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Friday, May 30, 2008

How to Name a Town: First, Find a Barn...

The following was originally posted as a guest post on 'Twas Brillig. I'm archiving it here too, so I can keep it as part of what I think might become a little series on local history.

I live in a Michigan town that was once generally known as "Podunk." I kid you not. The government website for my town records this fact on its History page, as an introduction to information about the official naming of the town. What the government website does not say is that the 1827 meeting to choose a name took place in the barn of one of the town's founding citizens, a fact which to me seems poignant and important. These were pioneers, literally, who were looking to establish the legitimacy of their little hamlet. They had no township buildings, no civic location in which to meet, and so they chose the most logical of places: large, roofed in, dry, and associated with the gumption of the very first settlers, the Tibbits' barn served as their town center. It does not seem a stretch to conclude that the impetus for that meeting was the desire to resist Podunk becoming the recorded name on maps and government documents.

At this meeting, I have also learned, there was much discussion in favor of the name Peking, in honor of the general interest in all things from China. There is, in fact, a town in Michigan called Canton, presumably for the same reason -- a reason which, in the 1820s, also inspired the Prince Regent (later King George IV) of England to decorate Brighton Pavilion (his seaside palace) with a crazily "Asian" room in which he placed everything that seemed like it was probably Chinese or Japanese, or whatever, he wasn't picky, including fantastical wallpaper painted with giant stands of flowering bamboo. I've seen it. The pink-and-ivory orchid-like flowers are enormous and lush. Bamboo doesn't actually flower at all, let alone flower like a Hawaiian orchid, but verisimilitude was not the strong suit of our 1820s forefathers. What they wanted was the fantasy of Chinoiserie. And so, in the case of my town, they -- stout settler stock that they were -- contemplated the name Peking.

For reasons that are unclear, despite its popularity, Peking was abandoned as the town's official name in favor of LeRoy. Honestly, I could not make this stuff up if I tried. With a perceptive forward-thinking apparently far beyond that of the eager settlers, the Governor of the Michigan Territory (it was not yet a State), chose to approve instead the second choice name that the settlers put forth. It was a name I am sure they felt was no where near as romantic and lilting as LeRoy. At least, I assume they felt that about LeRoy. To me, that name is practically synonymous with "junk yard dog," but presumably in this pre-rock-and-roll era, it sounded exotic. Or something. Anyway, thanks to Governor Cass's eminently sensible judgment, I live in a town with a perfectly ordinary name, one that the Puritan settlers of New England happily bestowed upon many towns -- a name like Portsmouth, or Salem, or Haverford.

I'm sure at this remove of time, it would not matter if I lived in Peking, Michigan instead. It would not be any different than living in Versailles, Vermont (pronounced VER-sails, with a nice hard "r" in there). Which is to say, I would still be a Michigander, and the name of the town would have no particular resonance, no specific connotations, except to occasion a wondering query, "What were they thinking?"

But I do wonder, now that I know this history, what life would have been like for those early settlers if Peking had carried the day. Would they have felt more worldly? Held themselves a little straighter when they announced with pride the name of their town? Felt secretly pleased that they had taken the public step of labeling their town as different from those already-old towns of New England? Would they have felt particularly modern to live in a town called Peking in the Territory of Michigan? Even though they would never travel to China themselves, would probably never meet a Chinese person, quite possibly never even speak to a soul who had been to China, would they have felt proud that they were doing their part to enter into the increasingly global economy, to participate in becoming world citizens, by naming their town after one halfway around the world?

A part of me thinks they would have. And admires them for it. In 1827, still ten years away from becoming the 26th state, Michigan was wilderness and farmland. Settlers worked long hours carving farms out of the fertile soil. Tibbits is credited with bringing the first pony to the area. Say what you will about the problematic dynamics between settlers and Native Americans (what you say will be true); life in such a place was certainly not easy for the new settlers.

Perhaps the fantasy of China, the dream of the exotic, glimmered in those settlers' minds for a while on that February night in 1827. Perhaps they, with their work-worn hands and woolen clothes, stomped their thick boots to keep warm as they discussed the choice of a town name and quietly hoped to grasp what little they could of the reported glories of travel.

In the end, they chose a name less explicitly foreign (LeRoy) and, as one might argue is endemic of Midwestern farmers, offered up a second choice that was incredibly safe. The Governor, of course, preferred the latter. But like the questioning speaker in Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled," I wonder what would have happened in the formative years of my town if boldness had prevailed. And I am pleased to be reminded again that however much we twenty-first century citizens see ourselves as responsible for the phenomenon of the "global village," that shrinkage was already beginning nearly 200 years ago through the hard work and gleams of vision that filled the lives of people who lived in a place that was nearly named Peking, Michigan.


Nicole (SAHM Ramblings) said...

I saw the title and I was like "Hey! Deja vu!"

Good point about archiving it on your own blog. I'll have to remember that if I ever guest post anywhere.

Middle Aged Woman said...

I live in what was one part of Nanking Township, along with Peking, and Canton. Nanking became Nankin, and I think all that's left of that is the Nature Center, Nankin Mills. Good to find another Michigander. Thank God they changed the name from Podunk.


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