Places – Why Are They Called What They Are?

The old mill pond

Yesterday I traveled with Pap out to Asheville. As he often does he entertained me with tales from yesteryear. One tale was was about Indian John who was one of Pap’s friends from back in the day when they both went to college under the GI Bill. The tale in itself was humorous, but that wasn’t what got my attention.

We were traveling down the other side of Topton headed into the Nantahala Gorge when Pap said something about Indian John’s place-I said “oh he still lives there?” Pap said “no I don’t know where he lives-I’m not even sure he still lives.” It struck me as funny that Pap would call the house by the road the Indian John place even though he no longer lived there. Made me have the silliest notion to walk up on the porch, knock on the door, ask if they knew who Indian John was, and if they realized they were living in his house?

Of course places named after folks who used to live there isn’t anything new. Most towns, cities, and communities are named after someone long gone on. Seems in one way or another we all perpetuate the practice.

Just down the road from me there’s a house that we all refer to as the Johnny Hampton place even though he’s been dead for years. There’s Miss Cook’s place where there isn’t even a house left. The old mill pond resides in the pasture just beyond the hill, but there hasn’t been a mill there in well over 60 years.

Closer, there is a big white farm house. In my growing up years it was Clarence’s place-as in down by Clarence’s. But after Clarence and his lovely wife Ruby passed away the house become Pickle’s, it took years, but finally it became down by Pickle’s. Now Pickle is gone too. Chatter and Chitter are young someday when their kids ask them about the big white house on Granny and Pap’s road will they answer “You mean Pickles place?” Will they then ask me to remind them exactly who Pickle was and why we all seemed to miss him so?

Clate and marys old house

Closer still there is a house long deserted, with the outhouse still in the yard and with the log cabin corn crib falling in. It’s Clate and Mary’s house. It’s been Clate and Mary’s house since Pap was a boy, since I remember being sad as a child that Clate kept escaping from the old folks home to try to find his way back home. Maybe that’s it. Maybe those old places have to hold on to their old names cause the folks who lived in them were real and they lived real lives that intertwined with all their neighbors up and down the creek. Seems only right they should leave some impression of their vivid presence behind if only in a name.


This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig in February of 2010.

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  • Reply
    Dan O'Connor
    November 10, 2013 at 10:06 am

    This was a good blog, it reminds me of folks gone by and memories that find there way back as I smile and take the time to remember. There is an old antebellum house behind where I used to live, it is on the National Historic Register as the Boyd-Harvey House. Our house was the second house I had built. My son was only 3, he is now 26. The lot was about 350 feet deep with the back half wooded. I learned from my neighbor there was a slave cemetery back in the wooded part. I found about 15 graves marked with rough pieces of marble stone. Mr. Howell lived in the old house, his wife very I’ll. she passed a couple years later. He had a pond on his property. I would take my son, Kellen, to the pond, with Mr. Howell’s permission, and we would catch big ole catfish, it was a lot of fun and has left lasting memories. We passed a grave one day walking through the woods to the pond, it was a recent grave of a young girl. Mr. Howell told us it was his grand daughter. Mr. Howell remarried a couple years later. And a few years later we moved. A couple years later I heard Mr. Howell passed. A couple years after that I learned an acquaitance of mine, Dave, bought the place. It is all changed now. Most of the property sold and houses have been built. I don’t know what happened to the antebellum out building where the slaves stayed, or the apple orchard, or the grave I think about now and then. But the place will always be Mr. Howell’s place.

