I kicked-up a lot of material as I researched Audubon, Iowa in the recent For the Birds. Originally I’d hope to feature several Audubon towns in the United States — and I do believe they are found only in the United States — and was completely overwhelmed by wonderful delights in rural Iowa. Today I present the rest of the story, or at least a trio of standouts amongst the 213 different Audubon features listed in the Geographic Names Information System. Actually, a case could be made that I’ve featured three-and-a-half. One spawned another in a specific instance.
Audubon Mill Grove House by Montgomery County Planning Commission
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
I began with Audubon, Pennsylvania since that particular spot had a genuine, tangible connection to John James Audubon through a property called Mill Grove. He moved there in 1803 when he was 18 years old. Only weeks earlier he’d been known as Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon — He adopted his anglicized name as he boarded a ship to immigrate to the United States. The young Jean-Jacques started with a bit of stigma during his earliest years although he flourished once he arrived at Mill Grove, as the National Audubon Society explained,
Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French mistress… he was sent to America, in part to escape conscription into the Emperor Napoleon’s army. He lived on the family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and drew birds, and met his wife, Lucy Bakewell. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.
The National Audubon Society now manages the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and operates a museum on the historic site.
Mill Grove, Audubon, Pennsylvania, USA
The adjacent town of Audubon served as a fitting tribute, with streets labeled for birds that starred in Audubon’s artworks: Lark; Owl; Sparrow; Thrush; Cardinal; Wren and so on.
Audubon Park, New Jersey
Audubon Park, New Jersey, USA
Audubon Park also had historical significance albeit of a much more recent vintage, and completely unrelated to John James Audubon. The United States government constructed Audubon Park to house workers employed at the nearby New York Shipbuilding Corporation’s shipyard in Camden during the Second World War. The United States needed ships and workers needed a place to live. Audubon Park offered a solution.
Audubon Park was a part Audubon Borough until the borough held a referendum in 1947 and voted Audubon Park out of Audubon. As New Jersey’s Courier-Post explained,
Secession from Audubon was Audubon’s idea, with the cost of educating Audubon Park’s children a point of contention. Politics, though, was really at the heart of the move… Audubon Village was Democratic while Audubon leaned Republican. Audubon outnumbered its neighbor at the polls and the referendum passed.
Apparently the thought of commingling with blue-collar shipyard workers was too much for original residents to bear. Audubon Park got the boot and became its own borough.
Like the Audubon in Pennsylvania, Audubon Park in New Jersey featured numerous streets named for birds. I counted about twenty five different species.
Audubon, Minnesota, USA
Similarly, the Audubon located in Minnesota hid an interesting origin assuming its true. Audubon was one of the many towns that emerged along railroad tracks in the latter half of the 19th Century America. An old book, A Pioneer History of Becker County Minnesota (1907), described How Audubon Received its Name when railroad officials traveled through the region investigating potential routes.
About the middle of August, 1871, Mr. Thomas H. Canfield came through on a tour of inspection, and with him was quite a party of aristocratic looking people, and they camped where the Audubon depot now stands. The prairies were then covered with flowers and lilies, and there were several ladies in the party who were filled with admiration at the beauty of the surrounding country, and I remember that one lady asked Mr. Canfield if a railroad station could ever be established there that it be called Audubon. Another man took out a memorandum book and noted down this request. I afterwards learned that the lady was a niece of John J. Audubon, the great American naturalist.
I have my doubts about the accuracy of an anecdote recalled a quarter-century after the fact from something someone "learned" from someone else. Maybe John James Audubon had a niece who traveled through Minnesota in the 1870′s. I don’t know. I couldn’t find any such niece after a perfunctory Intertubes search for whatever that’s worth. It still made a great story though.
While researching family history recently I came across several distantly related individuals who were born and married in the town of Audubon, Iowa, a place that is also the seat of government for a county of the same name. I wondered, as I combed through archival records, whether those were places named for famed 19th Century naturalist, ornithologist, artist John James Audubon, best known for his landmark The Birds of America.
Sure enough, the county and town were both named for the predictable Audubon and not some unknown random Audubon if one existed. He’d wandered widely across the frontier while recording and collecting bird specimens although he wasn’t associated particularly with this exact parcel. The Audubon County Historical Society explained that it had more to do with coincidental timing. Iowa grew rapidly during the middle 19th Century. The state organized forty nine new counties in 1851 alone, all of which needed names. John James Audubon, already famous during his lifetime, passed away that same year and became a logic choice. Audubon County debuted soon thereafter.
Audubon Mural; photo by Jimmy Emerson on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
Audubon, the county and the town, embraced its namesake with various artworks and commemorations. Those included a large stained glass window with clock (above), a statue of Audubon and his dog Zephyr in the downtown plaza, various tile mosaics replicating artwork from The Birds of America, and several murals in public buildings scattered throughout town. Google Street View provided poor coverage of Audubon and I found few decent Creative Commons licensed images elsewhere. Fortunately the county’s tourism and attractions page offered several photos and a nice overview if you want to see examples.
Other oddities interested me more, anyway.
I began by locating Audubon County within Iowa. On the map, count up four rows from the bottom and three counties from the left. There. See it? I used an Iowa map from my county counting page and I have to apologize for being too lazy to create a completely new map marking Audubon specifically. This should still get the point across.
I’m only about 30% done with Iowa and I’m nowhere near a Full Grassley. That’s a story for another day. Ignore that.
Rather, focus on Audubon in relation to its neighbors. Specifically notice that it’s considerably skinnier than any other county on the same horizontal row. An old publication, The History of Audubon County, Iowa (1915), offered an explanation for this geo-oddity.
