society, a communal group who had settled in Iowa County after initially establishing a colony in New York. The name is drawn from the Bible and means "to believe faithfully." Amana has special consideration in the Iowa Code and is treated as an incorporated community even though it is not.

Atlantic was founded in 1868. The town is roughly the same distance from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, so the residents wanted to name the town after one of the two oceans. They decided to flip a coin to settle the name of the town. There was a complication since the railroad engineer planning the town called it Avoca. The settlers intervened with the railroad, and the name of Atlantic was established.

Clive was established on January 18, 1882, by the Union Land Company. There are several stories put forward to explain the name of the community. One is that Clive was named for Robert Clive, the British general who was involved in the British colonization of India. The second theory is that there was a railroad foreman named Clive working when the rail line was run through Clive. The story goes that when supplies were sent out to the rail crew, the instructions were to take the material out to Clive.

Coin was founded by the Western Improvement Company at a railroad intersection on November 25, 1879. The town apparently was named because a coin had been unearthed when a foundation in the new town was being dug.

Correctionville was established on September 25, 1855, by the Henn, Williams, and Cook Company. Due to the curvature of the earth, surveyors would alter, or correct, their surveying line every sixty miles. Correctionville was established at one of those points, hence the name.

Cumming was established in 1888. There's a story that the town drew its name from the response "it's coming" when a builder was asked about the progress in constructing the new town. It is probable that the town was named for an individual by Frazer Callison, the town's founder.

Defiance was established by the Milwaukee Land Company on February 20, 1882, and named Marmon. The town's name was reportedly changed because the townspeople, mainly settlers who had relocated from a settlement called Willow Creek, were unhappy that the railroad had not laid track by that community. The people called themselves "defiers" and the town Defiance.

Garden Grove was established as a restocking point for Mormon travelers heading west. The first groups planted gardens there so later travelers would have supplies.

Grand Mound was created when a railroad station was established at the site in 1858. The intention was to call the site Sand Mound, for a sand hill in the region. When the name was recorded in 1866, there was a misspelling, and the name has been Grand Mound ever since.

Guttenburg was named in honor of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of printing from movable type. The town's name was originally established with one t in the name, but the residents of the area were spelling it with two t's. As a consequence, it is now officially spelled with two t's.

Hiawatha was named from Longfellow's poem The Song of Hiawatha. Hiawatha was an actual person who lived in the late 1500s. He was an Iroquois sachem who united a number of tribes. Hiawatha lists its founding date as 1950, the year it was incorporated.

Ionia [has a local folk tale about the naming of the town.] Around 1883 the railroad...said the town had to have a unique name. A railroad man came to town to talk to business owners about a new name, and one of them said to him, "I don't care what you call it, I own the lumberyard, I own that land, I own that building." And thus the railroad man declared, "We'll call it Ionia!"

Jamaica [earned its name, according to a] local story [when] people could not agree on [a name]. [So] the mayor, wearing a blindfold, faced a map and placed his finger on the West Indies, specifically Jamaica.

Kalona was established on August 6, 1879. The town was named Kalona at the suggestion of a Mr. Myers. The railroad officials who christened the town were not aware that Kalona was the name of a Shorthorn bull owned by Myers.

Maharishi Vedic City was established and was incorporated in 2001. "Maharishi" is for the founder of Maharishi International University in nearby Fairfield. "Vedic" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge, veda.

Manilla was established in 1886. The town's name was decided by a tug of war between proponents of the name Paupville, for the prior owner of the land, Les Paup, and Manila, a name suggested by a Mr. Blackburn, a hardware store owner, who sold a twine called Manila Binder Twine. The contest, carried out with a rope furnished by Blackburn, ended in a victory for the backers of Manila. Somehow an additional l was added to the name.

Morning Sun was founded by Cicero Hamilton on September 13, 1851. The town's name was the result of an all-night hunt for missing livestock by Hamilton and a Henry Blake. As they were returning to the town site in the morning light, they decided on Morning Sun as the name for the new town.

New Albin was established as a station on the Clinton, Dubuque and Minnesota railway in 1872. The town was named for Albin Rhomberg, the son of one of the founders. Rhomberg stumbled and fell into a bonfire with his pockets full of gunpowder on July 4, 1872, and died as a result of the accident. "New" was apparently added to the name to prevent confusion with an existing town called Albion.

New Haven was originally known as Hell's Town because of the behaviors exhibited in the community's taverns. After the saloons were closed, the residents started calling the town New Heaven, which was then changed formally to New Haven.

Primghar was established by W.C. Green and James Roberts on November 8, 1872. The name of the town came from the initials of the eight men who were instrumental in developing the town.

Richland was named because of the quality of the soil at the site, although one early settler had proposed the name Frogtown after a heavy rain had left much water standing at the location.

West Branch was established on May 29, 1869, by John W. Wetherel. It was named for the meetinghouse the Quakers maintained at the site. They referred to it as the West Branch of the Red Cedar meetinghouse at Springdale, and so when the town was established, it was called West Branch.

What Cheer's name probably stems from the old English greeting or expression of happiness brought from England to New England, and then on to Iowa. Reportedly, the term was used by a Scotch miner when he discovered a seam of coal near the town.

Winterset was established in 1846. As the commissioners were discussing the choices for the name of the new town, Summerset and Independence were put forth as names. One of the commissioners, who had fortified himself with whiskey because of the chill in the air, suggested that Winterset would be far more appropriate than Summerset, and that name was adopted.

Zwingle [began to be settled] in the late 1840s. Originally named Harmony, [it] was renamed for Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Protestant reformer.