  • Reply
    November 8, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    I have loved this post! Such good stories. We live on my husbands grandparents old place. They have been gone a long time and their old house down the road has been bought and fixed up by a nice, young couple. I’m kinda torn, the young couple have fixed it up with lots of flowers, trees, a pretty barn… do I still call it Grandad & Grandma’s old house or Brett & Jill’s?
    I know what you mean about old abandoned houses, they seem to call out like an old friend. My aunt wrote a pretty poem about old houses, I’ll see if I can find it. I love your blog and feel like we’re neighbors – and I live in Missouri!! ha!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    November 6, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    I think the practice of naming places by the people that lived there goes back to when there were no house numbers. People’s mail came to a Post Office or a mailbox that could have been a good distance from the actual home of the addressee. I remember walking 1/2 mile to catch the school bus at the turnaround. There where four mailboxes there. The kids that got off there would check for mail to take home on our way.
    If someone actually wanted to find you, they would have to ask around in the community. “Do you know where Ed Ammons lives” “I think he is one of Fred’s youngins. Fred’s place is up at the head of Wiggins Creek. You take the left fork at the bus shack and they live at end of the road there. I don’t think you can get your car all the way. You might ought to park and walk in.”
    or “I am lookin for Beanie Sutton.” “Is that Pauline and Luther’s boy? I think they moved in the old Mose Wikle Place. You turn right at the bus shack and it is up at the end of that road. You cane’t miss it. It’s the only house on the road.”
    Uncle Wayne moved into the old Jeff Wikle Place when his first house burned down. He lived there until he got his new one built, then he moved back and Pauline and Luther moved in. When he moved to Conley’s Creek, Pauline and Luther bought his old place and Vance and Violet moved into the old Jeff Wikle Place. When Mose Wikle died, Vance and Violet moved into his place until Vance got a job up in Cashiers at the school. Then Pauline and Luther moved into the Mose Wikle Place and the Higdons moved into Uncle Wayne’s old place which Pauline and Luther now owned. After a while the Higdons moved away and Pauline and Luther moved back to Wayne’s Old Place and a Dills family moved in Mose Wikle’s Old Place. The old Jeff Wikle Place stood empty after Vance and Violet moved out. Nobody ever lived there again.

  • Reply
    Ken Ryan
    November 6, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    We also refer to places here in East Texas from the names of previous owners. Many examples are even recorded in public records. Having been a land surveyor for many years here, I might read a deed that states something like: “Beginning at a large sweet gum tree near the northeast corner of the old Barnett home; Thence North to a pine knot for corner in the south line of the Hiram Jones place…” Sometimes re-tracing these old deeds can become ‘very interesting’.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    November 6, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    At the beginning of your blog, you
    talked about Pap knowing Indian
    John. I think this is John Reighard,
    Sonny would be his nephew. But I
    played with his twin daughters, and
    Johnny, his son. John was married
    to Flora and he ran a Drop Ball in
    a quarry (Hitchcock Corp.) outside
    of Atlanta. One day I was playing
    with Myrle, Pearl, and Johnny when
    they received word their daddy
    was killed in that quarry. They
    pulled a shot too early and Indian
    John was hit by a 300 pound rock,
    as he was diving under his machine. We all went to church together…Ken

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, Ph.D.
    November 6, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Tipper: There are GOOD POSTS on “Blind Pig and the Acorn” and then there are AWESOME posts – like today! I loved the notion of remembering a homeplace by the person’s name who lived there first. Our dear neighbors have gone into assisted living – but they were living next door to Jim and me for MORE THAN FIFTY YEARS. Last week the fellow had his daughter bring him back to their place to get a copy of “Fiddler” signed with HIS NAME IN THE BOOK. Steadying himself on his Cain he talked so fondly of us ‘his mighty fine neighbors’ and I hoped he could not see the tears in my eyes!He is so wonderful and we will miss them for a long time!
    Best regards,
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    November 6, 2013 at 10:17 am