This boundary was changed… [and] the cause of this change was remote. To adjust the boundaries of Polk county in such manner as to make Des Moines nearer the center of the county a tier of townships was severed from the east of Polk and attached to Jasper county. To compensate for the change a tier of townships was taken from the east of Dallas and attached to Polk county. Then a tier of townships was taken from the east of Guthrie and attached to Dallas county and a tier of townships was taken from the east of Audubon and attached to Guthrie county.
The publication then explained that nobody of consequence lived in Audubon at the time to defend its interests so the horizontal dominoes stopped falling right there. The county lost land to the east and gained nothing to the west. Audubon got squeezed. I had a more colorful term for that predicament although I couldn’t use it on a family-friendly website.
I returned to the tourism and attractions page and convinced myself that I needed to travel to Audubon County someday. Audubon, you are now officially on The List. I’m a sucker for oversized roadside animals like Audubon’s "Albert the Bull."
Albert the Bull, Audubon, Iowa by Brian Butko on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
Roadside America liked Albert too. It said,
Albert, the World’s Largest Bull, has been guarding the peaceful streets of Audubon since 1964. He is 30 feet tall and 33 feet long, and has a 15-foot span between horns. He also has baby blue eyes and giant concrete gonads.
Audubon was also justifiably proud of its aptly-named "Tree In The Middle of the Road" near Brayton. Once again, Street View failed to capture this remarkable landmark although Satellite View displayed the large tree directly within a crossroads. Various copyright protected photos (for example) exist on the Intertubes for those who need to appreciate the oddity from ground level.
Tree In The Middle of the Road, Brayton, IA
It got better. This also marked a border between Audubon and Cass Counties so the county line went directly through the tree! The tourism and travel page described the situation,
A surveyor was marking the line between Audubon and Cass counties and used a slender cottonwood branch as he walked. When the line was established, he pushed it in the soft earth at the exact point where the lines crossed and where the present crossroad was to be in later years. The switch took root and it has grown into today’s tall and widespread 100 foot tree.
I thought the story sounded bogus. Let them have their tall tale if they like. It didn’t matter. A giant tree as rural roundabout generated abundant weirdness all by itself. I’d go maybe several miles out of my way to see it, for sure.
I spent a few summers in Monterey, California when I was a kid. We’d land at the airport in San Francisco and drive south, cutting across the mouth of the agriculturally-oriented Salinas Valley before heading down towards the Monterey Peninsula. Oftentimes we’d stop in Castroville along the way for a special treat.
The Route Through Castroville
It’s important to understand that Castroville billed itself as the "Artichoke Center of the World." We’d stop just off the highway at a place called the Giant Artichoke for one of their more famous delicacies, deep fried artichokes. I learned at an early age that anything could be improved with a layer of batter and a few minutes bubbling in a fryer. Those were some good eats. They probably weren’t the healthiest food option available although that never crossed my mind at the time.
GiantArtichoke-02 by TrishaLyn, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
I jumped onto Street View and — surprise! — the Giant Artichoke was still there after all those years.
Castroville existed long before it became an Artichoke Center. The local Chamber of Commerce traced its founding to 1863, making Castroville the second oldest town in Monterey County. However its relationship with artichokes have long since eclipsed whatever other history it may have ever experienced.
In addition to the Giant Artichoke, Castroville serves as the home of the California Artichoke Advisory Board and sponsors an annual Artichoke Festival. They also crown an Artichoke Queen. Artichoke royalty may not sound all that impressive although the first Queen crowned in 1948 went on to slightly greater fame. She was Norma Jean Baker when she ascended the throne, later Marilyn Monroe.
Artichokes were native to areas around the Mediterranean. Most cultivation still takes place there: Italy led world production with nearly a half million metric tonnes in 2010. While California produced "nearly 100% of the U.S. crop, and about 80% of that [was] grown in Monterey County," national output equaled only about forty thousand metric tonnes. Maybe Castroville should change its name to reflect a smaller geographic footprint?
What about artichokes in the U.S. Upper Midwest?
Artichoke Township, Minnesota
I consulted the Geographic Names Information System and discovered a handful of populated Artichokes in the Upper Midwest, which confounded me. Why would there be an artichoke anything there? The first two instances involved a hamlet and township in Big Stone County, Minnesota. The second was a township in Potter County, South Dakota, just a few miles away from the Obscure Gettysburg. That was an odd coincidence although I found nothing further about South Dakota’s Artichoke Township other than its location (map).
Minnesota’s Artichoke Township and its similarly-named embedded hamlet offered a tantalizing etymological clue buried deep within the Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society (Google eBook), 1920, pp 53-54:
Artichoke township whose first settler came in May 1869 received its name from the former Artichoke lake now drained which was five miles long stretching from section 11 south to section 36. This name was probably translated from the Sioux name of the lake referring to the edible tuber roots of a species of sunflower Helianthus tuberosus which was much used by the Indians as food called pangi by the Sioux abundant here and common or frequent throughout this state.
I noticed two things immediately. Somebody refilled Artichoke Lake and I had no idea what Helianthus tuberosus represented. I didn’t really care about the history of Artichoke Lake so I focused on Helianthus tuberosus. The Intertubes told me that it was a binomial name for the Jerusalem artichoke. Oddly, the plant had nothing to do with Jerusalem and wasn’t an artichoke, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and numerous other references. That source also labeled it a "nuisance" and a "serious weed problem" even though Helianthus tuberosus was native to the area. Subsequently, Canada has no Artichoke place names.
From the Mailbag
Reader "Splen" sent 12MC a message with what may be the most ham-fisted abbreviation ever stamped on a road sign.
"Pgh Intrntl" was the best they could manage?
(and to all readers who have contributed recently — thank you, and don’t worry I’ll get to those; I have a bit of a backlog).