First, a disclaimer. Twelve Mile Circle deals with geo-oddities, not politics. It doesn’t take sides. However, the timing of this post fell closest to the Presidential Inauguration and I thought it might be acceptable to poke a toe just up to the line in a nonpartisan fashion. Reader "Joe" sent me an idea, as he often does, and I decided to run with it. He referenced an article in his local newspaper about a town in a very conservative corner of Missouri that went by the name Liberal.
The story mentioned Liberal’s irony. As one resident proclaimed, "People are embarrassed… They are ashamed and don’t identify." I couldn’t determine how the town voted in the recent election, however the surrounding county (Barton) went for Donald Trump 84%. One might conclude somewhat reasonably that Liberal could actually be quite conservative, using modern euphemisms where liberal meant Democrat and conservative meant Republican. I decided to stick with that definition realizing that different interpretations could also be used.
Liberal began in 1880 as an atheist utopia founded by George Walser. He belonged to an organization called the Liberal League based in Lamar, Missouri about twenty miles to the east. This group fell within a larger philosophy of Freethinkers, who form "opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief." Walser purchased two thousand acres and founded a town based upon his personal preferences. Christians then made it a mission to convert the town and eventually purchased land adjoining it. Apparently their strategy worked. Walser eventually converted and died a Christian.
Of course, I realized that there wasn’t necessarily a parallel between a particular word usage from the 1880’s and today. There are plenty of Christians who are Democrats and Republicans who are atheists, so word definitions evolve just as towns evolve.
Few signs of the failed experiment survived other than Darwin Street (map) — honoring Charles Darwin — and the name of the town itself.
12MC Visited Liberal, Kansas
I mentioned my visit to Liberal, Kansas when I replied to Joe’s suggestion. I went there a few years ago during my Dust Bowl Adventure. It included several sites like the Mid-America Air Museum, a giant book sculpture outside of the local library, and Kansas’ proxy for Dorothy’s House and the Land of Oz (map). I got to experience all three of them.
Was Liberal once liberal only to flip conservative like its Missouri namesake? It seemed to fit the definition of conservative today with 64% of Seward County going for Trump. I checked one popular search engine and came across an interesting discussion on that very topic. My favorite response was, "It’s like when you call a fat man ‘Slim’ or a bald man ‘Curly’. Yeah, ‘Liberal’ is like that!" I got that same perception when I visited there in person.
However this didn’t necessarily mean it was once "liberal." The town didn’t have a clearly-defined history. One local source said,
Mr. S.S. Rogers was the first homesteader in what would later become Liberal. Outside of the Cimarron River, water was very scarce in Southwestern Kansas and there was usually a charge for even a small amount; however Mr. Rogers always gave his water free to passing travelers. Quite often he would hear a reply of "that’s mighty Liberal of you" from the grateful recipients.
I wasn’t quite sure I believed that explanation although I didn’t find any hidden 19th Century atheist influences to compete with it either.
Not every Liberal settlement exhibited conservative tendencies in the modern era. The Liberal in Oregon (map) fell within the borders of Clackamas County. Clackamas went for Democrats in the last three Presidential elections, and five of the last seven. Hillary Clinton registered nearly 48% of votes in 2016, compared to 41% for Trump. This Liberal also had a murky history.
The exact origin of the name of the community is lost in the past. Some believe that it was named for Liberal, Missouri… However the prevailing belief, shared by many old-timers including the late Dee Wright, a local historian, was that is was named because of the liberal credit policies of the local store.
One more Liberal once thrived in Indiana, although no signs of it remained today. The county where it formerly existed (Spencer) went 66% for Trump. That made three Liberals conservative, and one Liberal at least leaning liberal.
I wondered if any towns went the other way, with conservative names applied to liberal enclaves. I didn’t find any. However, I recalled a local example where I knew that gradually changing political beliefs underwent a transition of that type. A specific recent incident drove the point home. The City of Alexandria, like much of the rest of Virginia, was once quite conservative. That hasn’t been the case in recent years. For instance, in September 2016 the city council voted to rename Jefferson Davis Highway. Jefferson Davis was once the President of the Confederacy and his name adorned many places in the Old South after the war. Times are changing in Alexandria, however. The city also wants to relocate it’s statue of a Confederate soldier, currently overlooking a prominent intersection (map), to someplace less conspicuous.
I freely admit to a bit of nervousness with this article after a bruising campaign fresh in everyone’s minds. 12MC is the only site where I read the comments anymore, where readers seem to actually respect the points of view of others. Let’s hope this article doesn’t devolve into splitting of hairs, wrangling over definitions, and hurtful words.
Twelve Mile Circle will now return to non-political topics. Maybe forever.
During deep winter I focus a lot of efforts on my genealogy hobby. I think it’s because the holidays offer big blocks of time where I’m stuck indoors. I can concentrate on intricate details as I piece together my family puzzle. Recently a line of research brought my attention to a small town in East Texas called Timpson. My Great Grandmother’s aunt and cousin lived there in the early 20th Century. They ran a milliner shop, selling women’s hats. That last part actually had nothing to do with the article, I just liked the term milliner.
An interesting bit of musical history emerged as I checked into the records of Timpson. It featured prominently in a popular song performed by cowboy singer Tex Ritter in the 1940’s. He called it "Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair." Go ahead and give it a listen if you like. I’ll wait.
Those places were all towns in Shelby County, Texas. Tenaha and Timpson continue to exist today without about a thousand residents each. Bobo and Blair practically disappeared. No more than a few scattered houses, and maybe a church or a cemetery existed at either place to mark that they once existed. Nonetheless they all lived on in a way, permanently connected by this one old song at least until the generation that remembered it fades away. That day probably isn’t too far away, unfortunately. It’s a good thing I found out about it when I did.