    I remeber my folks talking of old places by family names. Especially when we visited after my Grandparents passed. It seemed it was easier for them to relate to the past and where they were in time. Of course us kids in the back of the old ford, didn’t have a clue who or what they were talking about except one that lived and visited my Granpa often!
    When I talk to my brothers and we start referring to people that used to live in the neighborhood, we also refer to the family name, like the Smith place, or up the street at the Bakers, or “You remember that boy that lived by the Browns?” etc…LOL
    I think that was the association we had when we were young. My husband and boys, do the same thing here. There was an old swimmin’ hole here close by. There was a house that had many children, all very sweet. My husband and I are near there often and one day I said…”Do you remember the kids that lived in the house by the swimmin’ hole?
    The old house has been gone for years…and there were several houses close to the old swimmin’ hole, but he knew which house I was speakin’ of…Strange huh!
    Like Jim I love old road and area names…
    One in your neighbor hood that I would like to research is “Hanging Dog!” My mother had a friend that grew up there and they met after meeting in the neighborhood where my Mothers house is! Everytime we would go to Murphy we would mean to go over to Hanging Dog…but time never let us!
    I love to keep a notebook when we travel and write down strange or maybe strange to us…names of old interesting towns or roads..
    Like, Bear Cree, Bear Ridge, Dead Bear Road…LOL Dead Bear road was a favorite, since I still have that fear (of slight now) of bears!
    I loved this post and all the comments by folks….
    I am huntin’ me that book Jim!
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    November 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Perhaps this blog is more about a sense of place than place names. Names seem to be as fleeting as memory. – because of it’s implication that names don’t have substance, the old phrase about sticks and stones keeps coming to mind; however, we’ve learned how hurtful those names can be.
    Back to names with substance: My grandparents and great-grandparents moved from Kansas to south Texas in the 40s and late 30s – they chose to be buried in south Texas. My parents both have spent much of their lives talking about returning to Kansas – so much so that they bought burial plots there, in the town where they grew up. I was always curious as to why Mom and Dad still have such a sense of place in Kansas after having lived 50 plus years in south Texas and another 20 plus years in central Texas. That place, “Kansas”, and all the places it holds is every bit as magical for them as L. Frank Baum’s Kansas.
    As for names of places – yes, everyone in the previous 3 generations refer to locations by the names of people who lived there, by remarkable events which took place there, or by physical landmarks, some of which have been changed or removed in the days since the naming of the place. Locally we have “Old Schoolhouse Road”, “Mormon Mill”, “Salt Lake”, etc – – all of which no longer exist but the names have found there way onto the official maps. On the other hand, when I used to drive my parents to Kansas to visit, Garmin couldn’t help me as they spoke of turning just past the Nutt House (not derogatory – that was the family name!), slowing down to look at the Old Kreiger place, looking up the hill where the Garrett’s sod house used to be, checking the draw to see if the Poor House is still standing – – I fear my kids and grandkids don’t appreciate place and history or the tales they tell. They tell me not to live in the past; but I think the past, through the names we use to remember it’s tales, is the foundation for a rich future.

  • Reply
    November 6, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Many English place names have this kind of derivation but it may go back a thousand years or more. So the village of Madingley means Madda’s forest clearing, though no one knows who Madda might have been and there’s been no forest there in historic times. Do you also have the system where some women are never really known by their married name; they continue to be called by their old name no matter how often they correct people. A friend’s wife was always known as Jenny Ashman for years after their marriage. My friend tried to get elected on to the local council but got very few votes. We reckoned that the problem was that the ballot paper had his name as Dave Billings whereas everyone knew him as “that fat bloke who married young Jenny Ashman”.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    November 6, 2013 at 9:05 am

