All towns are named for something: founders, natural landmarks, historical events or as a nod to another location that somehow inspired a new world. New York City was originally New Amsterdam; Philadelphia was once called Coaquannock by the Lenni-Lenape tribe, a name that means “grove of tall pines.” San Francisco used to be called Yerba Buena. Chicago was once Fort Dearborn.
But some names can have people scratching their heads or wondering what the founders were thinking. Here’s a look at the origins of a few town names that make people take notice.
Not to be confused with Booger Hole, West Virginia, Boogertown’s name has nothing to do with stuffed noses or digging in a nasal cavity. Instead, it has its origins in another childhood distraction: monsters under the bed.
A “booger,” back in the day, referenced a ghost, spirit, hobgoblin or anything else that went bump in the night. According to one story, a Civil War soldier was riding through the town and saw eyes staring at him from some bushes. Convinced he was being watched by a spirit – or booger – he fled into town. It was only later, in the daylight, he realized it was a cow. But some claim the town really was haunted, as livestock kept winding up dead by some unseen, mysterious force. Another story suggests the town’s name came not from a soldier but a settler who saw something white in the woods; a fourth says the name stuck after people reported weird sounds in the woods in the middle of the night through branches that formed an overhead tunnel.
The town’s name has been changed to the Oldham but the weird name is an old favorite among those who live there and a sure draw for tourism.
The boot-shaped state along the Gulf Coast is synonymous with flooding, heavy rains, hurricanes and other meteorological hassles. Waterproof itself is a town that has moved three times in order to relocate after flooding. One of the town’s oldest residents said the name came courtesy of a steamboat captain who docked his boat on the narrow strip of land otherwise surrounded by water. The man who greeted the captain was so pleased with the compliment he used the word as the name for his parcel of land, reportedly the highest point on the Mississippi River between Memphis and New Orleans.
As time passed, the water rose and shifted. The Waterproof that was a dry strip of land is now under the Mississippi River. The town moved twice between its incorporation in 1872 and reaching its final and current location in 1880. Each time the move was prompted by high water and record flooding caused by the mighty Mississippi. The second location was deemed unsafe when the river bank began to cave in under the shifting river.
The town is small enough to fit on a small island: the 2010 census recorded a population of just 688 people. But they can sleep safely now: Levee technology that didn’t exist when the town was founded now keeps everyone high and dry.
Hot Coffee, Mississippi
Whether on a road trip or, in the times before highways, traveling miles by horse and buggy, there are few things more anticipated than a stop to stretch the legs. The road was long and there weren’t many little towns between Natchez, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama. A man named L.N. Davis wanted to offer a little hospitality, a little comfort and some refreshment for those passing through town. He set up a little shop in the late 1800s and always had a fresh pot of coffee available. He advertised it as the best coffee around – likely a true statement on account of being the only coffee around – and he poured hot coffee to whoever stopped in. And just like that, the tiny town had its name. And it’s stuck: the town is still called Hot Coffee and still advertises itself as having great cups of joe for weary travelers along Hot Coffee Road. What made Davis’ coffee special, in addition to always being fresh and hot, was that he sweetened it with molasses, not sugar, and used coffee from fresh beans in New Orleans. He also refused to provide cream for the coffee, believing it ruined the taste. Some famous people call Hot Coffee home, including Stella Sevens, who starred alongside Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor and Girls, Girls, Girls with Elvis. The town even inspired the name of Hot Coffee, Mississippi, a country band from Washington, D.C.
Buttzville, New Jersey
Oh, imagine being a kid growing up in Buttzville. Not that there are a ton of kids in the giggle-worthy town; it has a population of just 146. The town got its name in a most usual way: it was founded by Robert Buttz in 1839. A teacher by training, he purchased the plot of land he’d call home, and that would one day bear his name, from a miller that had previously used the property for a gristmill. Mr. Buttz opened a hotel and general store where his family would live and work for years. It’s probable that Thomas Edison was a regular customer in the store as he had a manufacturing plant nearby.
The whole town fits in 181 acres, less than one-eighth the size of Central Park in nearby New York City. Much like nearby Pennsylvania, there are several other dirty-sounding towns nearby, including Dicktown, Fort Dix, Loveladies, Ho-Ho-Kus and Middlesex. Buttzville, by the way, is known for Hot Dog Johnny’s, a stand that also sells birch beer made on site and fresh buttermilk.
Big Bone Lick, Kentucky
The origin of this weird town name is prehistoric in nature. Really. The town, and the national park, sit on what many call the cornerstone of North American vertebrate paleontology. In the heart of Boone County, Kentucky, and along the Ohio River, used to stand a massive glacier, surrounded by grasses and trees that were a favorite stomping ground (literally) for mastodons and mammoths. Animals of all shapes and sizes, like many humans, enjoy salty treats and the area now known as Big Bone Lick was a natural salt like frequented by animals who needed to supplement their plant-heavy diet with sodium. But as the earliest version of humans found, tracked and hunted these animals, their bones were left behind. It stands to reason that the big bones left behind near the salt lick were the source of stories for generations, especially as fossils were uncovered and shared by British and French explorers. It didn’t hurt that Thomas Jefferson mentioned the large bones found in that area of what is now Kentucky but was, way back in the late 1700s, part of Virginia. What is now Big Bone Lick National Park was visited by Lewis and Clark in October 1803 and provided some samples to Jefferson. A few years later, the salt industry started to boom in the area and, by 1821, the area was a popular resort for the Ohio Valley.
