Let’s talk about gravity. No, not the physical property whereby objects attract with forces proportional to their masses, but instead the little town in Iowa. I stumbled upon Gravity, Iowa figuratively as I researched the recent Gravity Hills article. Gravity doesn’t have a gravity hill as far as I know so it didn’t elicit a mention in that earlier post. Still, I loved the name and I wondered how tiny Gravity came to be known that way. Let me spoil the surprise: Nobody is completely sure how the original Gravity for which Gravity was named, first became Gravity. However it’s a fun ride and I have a couple of theories.
SOURCE: Flickr; via Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
I’d love to show a few Google Street View images of Gravity but they don’t exist. The cameras escaped Gravity and its 200-or-so residents on the last pass through southern Iowa. Fortunately I’m able to reproduce their welcome sign thanks to Flickr and a Creative Commons license. I have to love their spirit. "We’re Down to Earth — If Gravity Goes, We All Go."
View Larger Map
Gravity claims to be the only town bearing this unusual name. I’m unable to confirm that assertion with 100% authority. I did check the official online geographic names databases of the largest English-speaking nations. This was the only populated place identified in that manner that I could find. It’s possible there might be another Gravity out there somewhere so please let me know if you discover one.
The Iowa GenWeb site has an oral history of Gravity based upon remembrances Celesta Smith, an early resident, published originally in 1934. Founders platted Gravity in 1881 and incorporated the town two years later. It fit a typical Midwestern farming community pattern, placed intentionally along a railroad line and prospering within an agrarian-focused world at the turn of the last Century. "The new town was named after the Old Gravity Post Office situated 1 1/2 miles west. It being an old landmark, having stood there for many years…" Thanks Celesta, big help there. Way to leave us hanging on the etymology.
I tugged on the string a little harder. I consulted A dictionary of Iowa place-names which speculated that the post office "was possibly named because it was the ‘center of gravity’ for the township." Gravity falls within Washington Township of Taylor County, Iowa (see 1910 Map and 1910 Detail), so I decided to take a closer look.
View Washington Twp., Taylor Co., Iowa in a larger map
If the Iowa dictionary is correct then the town fathers must not have meant "center of gravity" in any literal sense. I did my best to recreate Washington Township and Old Gravity based upon notes provided on the 1910 Detail map. Old Gravity wasn’t the center of anything geographically as far as I could tell. It was more than two miles away from the township center and more than five miles away from the county center. The current Gravity is actually closer to the township center, about a mile southeast of it. Celesta Smith was an adolescent at the time of Gravity’s founding. I looked her up in the Census records and founds she was born around 1868, probably in Keokuk County, Iowa (a little further east), then moved to Washington Township in Taylor County by the time of the 1880 Census. She would have witnessed the redesignation of Gravity but she would not have known much of Old Gravity from any first-hand experiences. She was probably wise to stay noncommittal and sidestep the issue entirely.
I can’t envision the citizens of Washington Township being so geography impaired. Certainly they knew their township grid. This leads me to a couple of theories on Old Gravity, which transfer by extension to current Gravity:
- There weren’t a lot of people in Washington Township initially. More settlers arrived as the latter half of the 19th Century progressed, as farmlands of the Midwest attracted increasing number of easterners and new immigrants. Old Gravity, even with very few residents, would function as a center of social and economic activity; or
- This is an example of people with a wonderful sense of humor proclaiming Gravity as an ironic Center of the Universe.
I tend to believe the former although I’d prefer the latter. Regardless, the town today provides all sorts of opportunities for amusing names, like Gravity Cemetery. Is that the only place where zombies can’t escape?