My annual long relaxing August weekend in Wisconsin came to an end. I can’t think of any place I’d rather pass the time for a few days than Wisconsin — in the summer. Many people who come to this part of the country end up in Wisconsin Dells. I never thought much about the definition of a dell although for some reason I began to wonder recently. It had to be some kind of rural feature like a hilly field or something. Rather than assume, I went ahead and checked the actual dictionary definition.
Merriam-Webster defined dell as "a secluded hollow or small valley usually covered with trees or turf."
Next, of course, I wondered where it came from so I turned to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
Wisconsin Dells. My own photo.
So how about those Wisconsin Dells (map)? They formed rather recently in geological terms. Glaciers hundreds of feet thick extended far into North America in the last Ice Age although they bypassed an area near its southern extreme, in present day Wisconsin and Minnesota. This became the Driftless Area and it looked considerably different than surrounding terrain because of it. A huge lake formed as the ice began to melt around 15,000 years ago, dammed by a glacier. When the glacier inevitably burst, the lake drained in a single massive flood, cutting a gorge through solid rock along the banks of the Wisconsin River. People of European descent who moved into the area in the modern era named this featured the Wisconsin Dells.
Dell City, Texas
Dell City, Texas. Photo by mwwile on Flickr (cc)
I discovered many different towns and villages bearing the Dell designation or variations throughout the United States (e.g., Dell Junction, Dell Rapids, Hazel Dell). Dell City in Texas seemed particularly interesting (map) because of its origin. It didn’t exist until around 1949 when someone discovered a large underground reservoir. Farmers pumped water from this subterranean source to irrigate their fields and a town formed around it. Distinctive green circles resulting from center pivot irrigation appeared all around town, still visible in satellite photos today. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas, Dell City thrived for awhile and grew to nearly a thousand residents, before declining to about four hundred by the year 2,000.
Its etymology fascinated me, if true. Texas Escapes tracked down the story and reported,
I think many of us remembered this singing nursery rhyme from our childhood:
The farmer in the dell
However one of the comments posted on that article claimed that Dell City was named for an early resident, Ardell (Dell) Donathan. We may never know the truth. I’d bet on the comment although I’d hope for the nursery rhyme.
North Dell / South Dell, Scotland
Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. Photo by ShinyPhotoScotland on Flickr (cc)
Places named for dells likely existed throughout the world although I didn’t check extensively, halting my search after finding North and South Dell in Scotland (map). They formed adjacent to each other, separated by the Dell River on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Little information existed although the Galson Estate Trust featured brief entries for both North Dell and South Dell. Many local residents spoke Gaelic as a primary or secondary language, calling the towns Dail bho Tuath (north) and Dail bho Dheas (south). The Butt of Lewis — the northernmost point on the isle — sat nearby with its impressive lighthouse.
The Dalles looking NW. Photo by Glenn Scofield Williams on Flickr (cc)
Despite the dictionary definition, not every dell featured either forest or fields although they all included a gorge or a valley.
I found myself in familiar territory once again, with an overflowing backlog of article ideas. That signaled time for another round of house cleaning. In the past I’d featured weird place names that I’d encountered while I searched for other topics. Then I focused on More Weird Place Names and finally Even More Weird Place Names. I thought I could build upon that theme while cutting down the pile. Those weird place names just kept coming.
First I decided to take care of some unfinished business left over from the previous effort. Reader "Kiru" said, "Just a suggestion for the next one – there’s a small village near me in Devon, England called Woolfardisworthy. As weird of a name that is, the pronunciation is even worse!"
That sounded intriguing. The next opportunity arrived today so I decided to check it out. Also I couldn’t even imagine how to pronounce it. I considered I’d probably butcher it with my mid-Atlantic American accent even if I knew. Fortunately things like YouTube existed and I found my answer easily enough. Kiru knew the deal. Woolfardisworthy, when spoken through the mouths of local residents came out something similar to Woolsery.
I solved that mystery quicker than I expected although I encountered something more unusual in the process. Two towns with that same strange name existed in Devon. Was the town Kiru referenced located in mid Devon (map) or north Devon (map). They sat about 48 miles (78 kilometres) apart map.
Their history also intertwined. According to Tour Devon, the name came from the Saxon language meaning Wulfheard’s homestead, "denoting the fact that the village was probably originally founded in 680 when the Saxon Abbot Wulfheard of Crediton was granted two manors." I figured the one in north Devon in the Torridge district was probably the right one. It seemed to be the larger of the two manors granted to the awesomely named Wulfheard of Crediton.
Neversink River. Photo by Ted Kerwin on Flickr (cc)
The buoyancy on the Neversink River must be amazing. I supposed someone could fall overboard and literally never sink. Nobody needed life jackets. What magical properties existed in the waters of New York? I pondered that notion as I drove across the Neversink on the way to New England recently. The river stretched about 55 miles (89 km), flowing past Port Jervis before joining the Delaware River. It served as one of the important water sources for New York City, dammed to form the Neversink Reservoir in 1950 (map).
The etymology remained uncertain although it most certainly did not come from the English words Never and Sink, sad to say. It likely passed down from the original Native American inhabitants speaking an Algonquin language. The Intertubes offered various theories and translations. Many of them converged on Mad River or Wild River, or variations on that theme. European settlers Anglicized the phrase into something more familiar that they could actually pronounce.
