I requested an additional account on the Mob Rule county counting website recently. I’d been planning a couple of trips for 2016, including one focused primarily on adding new counties to my lifetime tally in an obscure geographic corner of Appalachia. I’d been using the spare account to calculate "what-if" scenarios and I didn’t want to disturb my existing map in the process. Twelve Mile Circle readers will likely see maps generated by this account over the coming months and years as I chart further adventures.
It occurred to me that I will need to hit backroads a lot more often as I fill in the blanks and doughnut holes in my personal capture map. Those will diminish my pace although they will also allow me to experience out-of-the-way places where few people tread. It made me wonder exactly how much of the United States one would miss using only the Interstate Highway System. It wasn’t a question that demonstrated any greater practical purpose although that never stopped Twelve Mile Circle from going down a rabbit hole before. It wasn’t completely pointless I rationalized, because the results could be used to separate the "easy" counties from the more difficult ones, roughly speaking. Amateur county counties would stick primarily to the Interstate Highways while the truly dedicated hunters such as myself would need to veer into the empty white spaces. I supposed it made me feel more serious about my pursuit by separating me from the pack. It fed into the mythology of not being able to truly appreciate the United States until exiting the highways.
Naturally, I began by making a map of counties served by Interstate Highways, both two-digit and three-digit. Readers would probably want to open the image in another tab to get the full-sized image.
I couldn’t guarantee that I marked every county served by an Interstate Highway because I created this manually — I was still finding new ones that I’d missed hours after I thought I’d fnished it — although this should be close. Please feel free to offer corrections and I’ll update the map. For those wondering about the odd title, "Travels of T. H. Driver, " that was simply my initials plus the word Driver. I had to give the dummy account a name and that seemed as good as anything.
One of the features of Mob Rule that I’ve enjoyed over the years is its simple statistics to catalog counties visited by state. It produced a nice summary table of counties visited and percentages of states covered. I placed those data into a Google Docs Spreadsheet that readers should feel free to review if interested. Mob rule assumed everyone knew the 2-letter postal code abbreviations for each state so I can’t help you if you don’t know them because I didn’t feel like typing them out. Wikipedia provided a nice cross-reference. I sorted states by percentage completed from highest to lowest although one could rearrange the table in reverse order, alphabetically, or whatever might be desired and it won’t harm the underlying document.
Some observations jumped out. For example, county counters who stuck solely to Interstate Highways wouldn’t even visit half of the counties in the United States. The total would hit 44% but who’s counting? The chart also sifted winners from losers. I discarded the District of Columbia’s 100% although it was considered both a state and a county for county counters (in reality neither) because it was such a specialized case. Discounting that, Interstate Highways served 7 of 8 counties (87.5%) in Connecticut for the top spot, ranging all the way down to 16 of 77 counties (17.2%) for Nebraska at the bottom. Results followed intuitive patterns. Small northeastern states with large populations contained numerous Interstate Highways. Large, expansive Great Plains states with smaller populations featured fewer of them. New York and Pennsylvania posted particularly impressive results given the number of counties contained within each of them, hitting above 70 percent.
There were some anomalies. Someone would likely mention the paradox of Interstate Highways in Hawaii so I’ll simply link to the Federal Highway Administration’s explanation (i.e., "the Interstate System is more than just a series of connected highways. It is also a design concept") and get that out of the way. The same condition existed in Alaska although the roads weren’t signed as Interstate Highways (I included all of the so-called Secret Interstates too).
However, I’d been unaware of the bizarre disconnected set of Interstate Highways in the southernmost tip of Texas, Brownsville and McAllen. They formed a rough U-shape, outlined by I-69E, I-2 and I-69C (for central?). One would need to hop a plane or drive through Mexico to capture these Interstate counties without disturbing non-Interstate counties surrounding them, which nobody would ever do because it would be absurd.
I enjoyed the exercise even if it didn’t serve much of a useful purpose. It did confirm to me that Interstate counties were visited more frequently in general than non-Interstate counties, not that there was an underlying controversy. That could be observed quite easily when comparing the map I created with Mob Rule’s composite map of all county counters. The patterns looked strikingly similar.
Twelve Mile Circle has been on a bit of an odd placenames fixation as of late. I found a few more examples although they didn’t have enough of a story behind them to justify an entire article on any one of them. I figured I’d resurrect an earlier series and title this "Even More Weird Placenames" in continuation of the theme. This will also help me whittle-down my ever persistent list of possible topics I’ve been compiling since I began this site.
