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More Wisconsin Place Names

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about Robert E. Gard's book The Romance of Wisconsin Place Names, originally published in 1968 but now available in a new edition. Here are some more origin stories about the places where we live and work.
  • William McFarland was a railroad man who mapped out the village in 1854. For a few years in the early 20th century, the town was known as MacFarland until it changed back to McFarland in 1924.
  • Mt. Horeb was originally a crossroads known in Norwegian as Staangji. The name Mt. Horeb was chosen from the Bible by the town's first postmaster, George Wright, in 1861. The first post office was in his house, which was not uncommon in the days when Wisconsin was being settled.
  • Cross Plains was named by its first postmaster, Berry Haney, for his hometown in Tennessee.
  • Sometime around 1840, William Wells named Cottage Grove for a stand of burr oak trees that surrounded his house, a house that also served as the village tavern and post office.
  • Black Earth started off as a settlement called Farmersville but changed its name to Ray for a few months in 1858. When it was incorporated as a village the same year, its first president changed the name to Black Earth.
  • Windsor was named by its early settlers for the town of Windsor, Vermont.
  • The site on which Marshall stands was originally known as Bird's Ruins, after a lumberyard built by a man named Bird burned down in the early 1840s. It was later known as Hanchettville and then Howard City, but when the land on which the settlement stood was sold to a man named Marshall, the town got the name it has today.
  • Jefferson County was organized by a group of men who had come from Jefferson County, New York. Another group petitioned the federal government to put the county seat on land they owned. When their petition was granted, they named the town Jefferson.
  • Henry Janes petitioned the federal government to establish a post office near where he ran a ferry across the Rock River. He wanted to call the town Black Hawk, but was told there was already a post office called Black Hawk elsewhere. The feds named the place Janesville instead.
  • Beloit was first known as Turtle Creek and New Albany. A group of settlers came from New Hampshire in 1837, and one of the members wanted a more attractive name. He argued that it should resemble Detroit, and suggested Beloit.
If I've left out your town, go to the public library and get The Romance of Wisconsin Place Names, or better yet, go buy it.
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How Our Towns Got Their Names

In 1968, author and historian Robert Gard published The Romance of Wisconsin Place Names, the result of several years of research. He went back to old records and old-timers to find the reasons why places in Wisconsin, large and small, famous and forgotten, have the names they do. The book has been reissued with a new foreword by historian Jerry Apps, and it's very entertaining, even though it's just an alphabetical list of place names and (mostly) short explanations of their origins. Here are a few from our area.
  • Madison, of course, is named for president James Madison.
  • Middleton is named for the town of Middleton, Vermont. The name was chosen by the town's first postmaster, Harry Barnes--and it could just as easily have been named "Barnesville" or something like that, because places were often named for their postmasters, or their first settlers, or their wives, or their daughters.
  • Monona is of Native American origin, and it's widely agreed the word means "beautiful," which is better than some of the possible meanings in the Ho-Chunk language: "lost" and "stolen."
  • Stoughton is named for Luke Stoughton, who laid out the original plan for the village. He bought the land in 1847 from Daniel Webster. Gard doesn't say it's the same Webster who was the famous 19th century orator, but it certainly could have been.
  • Sun Prairie was founded by Charles Bird, who had been part of a group of workmen traveling from Milwaukee to Madison build the first Capitol building in 1837. After riding in rain for nine days, the sun came out when they reached a prairie east of Madison. Two years later, when Bird returned to the place to build his home, he named it Sun Prairie.
  • Fitchburg was named by Ebenezer Brigham, the first permanent settler in Dane County, after the town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, which was near Brigham's birthplace.
  • Oregon was named after the state of the same name, although it was originally called Rome Corners.
  • DeForest got its name from Isaac DeForest, who made a fortune farming wheat in the area before the Civil War.
  • Verona was settled by people from New York state who gave it this name, although it was first known as the Corners, thanks to its location at the intersection of major routes from Galena to Green Bay and Mineral Point to Milwaukee.
  • There are two stories about how Waunakee got its name. One is that it's named for a friendly Native American who lived near the village mill. The other is very complicated, and involves what looks to me like railroad officials demanding a bribe to locate a depot in the new village. When citizens refused to pay, they were told that they couldn't have their proposed name for the village, which was Lester. Instead, two prominent local businessmen chose Waunakee, a Native American word that is said to mean any number of things: "you win," "sharp shooter," "he lies", "he lives in peace," "he forgets something," or "he digs a hole." Given that the word can mean so many things, it's hard to believe there's only one Waunakee in the world.
If you enjoy the kind of book you can open anywhere and enjoy five minutes at a time, The Romance of Wisconsin Place Names is one for your list. I'll tell about some more local places next time.
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