    I think this reflects the ties that folks have to the places they lived, I know I still have sentimental ties to my old homeplace even though the house burned in the early seventies. Even more telling is an old homestead near where I was raised, the “Old Verlin Place” where a large family was raised until they moved west to find work in the 1940s. One son of Verlin & Martha was a career military officer and lived all over the world but when he passed away a few years ago he requested his son to return to the old homeplace and sprinkle some of his ashes even though the house has been gone for five decades. His son and grandson flew from Washington state and honored his wishes. Several family members who live in Statesville and I were lucky enough to attend this event. When his son sprinkled the ashes around the old foundation and looked heavenward with tears in his eyes and a hitch in his voice and stated “Dad I brought you home” it was a very somber and touching moment that many wouldn’t understand. I fully understood the beauty of the moment since I have the same feeling for the farm I was raised on and have so much sweat equity in. I don’t think this is just an Appalachain thing, I have a friend who was raised in New York state and believe it or not he has similar feelings about his homeplace. I think this is more a rural thing than an urban one since families tended to stay on a piece of property for more than one generation and by scratching a living from the soil they developed ties to the property. Families today are more mobile and many children live in several homes before moving out on their on and they seem to have lost some of the ties to these “Old Places”.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    November 6, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Tipper–Another side of mountain styles of giving place names is the wonderful knack our forebears had for descriptive terms. Here are a few of my favorites:
    *Needmore (in Swain County)
    *Long Hungry Ridge (there’s one in Swain County and another in Graham County)
    *Keg Drive Branch (Swain County)
    *Slickrock Creek (forms boundary between Graham County, NC and TN for many miles of its flow.
    *Huggins Hell (Swain County)
    There are many more, and obviously I’ve stayed close to where I grew up. However, those with a shared interest in such matters can delve into historian William Powell’s “North Carolina Gazetteer.” There also a book entitled “Place Names of the Smokies,” but it is not particularly reliable in terms of giving origins of place names.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Gina S
    November 6, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Never thought much of it, but my friend and I often refer to homes by the name of former owners. Your story about traveling with your father reminded me of many trips through Vale NC with Mama and Aunt Lib. Once the car hit the last five miles or so, the names flew from the lips of two sisters. “Up that road was the Press Ramsey place.” Then followed a recitation of each of the Ramsey children with a touch of disagreement over birth order. The home of Burlon Craig always garnered a mention. There’s the turn to Palm Tree. We’ll come back to visit the grave sites. We rode on to the Rhinehart place then owned by son, Johnny. And so our ride went as we passed the homes of old family friends. Miss Minnie and Winfield, Enoch and Mae, and Miss Mattie all garnered a mention before we reached the turn to the old homeplace. Chattering lips fell silent as minds filled with memories nearly too dear to bear. I’ve not been to Vale in 20 years, but still perfectly picture it. My cousin tells me much has changed. The old homeplace no longer stands. Aunt L sold the land after a white pine took down the house that stood from the 1880s until late in the 1990s. The loss doesn’t matter so much for the house was merely a shell protecting beloved family.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    November 6, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Good one today — I love old places like that. When we lived in GA (1940s), every day at 5 pm you’d hear lovely bells from a home of an interesting gentleman — he always used the title Colonel, drove a Jaguar, and carried a riding crop. I was recently back for a visit and his lovely, old home is crumbling. Made me sad….

  • Reply
    November 6, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Tipper, I have always found those names for old places so very fascinating. The names can remain after a century even though other families have resided there.
    My elderly uncle used to go visit and speak often of the “ole Tot’s place.” No house there, and he had to walk into this remote area. This Tots Place long forgotten by everybody except my dear uncle. He had lived the early part of his childhood there, and it always claimed a special place in his heart.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 6, 2013 at 7:35 am

    There was a little house across from my Grand Parents home called the Bob Franklin place and another place out the road called Dock and Maud’s place.
    Bob Franklin was married to my ganndpaw’s sister. He had 4 sisters who all died in their early 20’s of TB, I think.
    Dock Was my grandpaw’s brother and Maud wad his wife.
    Like your places this was in Western North Carolina, just a little east of you. I wonder if places are named for their owner in other parts of the country and other parts of the world for that matter.

  • Reply
    November 6, 2013 at 7:32 am

    I still refer to homes in this area as to the names of the original owners. I remember doing that as a child growing up. It was easier to identify where the home/site was located when speaking with others. Sometimes there just might be a good story associated with the person’s place.

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