A anonymous 12MC visitor landed onto the site by chance seeking information about Knockemstiff. I didn’t know anything about it and had nothing prepared so I supposed they left disappointed. Even so, it sounded like a suitable topic and I knew I’d explore it eventually. It took little effort to find Knockemstiff once I got around to it, a crossroads in Ohio near another place featured on these pages previously, Chillicothe.
Knockemstiff served as the backdrop for a series of short stories published in 2008 by local writer, Donald Ray Pollock, in a book with the same title. One review said Pollock "presents his characters and the sordid goings-on with a stern intelligence, a bracing absence of value judgments, and a refreshingly dark sense of bottom-dog humor." His literary works received national attention including the New York Times which profiled the settlement of Knockemstiff, attempting to learn the story behind its unusual alias.
The town’s name is a source of folklore and conjecture… a resident saying that the origins dated far back, perhaps 100 years, to an episode in which a traveling preacher came across two women fighting over a man. The preacher said that he doubted the man was worth the trouble and that someone should "knock him stiff." But variations on that story exist, as do ones that say the name is associated with moonshine and bar fights.
That was a long way of saying that no definitive explanation existed. The story had been lost to history. Nonetheless this brief summary will be waiting here for the next unknown visitor who may stumble onto 12MC searching for Knockemstiff.
Ennis in Ellis
Bluebonnet Sunrise – Ennis, Texas by Kelly DeLay on Flickr (cc)
The City of Ennis fell within the confines of Ellis County, Texas. Ennis had been named for a railroad official, Cornelius Ennis. Ellis probably referred to Richard Ellis, who headed the commission that declared Texas’ independence. The two men had no connection or relationship that I was aware of, although that was completely irrelevant to this story anyway. My fascination centered on the peculiar notion that if one replaced the “nn” in Ennis with “ll” it became Ellis. I was unaware of any other town-county combination where one could make a simple letter substitution in the town’s name to transform it into the county name. Of course I didn’t look too hard trying to find other examples either. I’d like to say that I wanted to reserve that puzzle for the 12MC audience although the real reason was my laziness.
Completely unrelated, the aforementioned Ennis in Ellis "was designated by the 1997 State Legislature as the home of the ‘Official Texas Bluebonnet Trail’ and was designated the ‘Official Bluebonnet City of Texas.‘" That was a pretty big deal considering the prominence of the bluebonnet in Texan culture. The Department of Horticultural Science at Texas A&M University elaborated,
As historian Jack Maguire so aptly wrote, "It’s not only the state flower but also a kind of floral trademark almost as well known to outsiders as cowboy boots and the Stetson hat." He goes on to affirm that "The bluebonnet is to Texas what the shamrock is to Ireland, the cherry blossom to Japan, the lily to France, the rose to England and the tulip to Holland."
During times when bluebonnets weren’t in bloom, no worries, one could always visit Bluebonnet Trail — not the trail itself, rather a street named Bluebonnet Trail — in a local trailer park (map).
Welcome to Brazil, Indiana by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr (cc)
I’m sure if I thought long and hard enough I could figure out a few similarities between Brazil and Indiana. Nonetheless I still found it strange to see a town named Brazil in Indiana (map). It wasn’t a small place either. It had eight thousand residents and served as the seat of local government in Clay County. I wished I could have found a decent explanation. Several sources pointed back to the naming of a local farm in the 1840’s, designated Brazil because the nation had been in the news frequently during the era, supposedly. The town then adopted the name of the nearby farm when it was founded in the 1860’s. I guess I could accept that even though I couldn’t find any solid attribution. I’ve heard of stranger explanations for town names.
High Point, Palm Beach Co., Florida
I didn’t know what to make of High Point in Palm Beach County, Florida, except that I wished I’d known about it when I wrote High Level some time ago. What point of High Point was actually high? It’s total elevation barely broached 20 feet (6 metres). It wasn’t even the highest point in Palm Beach, where two separate spots reached pinnacles of 53 feet (16 metres) according to the County Highpointers Association. I realized those two co-highpoints didn’t have magnificent summits either, although 53 feet completely dominated 20 feet. I guess it didn’t matter. High Point and its condominium community were in the process of being annexed by the nearby city of Delray Beach, anyway. The name will probably disappear.
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 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 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 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 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.