Detroit has a bad rep these days, a once-booming industrial town that is a shadow of its former self in many respects. But just an hour away is a town that’s literally hell on earth. The town of Hell, Michigan, was founded in the 1830s and got its name in 1941, although the reasons behind it are somewhat foggy. The town was a business venture of George Reeves, who previously started a sawmill, then a gristmill then a distillery and later a general store in which is liquid goods were sold. It’s possible, and widely argued, that his sale of spirits might have influenced the town’s name. Reeves was asked what his burgeoning town should be called, he reportedly said “I don’t care, you can name it Hell for all I care.” The name caught on and women would complain that their drunk husbands had gone to Hell again.
The name might have nothing to do with Reeves or his wares, however. When the town was first settled, the land was swampy and harsh, filled with swarms of mosquitos. Who likes those?! Another possibility could be that some German travelers exclaimed the town “so schön hell!,” or beautifully bright, when they visited in the 1830s.
For what it’s worth, Michigan isn’t the only state with Hell on the map: California had one but it was officially declared a ghost town in 1964 and was demolished to make way for Interstate 10. There’s also a Hell in Norway, Grand Cayman and Slovenia.
Satan’s Kingdom, Connecticut
Beautiful places are often called God’s Country. Las Vegas is known as Sin City. There are cities called Paradise and many think tropical islands are versions of Heaven on earth. But would you ever take a trip to Satan’s Kingdom?
There are three places with this name – two called Satans Kingdom, no apostrophe – in New England.
The one in Massachusetts was named for the inhospitable terrain and poor soil quality of the land and was used as a warning for other settlers not to get their hopes up about the untouched fields and keep moving. Satans Kingdom in Vermont got its name for similar reasons, as early residents there expected beautiful rolling land and instead found rocks and hills. Controversy here, however, as there are no documents verifying the existence of a place in Vermont called Satans Kingdom.
In Connecticut, Satan’s Kingdom has two different origin stories. One suggests the town was called Satan’s Kingdom because it was a place where outcast members of the Tunxis tribe were banished for their crimes and where they were sent to live out their days. Another reason is the total opposite and more spiritual in nature: A portion of New Hartford was formally called Satan’s Kingdom because it was mountainous and hostile. A resident there, one of very few who braved it, was invited to come into town and hear a passing minister. The minister prayed for the destruction of Satan’s Kingdom, likely meaning the metaphorical allure of evil over good, but the man took it to heart. The man told the minister he was deeply offended that the area in which he’d made his home was so publicly damned.
The book Weird New England claims some residents believed Satan appeared, in real life, to claim the land as his own until the angel Gabriel cast him and his demons out.
Now Satan’s Kingdom, in Connecticut at least, is home to a frequently stolen street sign and a recreation area.
Back in the days before Alaska was a gold mining town, when the untamed wilderness was just part of the northern part of the world and a huge mystery to most people, before it belonged to the United States, residents there had their own ideas about what a town should be called. Miners in the Fortymile District wanted to call their particular homestead Ptarmigan in honor of a bird, a kind of grouse that was plentiful in the region. Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on how to spell the basted thing. Instead, they went with a variation on the theme and went to something much simpler, something equally important and just as vital to their survival: Chicken. It’s reportedly the second town incorporated in the territory and is nestled in the middle of a whole bunch of nothing other than forests. It’s also become something of a tourist destination. It’s no longer the booming mining town it once was – locals claim the population is about 30, doubling or tripling in the summer, but the latest census shows a residency level of about seven people.
Let’s see: A small town in America’s Heartland, flat plains all around, rich soil, farms for miles… let’s call it Fertile! The town was once called Rhodes Mill for the original resident there, an ex-pat Canadian named William Rhodes who moved to Iowa in 1858 and built a mill to grind wheat into flour. Later the town’s name was changed to honor its plentiful crops and good soil. The town was established as Fertile in 1877 and incorporated in 1908. It’s also a tiny town with fewer than 400 people, but they really love their town, as evidence by the glowing description on its website, depicting a place with a boisterous festival, deep love of nature, plenty of recreational opportunities on the Winnebago River and a great little league team. It’s small town America at its finest. Cute, isn’t it?
The funny thing about words and language is that meanings can change over time. Gay was a synonym for happy and festive not all that long ago; queer meant odd or different. Intercourse used to me social discourse and conversation, not just sex. True, it’s a popular stop in Pennsylvania for sending mail – who wouldn’t want a letter from Intercourse? – and it’s great for selling tourist trinkets, like Intercourse University t-shirts. The town started in 1754 with a single building on Newport Road, a log tavern, at the intersection of two major thoroughfares between Newport, Delaware, and Mount Hope, Pennsylvania. In 1814 the town was renamed Intercourse as part of a real estate plot to draw people in, led by George Brungard. He purchased 48 acres of land and wanted to build the town of 151 lots, selling them for $250 each. A newspaper ad at the time references the great importance of communication and great roads meeting together in this place, and at the time, intercourse meant “pleasant mutual fellowship and frequent intermingling which was so much more common in the information atmosphere of the quiet country village” of the time. Another tale says the east end of the town had once housed a horse racing track, making the tavern and houses near the intersection the Enter Course, which later became Intercourse.
To be fair, there are plenty of towns with hilarious names in Pennsylvania, many of them in the heart of Lancaster County, the stronghold of Pennsylvania Dutch farmsteads. You can buy magnets with arrows pointing to Blue Ball, Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse; other towns include Fertility, Paradise, Mount Joy and Lititz, a name easy to mispronounce to great comedic effect.