Focused on Counties

On March 9, 2017 · 9 Comments

I’m planning for three, maybe four road trips of significant length coming up over the next several months. All of them will involve significant County Counting components. While I’ve put a big dent into my quest to visit every county in the United States, the total still represents considerably less than half of those available. I’ve been pondering several strategies as I’ve examined places that will require significant effort. That led me to stare at a lot of county maps lately, examining them from a variety of perspectives. I don’t think I found anything earth shattering although I tucked a few observations away for future reference.

Square Miles (land area only)


Georgia Counties
Georgia Counties
via Mob Rule

Georgia continued to confound me. How will I ever finish a state with so many tiny counties crammed within its borders? For sure, I will see every crevice and corner of Georgia by the time I finish. I examined a bunch of other states with tiny counties and I began to wonder which one had the smallest average county size. Being the precise person that I am, of course I created a spreadsheet to calculate and rank them. The smallest average county size belonged to… Rhode Island averaging 207 square miles per county (feel free to convert to square kilometres if you prefer). That hardly seemed a challenge though. Rhode Island only had 5 counties. Plus, I’ve already visited every one of them.

Second place, with an average county size of 297 square miles, went to Virginia. I’ve already finished that one too. That was a difficult feat — and I live there! However Virginia came up near the top only because it had those 38 insanely small Independent Cities. Take away those and Virginia would fall to #8 on the list. Next came Kentucky and New Jersey, and only then Georgia, followed by Tennessee. Every state in that grouping featured an average county square mileage somewhere in the 300’s. All of them will be difficult to finish except for New Jersey which had only 21 counties. Georgia had 159! Texas fell way down on the list with an average county size of 1,028 square miles. Even so it will be frustratingly difficult because of its immense size combined with a jaw-dropping 254 counties.

I figured larger western states with fewer counties would be an easier accomplishment. That might be true in general. However, Alaska might be the exception. If one considered its boroughs and each of the individual Census Areas of the Unorganized Borough (all considered "county equivalents" for these purposes) they would hit an average size of 19,677 square miles. Yet it would be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to visit them all. It would probably involve chartering private airplanes.


Population (2016 estimates)


Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. My Own Photo.

I didn’t stop there however, maybe because I was on a roll, although my next tangent had nothing to do with County Counting. The spreadsheet was already set up so it was pretty easy to add another column and replicate the study with populations. Just because. Why not?

South Dakota featured the fewest people per county on average, with only 13,113 residents each. North Dakota and Montana followed next in line, each with an average of fewer than 20,000 people per county. Alaska served as an interesting anomaly once again. I figured it would be lower on the list than #6. However it had a fairly sizable population even though nearly everyone lived in only two boroughs, Anchorage and adjoining Matanuska-Susitna. That skewed things. Rankings probably would have changed if I’d bothered to examine median rather than average. That would have entailed effort and I’m lazy so we’ll never know.

California fell at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. There, the average county population hit an astounding 676,724 residents. The average California county had a larger population than the entire states of Wyoming or Vermont! Crazy.

I found another oddity. Two very different states had nearly the same population and number of counties: Arizona and Massachusetts. That happened despite Arizona being nearly 15 times larger than Massachusetts. It served as a wonderful demonstration of larger western states with larger county sizes in contrast to smaller eastern states with smaller counties.


The Complete Oddball


4th of July 2009
Washington Monument on the 4th of July. My Own Photo.

What if the District of Columbia ever became a state? DC would be composed of a single county of 61 square miles, and a population of 681,170 residents. That would make DC the state with the smallest average county size, by far. It would also be the state with the largest average county population. County counting would be really, really easy there too.

I travel into the District of Columbia nearly every day so I think I have that one covered.

Murdo Mystery

On March 2, 2017 · 1 Comments

I seemed to be fixated on time lately, ever since writing the recent Time Zones in Greenland. I went through my long list of open items and found a few more timely topics. The Twelve Mile Circle could benefit from subjects of that nature while I cleared the backlog. Murdo seemed a likely candidate.

