Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Naming Your Hometown, The Final Chapter

Here we have the much-anticipated, long-threatened last of the fictional origins of Delaware County's 27 boroughs. Think of this as history for people who thought they hated history. But please remember that any of these explanations that may at first seem very near the truth ... are not.


You may know the work of Millbourne's founder without really knowing it. If you're over 40 or have been captured by a medieval cult you have probably seen a “Punch & Judy” puppet show. These shows date back before Shakespeare's time, and center around the very angry Punch, who continually hits all the characters he meets with a large stick. This was like reality TV in the 16th century since people were generally on the very edge of rage at all times. (Life was hard then. Home pizza delivery and indoor plumbing were still centuries away.) Into this atmosphere of anger stepped Joshua Millbourne, a young writer who thought he saw a way to understand and explain Punch's fury. With this goal in mind he invented an entire back story of dashed hopes and heartbreaking betrayals that served to explain Punch's need to inflict those terrible stick beatings. People began to see the hurt little boy living inside the detestable, obnoxious, ungodly, revolting Punch. England's Queen Elizabeth saw this undertaking as marginally beneficial to society, and awarded Millbourne the smallest plot of land ever bequeathed by Britain in the New World. Four hundred years later, Millbourne's true contribution to modern society came to the forefront, as his back story was re-worked as Paul & Judy and premiered as a serial on NBC radio. Thus he became known as “The Father of the Modern Soap Opera.”


There has been a rumor for decades that Glenolden was named in an effort to compete with Nantucket for placement within limericks, as in “There once was a man from Glenolden....” However, when you think it through that doesn't really work. It would mean that the next line would have to end with “embolden” (or possibly “beholdin'”). That's obviously way too limiting, so the limerick theory is just plain wrong. The actual untrue story is much simpler. Glenolden got its name from the man who invented five-cheese lasagna, Guiseppe Oldapinni, who “Americanized” his name to Glenn Olden and who resided in that borough in the last years of his life. During those years he was working on the addition of a sixth cheese (allegedly Munster) which he never perfected, and which eludes lasagna scientists to this day.

East Lansdowne

Believe it or not, the fact that East Lansdowne lies directly east of Lansdowne is purely coincidence. At one time the borough of Lansdowne encompassed both areas, but in the late 1930s a blood feud erupted, reputedly over a pair of red pantaloons hanging on someone's clothesline. Other than that simple fact, details of the original incident have been lost to history. Residents on each side of the conflict were driven to acts they would later regret, not the least of which was the kidnapping of Petey the Parakeet, the official bird of Lansdowne and living embodiment of all that was precious to the people living there. It was while holding Petey that his captors resolved to go all the way and secede from the borough. In an effort to show the world their extreme revulsion for their former town they took the name “Least Lansdowne,” indicating that no place on Earth could be less Lansdowne than they were. But it was the pure heart and sweet love of Petey that ended the troubles. He talked constantly and his philosophy was later compared to the gentle renderings of Cat Stevens. Soon he melted the hearts of the “Leasts” and they forgot what started the conflict (of course we remember it was the pantaloon thing). Least became East and East Lansdowne was born.


Horse racing was king in 1920s America and Delaware County was a hotbed of (mostly illegal) activity in connection with “The Sport of Kings.” Off-track betting was forbidden but, just the same, throughout the county it was as common as straw hats. Year after year, efforts to legalize off-track wagering had been shut down by county officials who believed that if they allowed this sort of activity to take hold it might one day snowball into state-run lotteries and a gambling casino on the Delaware River in Chester. In the face of this absurd exaggeration, a small group of men and women settled in a particular area of the county and attempted to legalize off-track betting in that small area only. Now, in horse racing terminology, “hands down” means winning easily. It refers to a situation where a horse is so far ahead that his jockey can lower his grip on the reins. Fervent supporters of this position wanted to name their area Hands Down, Pennsylvania, but it was determined that would show over confidence to those on the fence on the off-track issue. So the borough was named Lansdowne to disguise their intentions, but wager-crazy residents knew very well what the name really meant. This decision proved to be a wise one when the gambling movement failed, and Hands Down would have seemed as absurd as Bird-in-Hand and a few other of other Pennsylvania's oddly monikered towns.


