Center of Power

On December 2, 2015 · 4 Comments

Pioneers migrating into the central sections of the United States during the Nineteenth Century found a unique opportunity to shape their governance. Counties formed across the prairie in precise straight lines, with the local seat of government often platted somewhere conveniently in the middle. Names bestowed upon these geographic slices frequently reflected prominent local businessmen or national politicians or even Native Americans that had been displaced in the process. Sometimes their names represented more practical considerations. Nothing would be more unimaginative than naming a centrally-located county seat Center or some variation.

I found several such county seats. Invariably their etymologies reflected their central placement within a surrounding county. That failed to excite me so I took it for granted and tried to find something more interesting, something actually worth mentioning. I investigated a few and left the rest for others.

Center, Shelby Co., Texas

Welcome to Center
Welcome to Center by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)

I began with Center (maps), the seat of government in Shelby County, Texas, because that’s where I first noticed the trend. It inspired the search for others. One of my favorite sources, The Handbook of Texas included an anecdote about its status.

In an election called in January 1866 Center was voted the new county seat, but a number of people disputed the results, and no action was taken for some months. Finally, in August of that year some Center residents stole the county records and moved them to Center, thereby permanently establishing Center as the county seat.

Shelby was one of the original counties dating to the founding of the Republic of Texas. The town fell within a gray, somewhat lawless area during that time. Vigilantes ran roughshod through Shelby and Center during an era that became known as the Regulator-Moderator War, "a feud in Harrison and Shelby counties in the Redlands of East Texas from 1839 to 1844."

Center also happened to sit about eleven miles from Shelbyville. Simpsons fans would understand the significance of that because Shelbyville was a town neighboring Springfield. One could add Center to the long and tenuous list of possible settings for Springfield, the fictional hometown of the Simpsons.

Central City, Gilpin Co., Colorado

Central City, Colorado
Central City, Colorado by Jasperdo on Flickr (cc)

The "Richest Square Mile on Earth" (map) commonly described the layout of Central City, Colorado once the 1859 gold rush put it on the map:

John Gregory discovered "The Gregory Lode" in a gulch near Central City. Within two weeks, the gold rush was on and within two months the population grew to 10,000 people seeking their fortunes. William Byers, founder of the Rocky Mountain News, and some companions pitched their tents on open ground squarely in the center of the mining district. Thus Central City was born and was soon the leading mining center in Colorado.

Many of those old Western boomtowns crashed after prospectors stripped everything of value from the soil. Central City faced similar challenges and hoped to find salvation in a different form in the late 20th Century; gambling. The town attracted several casinos. Their neighboring town, Black Hawk, came to the same conclusion and also courted high rollers. Unfortunately for Central City, only one road led into town from Denver and that’s where most of the gamblers lived. Drivers had to travel through Black Hawk first and most of them never even made it to Central City. That wouldn’t last. Central City built a new road, an expressway, several miles long that bypassed Black Hawk and attached directly to Interstate 70 in 2004.

Centerville, Hickman Co., Tennessee

Grinder's Switch Depot
Grinder's Switch Depot by Brent Moore on Flickr (cc)

The usual story. Centreville fell at the approximate center of Hickman County. It was also the hometown of comedian Minnie Pearl and it featured heavily in her comedy routines albeit under a different name. I imagined many 12MC readers wouldn’t be familiar with her trademark appearance and catch phrases. Perhaps a snippet from her biography from the Country Music Hall of Fame might set the proper context:

Minnie Pearl, a member of the Grand Ole Opry cast from 1940 until her death in 1996, was country music’s preeminent comedian and one of the most widely recognized comic performers American culture has ever produced. With her straw hat and its dangling $1.98 price tag, her representation of herself as a man-chasing spinster in the small town of Grinder’s Switch, TN, and her great-hearted holler of "How-DEE! I’m just so proud to be here" as she took to the Opry stage, Pearl became an icon of rural America even as she lovingly satirized its ways.

She’d been born Sarah Ophelia Colley in 1912 in Centerville where her father owned a successful lumber company. The future Minnie Pearl enjoyed watching lumber from her father’s sawmill being loaded onto rail cars on a spur track that attached to the main railroad. The side track was known as Grinder’s Switch (map) — a real place near Centerville — that she later incorporated into her humorous routines as a proxy for a generic hillbilly backwater. It became an integral part of her fictional persona. In reality Ms. Colley was a well-educated college graduate from a prosperous family.

Centerville, Appanoose Co., Iowa

Centerville, Iowa, East State Street
Centerville, Iowa, East State Street by photolibrarian on Flickr (cc)

The county seat for Appanoose Co. deserved a special mention for what it was not; the Centerville name didn’t relate to its location (map). Or did it?

Several sources including A Dictionary of Iowa Place-Names insisted that the original name had been Chaldea and that its new name was supposed to be Sentorville or Senterville in recognition of a Tennessee politician/minister (possibly William Tandy Senter). The story explained that the town filed incorporation papers in the 1850’s and a bureaucrat somewhere along the line mistook Senterville for a spelling error and "corrected" it to Centerville. It would be hard to imagine someone creating such an oddly specific story and yet the namesake politician never had anything to do with Iowa. Oh, and Centerville was platted smack-dab in the middle of Appanoose County. That seemed like too many interesting coincidences.

The Complete List

I found a total of fourteen county seats with a Center theme (including the ones described above) that served as local seats of governments for the counties that surrounded them.

  • Alabama: Centre, Cherokee Co.
  • Alabama: Centreville, Bibb Co.
  • Colorado: Central City, Gilpin Co.
  • Iowa: Centerville, Appanoose Co.
  • Maryland: Centreville, Queen Anne’s Co.
  • Michigan: Centreville, St. Joseph
  • Minnesota: Center City, Chisago Co.
  • Missouri: Centerville, Reynolds Co.
  • Nebraska: Center, Knox Co.
  • Nebraska: Central City, Merrick Co.
  • North Dakota: Center, Oliver Co.
  • Tennessee: Centerville, Hickman Co.
  • Texas: Center, Shelby Co.
  • Texas: Centerville, Leon Co.

I can’t promise that this list recorded every example because I compiled it by hand. It should be close, though.

On December 2, 2015 · 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Center of Power”

  1. Joe says:

    Adding Center, Ralls Co, Missouri to the list.,_Missouri

  2. Aaron of Minneapolis says:

    Another to add: Le Center, Minnesota — county seat of Le Sueur County. The original county seat was Le Sueur, on the Minnesota River (which forms one edge of the county), but after the county grew some more, they moved the government to a new town in the middle. The name was coined as a contraction of “Le Sueur Center”.

  3. Scott Surgent says:

    Although not a county seat, Desert Center in Riverside County CA is a very curious little town. It sits alongside Interstate-10 about 45 miles west of Blythe, 40 miles east of Coachella. The town has few traveler amenities, and is notable in recent years for large palm trees planted in geometric patterns, most of which have died. The town has a fascinating history, including the “birthplace” of the massive Kaiser Permanente Healthcare empire.

    Idea for a future article: how about counties whose seats are on the fringe of the county, seemingly going against the usual practice of centering the seat within the county. A couple that come to mind: Tonopah in Nye County NV, Mosquero in Harding County NM, Miami in Roberts County TX… usually, there’s a good story why these towns became the seat.

  4. Mark says:

    And there’s Dunn Center, North Dakota, which chose a name that it thought would make the town a shoo-in for the county-seat selection … but it lost the battle.

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