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.
Old English dell "dell, hollow, dale" (perhaps lost and then borrowed in Middle English from cognate Middle Dutch/Middle Low German delle), from Proto-Germanic daljo (source also of German Delle "dent, depression," Gothic ib-dalja "slope of a mountain")
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,
When we asked who Mr. Dell might have been, Mr. Lutrick asked if we were familiar with the nursery song "The Farmer in the Dell". There was no Mr. Dell – it’s Dell as in "a small, secluded, usually forested valley." Just forget the part about the forest.
I think many of us remembered this singing nursery rhyme from our childhood:
The farmer in the dell
The farmer in the dell
Hi-ho the derry-o
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)
Oregon had The Dalles (map). The Historic The Dalles website described the situation.
"The Dalles" rhymes with "pals", and "gals" and doesn’t rhyme with much of anything else. And yes, "The" is part of our name. File us under the letter "T". The "dalles" was a reference to a series of treacherous rapids once located just upriver from where the community is today. The French speaking Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders and mountain men of the 1800s used the term to describe areas where river water was constricted by rock channels.
Despite the dictionary definition, not every dell featured either forest or fields although they all included a gorge or a valley.
I started playing a little game over the weekend using a search engine and the exact phrase "The only one in [name of a country].” Much of the time this query resulted in lists of exotic automobiles for some odd reason, or vacation properties with excessive hyperbole. More amusing results floated to the surface every once in a while. I focused primarily on English-speaking countries with lots of Twelve Mile Circle readers. I figured I might as well pander to the loyal audience.
The only public diamond mine in the United States
Screening Shed by Lance and Erin on Flickr (cc)
Folks can head down to Murfreesboro in southwestern Arkansas (map) when dreaming of riches. Perhaps they’d hit the motherload at Crater of Diamonds State Park. The first diamonds were discovered there about a century ago in the ancient remains of a volcanic vent. Commercial mining failed once geologists determined that only the top layer held enough diamonds to make digging worth their trouble. It was too labor intensive to turn a profit so the site became a privately-owned tourist attraction. The new operators took a different approach by charging amateurs a fee to seek their fortunes instead of paying miners to dig on their behalf. The grounds disgorged just enough winnings to keep things interesting, acting more like a casino slot machine than a typical mine. The state of Arkansas bought the attraction in the 1970’s and converted it into a state park.
Anyone lucky enough to find a diamond on the 37-acre dirt field gets to keep it. Occasionally a visitor will unearth something interesting. The Strawn-Wagner Diamond was discovered in 1990 and became "the most perfect diamond the American Gem Society (AGS) ever certified in its laboratory." Someone also found an 8.52 carat white diamond as recently as 2015. Eureka moments like that were the exception. The vast preponderance of visitors went home with dirty clothes and maybe a small but worthless diamond chip. A day of digging would have been about the same as buying a few lottery tickets at the corner market although at least the treasure hunters got outdoors for a few hours.
The only full set of 12 change-ringing bells in Canada
Bells of St. James Cathedral by Ryan on Flickr (cc)
Canadian fans of change-ringing bells should head towards the Cathedral Church of St. James on Church Street in Toronto (map).
First I needed to ponder the definition change-ringing and then I could consider the significance of the number of bells. Fortunately the North American Guild of Change Ringers provided everything I needed to know.
Change Ringing is a team sport, a highly coordinated musical performance, an antique art, and a demanding exercise that involves a group of people ringing rhythmically a set of tuned bells through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns.
Change-ringers were the people who rang bells in church towers. Bells were located in the part of the tower called the belfry, for the obvious reason, and were hung in rings of 8 (typically) or 12 (more unusually). It would take a special structure to handle the weight of 12 bells ranging from 100 to 3,600 pounds (45 to 1,600 kg), and St. James included tower walls six feet thick with an additional buttress supporting a concrete beam holding the bell frame. That’s why this was the only location in Canada with 12 bells.
The only free range reindeer herd in Britain
Reindeer on Cairngorm by andrewrendell on Flickr (cc)
Reindeer or caribou inhabited the far northern latitudes of Eurasia and North America natively, although certainly not within Britain for at least the last several centuries. Their domesticated cousins ranged more broadly and included one small herd with a couple of hundred beasts in the Cairngorms region of Scotland. They were introduced in the 1950’s as a tourist attraction (map). Visitors continue to flock to Cairngorms National Park to see the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. Reindeer remain active throughout the year although most people tend to be interested in them solely at Christmas. That’s when the "adult male reindeer go out and about on tour nationwide."
The only fossil bed from the early part of the Tertiary Period in Australia
Murgon fossil site
The Murgon fossil site in Queensland, Australia (map) filled a vital link in the historical record to the early Paleogene Period, the beginning of the age of mammals only a few million years removed from the extinction of dinosaurs.
Nestling in the rolling green hills of south-eastern Queensland, under the shadow of the basalt-capped Boat Mountain, is one of the most remarkable fossil deposits in the world. Located near the township of Murgon, this site is the only one in Australia that produces mammal fossils from the early part of the Tertiary Period and is dated at around 54.6 million years old. What makes Murgon so remarkable is the diversity of animals found there that were not expected to be seen in such an old Australian deposit. The world’s oldest song birds are found at Murgon as well as one of the world’s oldest bats, Australonycteris.