Some town names just come very easily. In 1895, just outside of Folcroft, there lived a “fine and upstanding” family with the “fine and upstanding” name of Norwood. (Note: The 19th century term “fine and upstanding” is most closely translated to “cool” in modern-day lingo.) Everyone loved them and decided to show their love by naming their community after them. In 1970, an atrocity of a movie called Norwood, co-starring Joe Namath, was unleashed on the public, but the loyalty of residents was so strong that even that did not move them to change the borough's name.


You have probably heard the term “bedroom community,” which, oddly enough, does not mean a community made up entirely of motels as some of us always thought it did. (That's not a strange conclusion to draw when you think of it, right? Right?) Well, apparently, is refers to a town where most workers commute to a larger city. In the early years of the 20th century workers commuted to work in the city of Chester by horse or by the newly invented automobile. Those modes of transportation needed to be separated since the cars spooked the horses, and so an entire area was established to “park” the cars a reasonable distance from the steeds. That area grew over the years and was informally called the “park side of Chester.” Soon people realized that living there would be smarter than driving there, parking lots were replaced by beautiful homes and Parkside was born.

Marcus Hook

Dr. Marcus Hook was instrumental in finding the cure for a disease that ravaged the East Coast of the United States during the late 18th century. Although it was non-fatal (and thus didn't get flashy front page headlines like the publicity hungry flu) it was still quite annoying to those who suffered it. Known as Stencholococcus, it was characterized by a constant and overpowering sense of stink. It was more than annoying, really, since an acute sense of smell was vital in maneuvering one's way through the streets of the day, filled with horse-drawn conveyances as they were. Dr. Hook (who also ran a successful medicine show) solved the mystery. It seems that “bad snuff” was coming out of Cuba and infecting the nasal passages of users. He created an additive that neutralized the effect. In the euphoria of the cure, Commonwealth officials handed over the land to the good doctor, who proceeded to name it after himself. (You know how doctors are.)


There was a time when newspapers, radio and television were considered a valuable resource to the American public and an indispensable part of a working democracy. In those simpler days it seemed like a great idea to name a town in tribute to the media that keeps this country informed and free. Of course that all seems silly today, doesn't it?

Rose Valley

The story of Rose Valli is a cautionary tale for those who would use their gifts to shortcut their way to success in this world. She was a certified genius, and proficient in art, literature, history and virtually everything she attempted. Everything but math, it would appear. Rose used her remarkable artistic talent to create the plates that resulted in perfect counterfeit U.S. currency. Now, her thinking was that the Treasury Department is always looking for fake large bills, so she counterfeited one dollar bills. And her logic proved correct, as not one of her fake dollar bills was ever detected. The problem was that each bill cost approximately $1.27 to produce. Of course she couldn't sustain her “business” with that kind of loss, and so decided to turn herself in. Why a town would be named after Rose is a question that's been asked over and over, but we suspect that her brother Garnet, a former Pennsylvania bigwig, had something to do with that.

Ridley Park

Riddle me this: What Delaware County borough gets its name from a question? I suppose the heading on this paragraph is kind of a giveaway … but what question? The year was 1850 and the man was Stu Mauch, a slightly less successful promoter than his idol P.T. Barnum (but not for lack of trying). Having purchased a small plot of land in Delaware County, he set about running a contest to name it. The idea was to ask people to submit their answer to a riddle he had made up himself. The winner could pick the name. At a cost of ten cents per entry, he figured to make history and profit at the same time. Sadly, the riddle was successfully answered by 72 percent of the people who entered, Mauch was ruined and no one could decide who won the naming rights. The dilemma went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court and they simply settled on “Ridley Park.” Even though it was later determined the Court had no naming authority, that title stuck. And what was the question in question? Here you go: I run all day and never walk. I tell you something, but I do not talk. What am I? See the answer below.

That ends the fictional portion of your online newspaper experience for the day. We now return you to the factual areas. Thanks for visiting!

Answer to the riddle: A clock.

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