Nanty Glo. Photo by Natalie Litz on Flickr (cc)
I’d seen Nanty-Glo spelled with a hyphen and Nanty Glo without, so I consulted the Geographic Names Information Center. That hardly cleared up the situation, however. According to the US Geological Survey, the hyphen should be used when referring to the Borough of Nanty-Glo and dropped for the Town of Nanty Glo. Either way, they both designated the same basic area in western Pennsylvania (map). The name intertwined with the history and geology of the underlying terrain. Local mountains contained large coal deposits that people began to mine in the Nineteenth Century. Immigrant from Wales — another area with a rich coal mining tradition — brought much of the mining knowledge and labor. Thus the name came from the Welsh language, Nant Y Glo, meaning a ravine, brook or valley of coal.
A similarly-named town of Nantyglo also existed in Wales (map).
Ixonia, Wisconsin. Photo by Christopher Paquette on Flickr (cc)
I’ve driven between Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin on Interstate 94 more times than I can probably count. I always wondered about the town behind the exit sign for Ixonia (map). Did it reference a fascination with the number nine, from the Roman numeral IX? No, actually it reflected pure happenstance when a dispute arose as the township formed. According to the Town of Ixonia,
Thankfully, young Mary Piper selected a random combination that everyone found acceptable. She could have done a whole lot worse as she averted a crises single-handedly. However I still remained skeptical. If Ixonia began life as Town 8 wouldn’t it make sense to name it sequentially the next time, as IX?
Geo-geek conspiracy theory!
I’ve published Twelve Mile Circle on a Sunday morning / Wednesday evening schedule for awhile. I now have a weekly Wednesday evening activity that complicates things so I plan to post on Thursday evenings instead. Don’t panic when nothing appears on Wednesday. 12MC isn’t going away!
I selected US Route 23 through Ohio as we drove back from Michigan. This would have been a long detour in normal circumstances. However I wanted to count a few new counties so I cut through a quiet slice of the state. Hours passed, boredom hovered nearby and I invented little non sequiturs to pass the time.
Lame Dad Joke
Where's Waldo? Photo by Barbara Friedman on Flickr (cc)
Lame Dad Jokes became routine. I’m a trained master of Dad Jokes, the worse the better. Each new attempt drew eye rolls from the back seat and only encouraged me more. Then I found Waldo (map). I rarely spotted Waldo in those puzzle pictures. My brain didn’t work that way. Even so I clearly noticed a large sign pointing to a highway exit for Waldo, the township in Marion County, Ohio. A repeated string of "Where’s Waldo? — There’s Waldo" left my lips as I pointed to the sign to the kids’ complete indifference. Barely 300 people lived in Waldo although that made little difference. I only needed that large green side along a lonely highway as entertainment for the next fifteen minutes.
According to The History of Marion County, Ohio (1883), "Waldo was laid out in 1831, by Milo D. Pettibone, and named after his son Waldo." I felt sorry for a family with a Milo and a Waldo. I supposed if someone named me Milo I’d also call my kid Waldo out of spite.
Fort Knox, Waldo County, Maine. My own photo.
The search for more Waldos began in earnest once I returned. I didn’t realize I’d already captured one, a big one, in Maine (map). Waldo County got its name from the colonial-era Waldo Patent, a land grant to an aristocratic military officer, Samuel Waldo. I traveled extensively through Maine several years ago. One day-trip brought me to Fort Knox — not the one with the gold — a different one. This Fort Knox perched high above the Penobscot River, protecting inland towns during the War of 1812. It sat adjacent to the very modern Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory. The views from the observatory deserved a detour.
Florida, Waldo Police Department. Photo by Abbott’s Patch Collection on Flickr (cc)
On the other hand, I’d probably try to avoid Waldo, Florida (map) although the situation improved recently. The Waldo police created quite a moneymaking operation at the height of their speed trap, one of the worst in the nation. CBS News reported that "Waldo’s seven police officers wrote nearly 12,000 speeding tickets [in 2013], collecting more than $400,000 in fines – a third of the town’s revenue." They also ran afoul of the law because they practiced a ticket quote system specifically prohibited by the State of Florida. Waldo disbanded its police force in 2014.
I’m still not sure I’d trust driving through there.
Some Waldos hid better than others. Oregon’s Waldo (map) disappeared by the 1930’s and quickly became a ghost town. It began with promise, even serving as the county’s seat of government during its heyday in the latter half of the 19th Century. Waldo depended on mining and the mines eventually played-out, and everyone left. Nothing remained except for a couple of cemeteries and an historical marker. The town started with a different name, Sailor’s Diggings, for the people who flocked there after the discovery of gold. They changed it to Waldo because of the most significant event in its brief history. The frontier hadn’t been mapped precisely. Nobody knew exactly where the border fell and residents assumed they lived in California. William Waldo, the Whig candidate for California governor thought so too. He came to Sailor’s Diggings to campaign in 1853.
Town officials with a sense of humor learned of the mistake and chose to honor Waldo, the man who courted California votes in Oregon.
The Waldo game could be played internationally too. A tiny sliver of Bolivia called Waldo Ballivián Municipality (map) existed in the Pacajes Province of the La Paz Department. Maybe a couple of thousand people lived there. I found a YouTube video featuring Waldo Ballivián. People danced, they packaged Quinoa and other Andean grains, they also talked a lot into a microphone. I couldn’t speak Spanish although they looked excited about something. Upon further digging and after liberal use of Google Translate it seemed they’d just received a new packaging machine. This would be quite useful in Waldo Ballivián, one of the poorest corners of the nation.