The fossil beds were remarkable enough to become a World Heritage Site.
The only snail farm in Kenya (and all of east Africa)
Giant African Land Snail by John Tann on Flickr (cc)
In Kenya one could visit Rosemary Odinga in Kiserian (map), a suburb of Nairobi, where she established a snail farm in 2008. The Kenya Wildlife Service granted her a license to farm Giant African Land Snails — the only one issued in the nation — a requirement since snails were classified as wild animals. The farm produced about 12,000 snails per year although most locals residents wouldn’t eat them. Instead she marketed them quite successfully as escargots to fine dining establishment and wealthy European expatriates.
I mentioned focusing this article on countries with sizable 12MC audiences. That’s right, Kenya has begun to emerge as one of the more common international points of origin for Twelve Mile Circle readers. Some of them came for the Oxbow Lake discussions although now they seem to have branched out to other topics. Welcome Kenyan readers! It wasn’t too long ago that I bemoaned my lack of African viewers. I’m glad to see that things have started to change.
I had so much fun writing this article that I may have to do a part 2 with more countries. Readers should feel free to search for their own one-of-a-kind superlatives and place them in the comments. They might even become fair game for that future article.
People have expressed a couple of distinct thoughts as I’ve discussed my upcoming bike trip along the Great Allegheny Passage. The immediate reaction was that I must be crazy and then I’d explain that I’m not intending to ride it all in a single day. The second was confusion about its endpoint in Cumberland. There are multiple Cumberlands and the one in Maryland (map) may or may not be as familiar to some people as, for example, the Cumberland Gap which is several hundred miles farther away near the KYTNVA Tripoint. I agree, my ride would seem a bit more extreme if I were heading towards that more distant Cumberland.
The discussion brought up an interesting point in the process. Why where there two places named Cumberland? Actually, let’s make that more than two. I was also familiar with Cumberland County in Maine, the home of its largest city, Portland. That made at least three well-known locations plus numerous lesser-known spots all named Cumberland (GNIS listed 26). They were spread over hundreds of miles along the eastern edge of the United States. Was there a connection? Why yes of course, thank you for asking.
Prince William, Duke of Cumberland
Cumberland Falls (my own photo)
I didn’t check every single Cumberland although all of the ones I did examine traced back to Prince William, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) as their namesake. He was the third son of George II, King of Great Britain. Cumberland, Maryland began as Fort Cumberland on the extreme edge of British settlement in 1755. The Cumberland Gap, along that same wilderness line albeit considerably farther south, was named for the nearby Cumberland River which in turn was named for the Duke of Cumberland in 1750. One will find a nice string of Cumberlands all along the old colonial frontier — the part of British territory actively being settled and named in the middle of the 18th Century — all honoring the Duke of Cumberland.
Battle of Culloden
View of Culloden Battlefield on Culloden Moor, Scotland
by Danie van der Merwe, on Flickr (cc)
There were plenty of members of the British royal family with places named for them during North America’s colonial era, although not every figure received equal treatment. Sure there might have been a town or county here-and-there named as a birthright for the nobility who never ascended the throne. However one should be impressed by the sheer volume of Cumberland’s fingerprints. The preponderance traced back to a single event, the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Britain had been in political and religious upheaval for several decades by that point. Without getting into too many details, the exiled House of Stewart was attempting to wrestle control of the throne from the House of Hanover in a series of Jacobite Risings. The final rising began in 1745 ("the Forty-five"). Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) sailed to Scotland, rallied Highlanders and marched south. British troops pushed them back towards Inverness, onto the moor of Culloden (map). The Duke of Cumberland commanded British forces during this decisive battle and defeated the Jacobite army. This crushed the Stewart’s attempts to overthrow the Hanoverian dynasty and regain the crown.
This also began a great flurry of naming things for the Duke of Cumberland in the colonies. He was hailed widely as a hero for his military victory that preserved the House of Hanover and it reflected in geography. History was less kind to him. He came to be known as the "Butcher" because of his brutal repression of the Jacobite movement subsequent to the battle and his assault on Scottish culture and traditions in general.
Very few places would have been named for the Duke of Cumberland without the battle. He would have counted Prince William County in Virginia as his legacy, established when he was ten years old, and maybe that would have been about it. His geographic impact on North America might have matched a lot of other British noblemen of the era, which would have been minor.
What of this Cumberland?
Carlisle Castle by Andrew Bowden, on Flickr (cc)
The principal source of the Cumberland name in North America had been solved. However that still left me wondering about the underpinning of the Duke’s name. Land of Cumbra? For that piece of the puzzle I turned to sources such as the Online Etymology Dictionary and an old book published about a century ago, The Place-names of England and Wales. Cumberland, of course, was an historic county in northwest England in the vicinity of Carlisle. That area is now part of Cumbria (map). Cumberland and Cumbria shared a common root with Cymry, the people of Wales. Thus, Cumberland referred to the land of the Welsh. This area was once part of a Brythonic kingdom up until the 10th Century. The name remained afterwards as a reminder of the people who ruled the territory in ancient times.