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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Weird Wisconsin Names

A number of you wrote in this week to comment on or add to our new online Dictionary of Wisconsin History. One of its most popular features is its many obsolete place names, which link defunct locations such as "Bad Axe" or "Kilbourn" to their modern equivalents (Genoa and Wisconsin Dells), and then lets you see them on a map. With the click of the mouse, you can see a road map, satellite image, air photo, or topographic map of thousands of Wisconsin communities.

Another popular feature of the Dictionary turned out to be the odd explanations for how hundreds of towns got their names. Sun Prairie, for example, was named in 1837 when Augustus A. Bird, who was leading a crew of Milwaukee builders to help construct the new capitol building at Madison, trekked nine days on foot through the rain. When they came upon the borders of this prairie, the sun suddenly came out, and Bird christened the spot Sun Prairie.

Other towns have even stranger etymologies. Cuba City, in Grant County, was originally named Yuba -- from "You b'damned" -- after a dispute between two early settlers who platted it out differently. This was later changed to Cuba for the sake of politeness, which evolved into Cuba City. Elba, in Dodge County, also owes its name to a dispute. The Napoleonic reference was assigned by the secretary of the state of Wisconsin, who stepped in after local citizens couldn't agree on a name for their home. Early histories of the region don't give the reason for his choosing it, but perhaps he'd been reading up on European history.

Early surveyors, who were usually the first white people on the spot, not only gave their own names to localities but were sometimes literally memorialized in them. A historian of Sauk County explained that Dead Man's Spring, in Excelsior township, got its name in 1846: "The man who died there was a surveyor; his name has been forgotten." Another martyred surveyor gave his name to Lost Lake, in the town of Westford near Beaver Dam. "Many of us have probably wondered why the little lake in Town of Westford is called 'Lost Lake,'" commented The Beaver Dam Citizen in 1941. "The issue of Oct. 15, 1869, states that "the name arose from the fact that many years ago, when a party of government surveyors were in the locality, one of the party became mired in the marsh at the outlet of the lake, went down, and was never seen again.'"

Perhaps the most improbable source for a Wisconsin city's name is that given for Onalaska, next to LaCrosse. Thomas G. Rowe, the first settler, opened a tavern there in 1851 to serve loggers and lumberjacks. Described by an acquaintance as "a well-educated, intellectual and genial gentleman" -- surely the only logging-frontier bartender who was ever described that way -- was fond of quoting poetry, and was particulary partial to Thomas Campbell's "Pleasures of Hope." Part of that poem includes the lines,"And waft across the waves' tumultuous roar / The wolf's long howl from Oonalaska's shore." The musical name of the distant harbor in the Aleutian Islands stuck in Rowe's fancy and he adopted it for the new town, dropping, however, what he considered a superfluous intial "o" (to see pictures of the Alaskan location that is the Wisconsin town's namesake, look in our American Journeys digital collection).

Is your town's name explained? Would you like to see it from the air or from a satellite? Search it in the online Dictionary and see what you come up with. To discover people or events connected with it, be sure to try a "Keyword" search, too.
:: Posted in Curiosities on December 7, 2005

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