First, a disclaimer. Twelve Mile Circle deals with geo-oddities, not politics. It doesn’t take sides. However, the timing of this post fell closest to the Presidential Inauguration and I thought it might be acceptable to poke a toe just up to the line in a nonpartisan fashion. Reader "Joe" sent me an idea, as he often does, and I decided to run with it. He referenced an article in his local newspaper about a town in a very conservative corner of Missouri that went by the name Liberal.
The story mentioned Liberal’s irony. As one resident proclaimed, "People are embarrassed… They are ashamed and don’t identify." I couldn’t determine how the town voted in the recent election, however the surrounding county (Barton) went for Donald Trump 84%. One might conclude somewhat reasonably that Liberal could actually be quite conservative, using modern euphemisms where liberal meant Democrat and conservative meant Republican. I decided to stick with that definition realizing that different interpretations could also be used.
Liberal began in 1880 as an atheist utopia founded by George Walser. He belonged to an organization called the Liberal League based in Lamar, Missouri about twenty miles to the east. This group fell within a larger philosophy of Freethinkers, who form "opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief." Walser purchased two thousand acres and founded a town based upon his personal preferences. Christians then made it a mission to convert the town and eventually purchased land adjoining it. Apparently their strategy worked. Walser eventually converted and died a Christian.
Of course, I realized that there wasn’t necessarily a parallel between a particular word usage from the 1880’s and today. There are plenty of Christians who are Democrats and Republicans who are atheists, so word definitions evolve just as towns evolve.
Few signs of the failed experiment survived other than Darwin Street (map) — honoring Charles Darwin — and the name of the town itself.
12MC Visited Liberal, Kansas
I mentioned my visit to Liberal, Kansas when I replied to Joe’s suggestion. I went there a few years ago during my Dust Bowl Adventure. It included several sites like the Mid-America Air Museum, a giant book sculpture outside of the local library, and Kansas’ proxy for Dorothy’s House and the Land of Oz (map). I got to experience all three of them.
Was Liberal once liberal only to flip conservative like its Missouri namesake? It seemed to fit the definition of conservative today with 64% of Seward County going for Trump. I checked one popular search engine and came across an interesting discussion on that very topic. My favorite response was, "It’s like when you call a fat man ‘Slim’ or a bald man ‘Curly’. Yeah, ‘Liberal’ is like that!" I got that same perception when I visited there in person.
However this didn’t necessarily mean it was once "liberal." The town didn’t have a clearly-defined history. One local source said,
Mr. S.S. Rogers was the first homesteader in what would later become Liberal. Outside of the Cimarron River, water was very scarce in Southwestern Kansas and there was usually a charge for even a small amount; however Mr. Rogers always gave his water free to passing travelers. Quite often he would hear a reply of "that’s mighty Liberal of you" from the grateful recipients.
I wasn’t quite sure I believed that explanation although I didn’t find any hidden 19th Century atheist influences to compete with it either.
Not every Liberal settlement exhibited conservative tendencies in the modern era. The Liberal in Oregon (map) fell within the borders of Clackamas County. Clackamas went for Democrats in the last three Presidential elections, and five of the last seven. Hillary Clinton registered nearly 48% of votes in 2016, compared to 41% for Trump. This Liberal also had a murky history.
The exact origin of the name of the community is lost in the past. Some believe that it was named for Liberal, Missouri… However the prevailing belief, shared by many old-timers including the late Dee Wright, a local historian, was that is was named because of the liberal credit policies of the local store.
One more Liberal once thrived in Indiana, although no signs of it remained today. The county where it formerly existed (Spencer) went 66% for Trump. That made three Liberals conservative, and one Liberal at least leaning liberal.
I wondered if any towns went the other way, with conservative names applied to liberal enclaves. I didn’t find any. However, I recalled a local example where I knew that gradually changing political beliefs underwent a transition of that type. A specific recent incident drove the point home. The City of Alexandria, like much of the rest of Virginia, was once quite conservative. That hasn’t been the case in recent years. For instance, in September 2016 the city council voted to rename Jefferson Davis Highway. Jefferson Davis was once the President of the Confederacy and his name adorned many places in the Old South after the war. Times are changing in Alexandria, however. The city also wants to relocate it’s statue of a Confederate soldier, currently overlooking a prominent intersection (map), to someplace less conspicuous.