Murdo


Postcard from South Dakota
Postcard from South Dakota. Photo by John Lloyd on Flickr (cc)

The little town of Murdo, South Dakota fascinated me. It began as another one of those settlements along a railroad in the Great Plains. In the case of Murdo, that happened in 1907 when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad laid tracks through the Dakotas. I featured this same railroad in an earlier 12MC article although for a completely different reason, in King of Portmanteau. Murdo existed like many other towns along this particular line because of Albert J. Earling, the King I proclaimed in that previous article.

Jones County selected Murdo as its seat of local government and not much else happened there ever since, although 488 people still lived there as of the 2010 Census. Murdo provided a home to a well-regarded automobile museum (including some items for sale). It also featured 1880 Town, basically a museum of old buildings transported to the spot from all over South Dakota. Murdo seemed like one of those places I’d stop to see if I were driving on Interstate 90 and happened to spot a sign, because I loved roadside attractions. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way, though.


What’s in a Name?



Murdo, SD

However, the name of the town seemed so unusual. Why Murdo? Many towns took the surname of a town founder or an early pioneer or even someone’s distant relative. Something like that happened here too although not entirely. Murdo was somebody’s first name, specifically Murdo MacKenzie. I’d never heard of anyone called Murdo before so I checked some of those awful baby name websites. Apparently Murdo came from Scottish Gaelic, meaning seaman, mariner or something similar like that, if those unsourced sites could be believed. However, it made sense for Murdo MacKenzie. He immigrated from Scotland so the linguistic connection existed assuming the dubious claims were true.

Eventually Murdo realized his American Dream by becoming a cattle baron. He focused his attention on this particularl corner of South Dakota just as the railroad arrived. The city of Murdo said:

In 1904, Mr. Murdo MacKenzie, head of the Matador brand, who had herds from Mexico to Canada, shipped train load after train load of Texas steers to the Standing Rock Reservation so they could graze on the Dakota grass.

Certainly a success story such as that deserved a little recognition. The town named in his honor seemed to accomplish that quite nicely.


What did that have to do with time?


1880 town
1880 town. Photo by THEMACGIRL on Flickr (cc)

The always perceptive 12MC audience probably started wondering what my ramblings had to do with the observance of time several paragraphs ago. I’m getting to that.

I spotted an odd notation as I reviewed the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49 – Transportation, § 71.7 "Boundary line between central and mountain zones. What might be stranger, I wondered, the unusual notation or that I actually enjoyed reviewing obscure parts of the Code of Federal Regulations? Either way, it meant the audience could benefit from my discovery without having to wade through mind-numbing bureaucratic language. Subsection (g) said:

Points on boundary line. All municipalities located upon the zone boundary line described in this section are in the mountain standard time zone, except Murdo, S. Dak., which is in the central standard time zone.

One needs to understand that the boundary between Central and Mountain Time in the United States rivals just about any other division for sheer complexity. The code delineated all sorts of zigs and zags amongst various townships and ranges. Apparently officials decided that anytime the line bisected a municipality it would observe Mountain Time. However, somewhere in the distant past, someone in Murdo must have pushed back. I never learned the reason why. It seemed so far in the middle of nowhere, so distant from any obvious center of power large enough to pull Murdo into its Time Zone orbit. Why Central Time though? Why Murdo, and only Murdo? It will bedevil me forever.

Apparently some things are never meant to be known.

Oglala Lakota County

On October 21, 2015 · 2 Comments

I noticed that the the Wade Hampton Census Area in Alaska became the Kusilvak Census Area in a recent Reader Mailbag article. Alaska’s census areas are a unique construct, designed as a convenient parceling of the Unorganized Borough although they’re considered "county equivalents" by the Federal government for a number of statistical purposes. Still, the renaming was a big deal. Counties (or county equivalents) change names very infrequently.

Longtime reader Scott Surgent replied, "You may have already mentioned this, but another county changed its name as of May 1, 2015: Shannon County, South Dakota, is now Oglala Lakota County." Well no, actually, I hadn’t mentioned it. In fact I wasn’t even aware of it until Scott said something. I must have been asleep at the wheel. Thank you Scott for calling me out!