Ritter’s song described a train ride through the Texas countryside, of a man waiting for the conductor to call out stops for Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair, where a girl waited. As described in the Houston Chronicle,
It seems that by the time he got through calling out each name, the train had already passed through all four towns. So the conductors started calling out all four before the train arrived at the first… thus "Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo and Blair."
It became a common expression in East Texas and came to be applied to the rolling of dice in craps games, as players tried to make 10. Generally players pronounced Tenaha in an unusual way, calling it Tennyhaw. They would yell out something like “come on Tennyhaw, Timpson, Bobo and Blair” as they threw the dice. The gambling gods answered their prayers when the dice rolled ten. The expression became popular with American troops during World War II thanks to soldiers from Texas, and then became even more well known because of the Tex Ritter song.
The old Houston East and West Texas (HE&WT) Railway served those four towns. According to the Handbook of Texas, the HE&WT got its charter in 1875 with great aspirations, as noted by the railroad’s name. Those lofty goals never happened. Only the eastern portion — and only partially — ever saw a train, running as a narrow gauge from Houston to Shreveport. That took the railroad straight through Shelby County and past the settlements of Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair. Local residents claimed that HE&WT actually stood for "Hell Either Way Taken."
A Competing Explanation
It made a nice story, however a different explanation emerged later. The order of villages listed in the popular expression didn’t make sense. A conductor would ordinarily call out the stations sequentially. If that were truly the case the conductor would be expected to call out "Tenaha, Bobo, Timpson and Blair" instead. According to the competing theory,
… stringing the town names together began during World War I when soldiers in a National Guard Unit composed of men from Shelby County discarded the familiar cadence of "hup, two, three, four" for "Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair," their home towns.
In reality, the true explanation may never be known. Honestly, it didn’t really matter.
Tex Ritter spent his early years in Murvaul, Texas, a few miles up the road in neighboring Panola County, Texas (my direct ancestors also lived in Panola County). He would have been very familiar with the expression from his childhood. He probably thought it sounded nice and simply crafted a set of song lyrics around it based on legends that had been passed down through the area.
Nobody more famous than Tex Ritter ever came from Panola. In Carthage, the county seat, there now stands the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and Tex Ritter Museum (map). A statue of Ritter with his guitar and horse stands out front in honor of its famous son.
A lot of people in the Twelve Mile Circle audience probably never heard of Tex Ritter. I’ll bet more readers probably knew about his son, though. It’s hard to believe that John Ritter so well-known for his role in the sitcom Three’s Company as well as well as many others, had an East Texas cowboy singer for a father.
Tex’s real name was Woodward Maurice Ritter. In the 1910 and 1920 Census he had a brother named Booty. Mom and dad weren’t great at names, apparently. Tex sounded so much better.
While looking at a map recently I noticed two curious towns in Wisconsin. Their names seemed perfectly fine and normal, Poplar and Maple. Their proximity seemed more than a little coincidental. I never found an explanation for collocated tree towns and the pattern didn’t extend to other settlements in Douglas County. Nonetheless, I felt a connection so I took a closer look. Eventually I realized that I drove through both of them on a trip to northern Wisconsin several years ago. My path took me from the Apostle Islands to Duluth, Minnesota. However, the names never dawned on me for some odd reason as I crossed through them in-person.
More people lived in Poplar (map) than Maple, about 600, even if little happened there during its long history. Even so, the village hoped to celebrate its centennial in 2017 assuming it could form a committee to handle the details. Hopefully people will step up and help recognize the hundred years since its founding. I also enjoyed the interactive cemetery map. It was really well done. Seriously. You should check it out. Yellow rectangles marked veterans’ graves and blue ones marked everyone else.
The website also featured a Lockheed P-38 Lightning airplane on its banner. Those fighters last saw combat during World War II. I’ve always loved the shape of those planes. They’re a bit difficult to describe so…
I wondered if an airplane museum might also exist in Poplar. No, unfortunately one did not. However, the website did memorialize the most famous person ever to come from Poplar, a WW2 pilot named Richard Bong. He shot down 40 Japanese aircraft during the war, becoming the recognized "Ace of Aces" while earning a Medal of Honor. I know this shouldn’t amuse me and I don’t want to take away from this great hero’s accomplishments, but a local historical marker did list him as Major Dick Bong. My apologies in advance for the Beavis and Butthead humor.
Sadly, Bong died in 1945 while serving as a test pilot.
Two Maples existed in Douglas, a township and an unincorporated community (map) within the township. The larger area included several hundred residents and also provided an informational website for its residents. The top item on its Frequently Asked Questions page involved reservations for its baseball field. It must be nice to live in a place where the residents’ biggest concern focused on recreational sports.
If I were to guess, I’d say that the maples in Maple must have been sugar maples. They grew all throughout Wisconsin natively. I couldn’t find any places in Maple selling maple syrup although I bet they’re there if I looked close enough. My wife’s family elsewhere in Wisconsin, knows people who make their own maple syrup so it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Then I looked a little closer and spotted another community called Blueberry.
Blueberries. My Own Photo
Of course, Blueberries don’t involve trees, they grow on bushes. I saw that in person when I went up to Maine a few years ago. Nonetheless it was a plant and maybe close enough to keep the naming convention going? Three adjacent communities, three plants?
Several Blueberries fell within the same area, the Blueberry community, a Blueberry Creek and the Blueberry Swamp Natural Area (map).