I freely admit to a bit of nervousness with this article after a bruising campaign fresh in everyone’s minds. 12MC is the only site where I read the comments anymore, where readers seem to actually respect the points of view of others. Let’s hope this article doesn’t devolve into splitting of hairs, wrangling over definitions, and hurtful words.
Twelve Mile Circle will now return to non-political topics. Maybe forever.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Triangle, a name on a road sign that I pondered as I sat stuck in traffic on a drive back from Richmond, Virginia. I also noticed another exit on this fateful trip as I slogged through miles of gridlock. The sign said Ladysmith and my mind began to wander. I figured it didn’t refer literally to a Smith by its occupation, i.e., a skilled metal worker. However, who was this lady Smith and why did she deserve a place name?
I passed Ladysmith about halfway between Richmond and Fredericksburg. The community sat just west of Interstate 95, at the intersection of Ladysmith Road and Jefferson Davis Highway (map). I didn’t bother to stop. My trip had been delayed long enough already.
The answer had to await until I got home. It required more searching than I expected although I finally found something in the Fredericksburg Star, "From Ladysmith to Ladysmith." The article recounted how Ladysmith in Virginia reached out to Ladysmith in Wisconsin in the aftermath of a tornado a few years ago. It also discussed the unusual name.
…Clara Smith, the daughter of Sally Collins Smith and Civil War Capt. C.T. Smith, named the community. Her father donated land for one of the Caroline’s first public schools in the hope that the town would grow up around it. Clara Smith most likely named the town after her mother, although the daughter is the more celebrated of the two ladies Smith in Caroline.
That solved the mystery. It also opened a new door to a different Ladysmith in Wisconsin.
The details actually came easier in Wisconsin. Ladysmith became the seat of government for Rusk County so historians wrote about it. The whole thing involved someone trying to curry favor for a business transaction. The town began in 1885 at the intersection of two railway lines on the Flambeau River. The owner of a local logging company, Robert Corbett named the town after himself. It became Corbett. Then it became Warner because of a railroad station located there.
James Gates, a local land speculator, wanted to make a tidy profit. He knew that Charles Robinson Smith of Menasha Wooden Ware considered opening a manufacturing plant in Warner. If that happened then people would move to the area and buy Gate’s land. Gates probably wanted to hasten that along so he suggested a new name for the town, Ladysmith (map). This honored Charles Smith’s recent bride, Isabel Bacon Rogers Smith.
This lady Smith was an interesting character. Her first marriage ended in divorce and she secretly married Charles Smith before announcing it publicly. She seemed to be quite the socialite, living in high society and frequenting the theater. Smith died a few years later, leaving Isabel with a fortune so she moved into a fancy Park Avenue apartment in New York City. There she met and married Orrin Johnson, a Broadway star and silent movie actor. Eventually she returned to Wisconsin along with her third husband after his acting career faded.
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Interestingly, an alternate theory emerged independently in Virginia and Wisconsin. A few sites I consulted listed the town of Ladysmith in South Africa as the source of their names (map). It was much in the news at the turn of the last century. British forces broke a Boer siege of Ladysmith in 1900. This explanation didn’t seem as compelling as the actual ladies Smith that lived in Virginia and Wisconsin so I doubted it. However, I followed the trail to KwaZulu-Natal anyway.
The lady Smith in question went by a rather elaborate name, Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith. She grew up as Spanish nobility, later orphaned as a result of the Peninsula War. The British army sacked her home town during the Siege of Badajoz and one of the British officers helped protect her. Then he married her. The officer rose in ranks over the years, becoming a Brigadier-General and a knight, Sir Harry Smith. Later he became the Governor of the Cape Colony in South Africa. Lady Smith followed along faithfully on his military adventures and the town name honored her devotion.
This Ladysmith might be remembered in modern times less for the Second Boer War than for the musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They formed in 1960 and received worldwide acclaim when singer Paul Simon partnered with them in the 1980’s. The name came from:
…the hometown of Shabalala’s family, Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal; the black ox, considered to be the strongest farm animal; and mambazo, which means "axe" in the Zulu language, and is symbolic of the choir’s ability to "chop down" the competition.
Lady Smith might have been surprised to see the relevancy of her name a century later.
It didn’t stop there, however. Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, British Columbia actually did name itself after the siege and battle in South Africa.
Ladysmith was an "instant town", founded by coal baron James Dunsmuir. Oyster Harbour, as the area was previously called, became the shipping port for Dunsmuir’s coal mine at Extension, about 12 km to the north. The townsite was planned in 1899 as a tidy grid pattern facing the bay. Streets were named after British Officers of the Boer War, victorious in recapturing the town of Ladysmith, South Africa, in the year 1900.