Let’s go ahead and take a look Oglala Lakota County and explore the reasoning behind the name.


Map of South Dakota highlighting Oglala Lakota County
Map of South Dakota highlighting Oglala Lakota County via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

Shannon County, now Oglala Lakota County, formed near the southwest corner of South Dakota in 1875. The land immediately west, the actual southwestern corner formed into Fall River County. That was significant because Oglala Lakota is one of the very few counties in the United States that does not have a county seat. It’s administrative center is collocated within Fall River County in neighboring Hot Springs. According to the South Dakota Association of County Officials,

Until 1982 Oglala Lakota and Washabaugh County, South Dakota, were the last unorganized counties in the United States. Although it was organized and received a home rule charter that year, Oglala Lakota County… contracts with Fall River County for its Auditor, Treasurer, Director of Equalization, State’s Attorney and Registrar of Deeds.

Technically the Unorganized Borough in Alaska remains unorganized and boroughs are considered analogous to counties so, evidently, we have a situation of semantics going on here. Nonetheless, the larger point remained that Oglala Lakota was and continues to be governed in an unusual manner. It also had the lowest annual per capita income of any county in the United States — only $8,768 — which likely explained some of the peculiarities. It couldn’t afford to provide these services on its own.


Who was Shannon?


Shannon County Line
Shannon County Line by Jimmy Emerson, DVM (cc)

The name Shannon applied to the county from 1875 to 2015. Nonetheless that didn’t stop residents from selecting a new name in a landslide, capturing 80% of ballots cast in the November 2014 election. The South Dakota Legislature reviewed and endorsed the vote the following Spring and Shannon became Oglala Lakota.

Peter C. Shannon lived in South Dakota for several years in the late Nineteenth Century. He’d been a career politician from Pennsylvania serving in minor positions, a loyal supporter of Abraham Lincoln. President Ulysses Grant rewarded Shannon by appointing him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Dakota Territory. He held the position while counties formed in the Territory so one was named for him. He was a political hack who benefited from lucky timing. Eventually Shannon "fell out of favor with territorial lawyers who successfully blocked his application for reappointment in 1881." He died in San Diego in 1899 from injuries suffered in a carriage accident.


Why Oglala Lakota


The Women of Pine Ridge
The Women of Pine Ridge by Hamner_Fotos (cc)

There were plenty of counties in the United States named for insignificant historical figures and yet their names haven’t been challenged. It would be useful to understand that the Pine Ridge Reservation covers the entirety of the county. Its people belong to the Oglala Lakota Nation. If that wasn’t sufficient justification by itself, Peter Shannon was understood to be someone "who took part in the corrupt and coercive process of carving up the enormous Great Sioux Reservation in the late 19th century." The Rapid City Journal quoted Short Bull, a member of the tribe who explained, "for Oglala Lakota tribal members like himself, Peter Shannon embodied the changes forced upon his people; from governance changes to the introduction of private property ownership."

It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Many Oglala Lakota, the primary inhabitants of the county, viewed Shannon as an oppressor. The name had to go. I’m surprised the vote wasn’t greater than 80%.


Are There Other County Name Changes in the Works?

I don’t know. Hopefully the 12MC audience will speak up if anything seems to be in the works. I did spot a recent (September 2015) article in the State Journal-Register from Springfield, Illinois: Historical society director floats plan for new Illinois county names

[Bill] Furry, the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, suggests renaming Illinois’ counties. All 102 of them. And he wants the public to participate… "For more than 150 years, they have honored a past that is beyond any living person’s memory," Furry said. "Given that Illinois history is rarely taught in school these days, the names of the counties might as well be written in Latin, or worse, French. Illinois is French, by the way."

To which the Jacksonville Journal-Courier from west-central Illinois responded, Renaming counties a costly, unnecessary rewrite of history; "Even now and then, a good idea comes to light. This is not one of them."

Jacksonville, Illinois, one should note, fell within Morgan County. The county was named for one of those figures who died beyond any living person’s memory: Daniel Morgan, a hero of the Revolutionary War and the suppressor of the Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794).

Maybe the suggestion hit a little too close to home.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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