Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Naming Your Hometown, Part 2

In response to a reader outpouring of over six requests to continue my completely fictional look at how the boroughs of Delaware County got their names (and ignoring the one request begging me not to), I submit the second chapter:


This borough was originally to be named “Colleen” in honor of Irish tavern owner Colleen Flanagan, who purposely sickened occupying British troops with spoiled ham and cabbage in what became known as “The Great Regurgitation of 1780.” However, in an unfortunate confluence of events the reader of the official proclamation had a barely noticeable speech impediment. In fact, it was not noticeable at all, except when pronouncing one single word … you guessed it … Colleen. Before anyone could change it, the recorder of records had written the name he'd heard spoken (using that feather pen ink that's almost impossible to erase). And so today we have the borough of Colwyn.


Until 1926 this borough was known as Unicorn Springs. Ever since the founding fathers (and apparently mothers) came up with that, however, there had been a backlash about being named after a mythical creature. (Worse yet, one that was considered vaguely unmanly in some circles.) From 1926 until 1936 the town was called Hitlerburgh, but that name proved to have its own set of problems. In 1936 an overwhelmingly popular self-improvement book called How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie was published. Its pointers and sayings were on the lips of people wherever you went. Amid this fury of popularity one of the phrases that became common was “I'm calling Dale!” Most likely originating in a Vaudeville sketch, this was thought to be a funny response to almost any comment or situation. One example of this still exists in the comedy library of famed showman Benny “Big Cat” Bennigan, who closed his act with this line, found decades later in his journal: “What? You say my daughter has eloped with a [insert local ethnic group here]? I'm calling Dale! (Wait for laugh). Town leaders were anxious to ride the coattails of the phrase's popularity, but Callingdale was too obvious. So “a” became “o” and Collingdale was born.


Corporate sponsorship is not a new idea. Today many sports stadiums bear the name of companies that have paid millions for that valuable advertising space. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was common to name entire American cities with the hope of promoting products. Thus you have Madison, WI (named after the Madison Shoe Company), Baton Rouge, LA (named after a company that made red batons), Tampa, FL (named after a feminine hygiene product) and so on. And we all know the tobacco roots of Winston-Salem, NC and Newport, RI. So just as the beef industry has done in our time (“Beef, it's what's for dinner”), back in the day salt manufacturers lobbied the public by naming places like Salt Lake City, UT, Sault Ste. Marie, MI and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. It was in this naming frenzy that Morton Salt Company dabbled in naming a very small town before trying a big city. Alas, no one ever associated Morton with salt and they never did go bigger. But if they had, we just might be talking about the plight of the poor Baltimorton Orioles throughout this baseball season.

Chester Heights

General Chester L. Heights was George Washington's invaluable but little-known “decoy general” during (but quite a distance away from) some of the pivotal battles of the American Revolution. Washington had made it a point to champion the battle prowess and strategic genius of General Heights in dispatches that he knew would be intercepted by the British. (No evidence of this prowess or genius has ever been found, but neither has it been disproved.) Once alerted, the Red Coats followed Height's every move, sure that he would be in the thick of any the major offensive. And so during the Battle of Trenton, Heights' army was in Harrisburg. The famous Battle of Cowpens saw him on Long Island. His mission was thus stated: “To be as far away from any serious Continental Army offensive as would be plausible to the Brits.” At the war's end, Heights and his army were awarded fake gold coins (as a joke that none considered funny or really even got), a firm handshake from Washington and a grant for the land we know today as Chester Heights.

Clifton Heights

Although you might well think that this borough was named after Clifton Heights, the younger brother of the above mentioned General Chester Heights, nothing could be farther from the truth. (Then again, that's kind of a silly expression, isn't it? I mean, if I told you that aliens named the town or that it was the original Garden of Eden of biblical fame, those would be farther from the truth, right? But I digress.) Actually, by complete coincidence two unrelated families, both named Clifton, moved into the same area at the same time. Naming the place Clifton was a no-brainer, but bad blood between the families caused them to keep changing their section's name to be better than their rival's. East Clifton, Clifton Eastwood, Clifton Gardens, Clifton-by-the-Sea, Clifton Parmesan, Rio de Clifton, Clifton Island … until finally, just as if the music had stopped in a game of musical chairs, the state of Pennsylvania decreed all town names would be made permanent on January 1, 1908. It just so happened that Clifton Heights was the name on that particular day. I might have gone with the Parmesan one, I think.


In the early 19th century, the Beemer family of Chester was ruled with an iron fist by the father, Edward. His four sons stayed pretty much in line, having seen the wrath of Edward when he spent four hours berating a neighbor's dog who had almost chosen the Beemer front lawn to deposit his daily dung. But the peaceful Beemer home blew to high heck one sunny Saturday when Edward forbade the boys from going to baseball practice. He said it was so they could re-do the chores they did so poorly last Saturday, but everyone knew that he was just being his usual self, mean as a drunken pirate. Naturally the boys were disappointed, but only “Little Eddy” Beemer dared to utter a “Aw, geez,” that could be heard just above his breath. Predictably, papa Edward, veins popping and spittle spurting, jumped all over the youngster, yelling over and over “I do not care for your tone, boy.” And those words appeared to strike a chord in the lads. That one sentence seems to have given them a backbone. No longer would they stand silent at their blustering father's demeaning rants. With those few words the boys had become men. Bristling with their new found confidence, just three months later all four brothers moved out and founded their own borough, and in honor of that landmark Saturday and the expression that had changed their lives named it “Eddy's Tone.”


This town name is a tribute to Mady Darby, whose contribution to baseball and to the Union Army's victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War has been largely overlooked with the passing years. Few people realize that Abner Doubleday, the reputed inventor of modern baseball, was a major general and division commander of the Army of the Potomac during the famous battle. Today his reputation as a general is mixed. Some say he held his position to buy time for the victories of other brigades, sort of a sacrifice bunt. Others insist that he was slow to attack and incompetent, the equivalent of striking out looking on three pitches. In either case, Mady Darby was Doubleday's “personal nurse,” a position that seems to have no official equivalent in today's armed forces. Although unhurt in the morning's skirmishes, the major general failed to show up for the afternoon battles. Years later it was revealed that Mady had “slipped a mickey” into Doubleday's canteen. Her intentions are unclear to this day, but she had solidified the Union victory and ensured the invention of baseball as we know it. And so borough leaders decided not to name their home town Nightingale, as had been planned, but chose Darby instead.

And just a reminder … none of this will be on your final test.