The streets retain those names today: Symons; French; Buller; Baden Powell; Methuen, and so on (map).
Familiar place names always catch my attention. Often they share a bond with locations near my home in the Washington, DC area. Several years ago I wrote about one such situation in A Tale of Three Ridges. This time Crystal City served as the common denominator.
Virginia’s Crystal City abuts Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. However, most flyers probably never noticed it. Minds tend to wander across the Potomac River to the famous monuments on the National Mall. However, a glance in the opposite direction would show large blocks of office towers and apartments instead. That skyline marked Crystal City.
Crystal City didn’t exist until the Cold War. This unplanned creation handled the overflow of Federal agencies, government contractors, and residents. Jackson City once stood there in the mid 19th Century, providing space for two forts during the Civil War. Then the area declined.
After the war ended, it devolved into a seedy red-light district, complete with saloons, betting parlors and brothels — most of which were burned down in 1904 by a self-appointed cleanup crew known as the "Good Citizens League." From those ashes rose an industrial sprawl of brickyards, warehouses, iron-fabricating factories and junk lots that spread south.
The revival began with the construction of the Crystal House apartments (map) in the 1960’s. It happened to feature an ornate crystal chandelier. That started a naming trend for new construction in the area — everything became Crystal something-or-another.
I used to work in Crystal City. The old American Meridian ran directly through it. I drove across it every day, living in the former Western Hemisphere and working in the the Eastern Hemisphere. Twelve Mile Circle even sponsored a Happy Hour gathering back in 2010 at a Crystal City pub almost directly atop the Meridian. I had fond geo-geek memories of the place.
The Crystal City in Texas provided the excuse for this article. My genealogy hobby uncovered a distant relative in that town in Zavala County. He lived there in 1910, working in a livery stable. It seemed odd that the town shared a name with a place in Virginia. The city explained its origin:
Two land developers, Carl F. Groos and E. J. Buckingham, developed the town in the early 1900s. In 1905 they purchased the 10,000-acre Cross S Ranch, sold off most of the land as farms, and platted the townsite of Crystal City, named for the clear artesian water of the area.
Usually when I describe little places like this I struggle to find much of historical value. Crystal City defied that trend. It became known for several reasons in the last few decades. First, it served as one of the largest internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Then it received a lot of coverage in early 2016. Federal agents arrested almost every top official. They allegedly took bribes from a guy called Mr. T. who ran an illegal gambling scheme. Those indicted included the mayor, mayor pro tempore, city manager and two of three councilmen.
I preferred to recognize Crystal City for its motto, as the "Spinach Capital of the World." They even placed a statue of Popeye the Sailor Man in front of city hall (map) and included him on the city seal.
However, the fun didn’t end there. I discovered additional Crystal Cities. One of them landed in Missouri (map). That city said,
Around 1843 an Eastern company conducted a search in this area of Missouri, looking for land with valuable minerals. In 1868 Forrest Sheppards, a mineralogist and geologist, located silica (sand rock) near the mouth of Plattin Creek. The sand was of superior quality for glass manufacturing. What followed was an enthusiastic pursuit of development, and The American Plate Glass Company was founded here by Captain Ebenezer B. Ward of Detroit, in 1871.
Crystal City began as a company town named for the glass. The factory remained until 1990, or nearly 150 years. However, the company controlled every facet of life for the first few decades. An independent town grew immediately to its west, with privately owned homes and business, particularly saloons. The two came to be known as The Twin Cities, Crystal City and Festus (Minnesota’s Minneapolis and St. Paul might disagree). Festus supposedly got its name from a lady who opened her bible onto a random page. Her finger landed on Acts 25:1 and the name Festus. This replaced Tanglefoot. It didn’t seem like much of an improvement.
They could change Crystal City to Cletus and create the perfect hillbilly combination, though.
Greenway proceeded to map a street layout for a "city" south and east of Crystal Creek. The idea of our "town" being a city in the then future was not so far-fetched. Crystal City had a population of 230 plus, with Brandon recording around 100, while even Winnipeg numbered in at 400 in 1878. Greenway had seen Ontario towns with less, become great, simply due to time, immigration and internal growth. The dream for the town was to become a city, a leader in the southern prairies, maybe even the provincial capital.
Of course, this Crystal City never grew into that great city. Fewer than 400 people live there today.