Saturday, February 22, 2014


I don’t remember much about Gettysburg, South Dakota. In fact, nothing at all—except the sign welcoming you to town. That I remember, mostly because it cracked me up: “Gettysburg, South Dakota. Where the Battle Wasn’t.”

How often is it that you can rumble along a rural highway, languidly turn your eyes to a billboard on the side of the road… and burst out laughing? Well, the answer is: More often that you might think. A good number of rural hiccups have learned not to take themselves too seriously. When attempting to make their mark on the memories of passersby, they’ve discovered that self-deprecation often does the trick.

Say, you’re in Manhattan, for instance. Not the one in New York. The one in Kansas. You know what they call themselves? The Little Apple. Maybe a while later you’re still in Kansas, but you’ve driven some 100 miles southeast – to the town of Gas. There, you can spot a bright red water tower looming over the tiny town of some 560 souls. It says simply, GAS KAN. Perhaps you then head into Oklahoma’s panhandle, to a hamlet that goes by the name of—believe it or not—Hooker. The welcome sign includes an image of a 19th-century prostitute. The town slogan: “It’s a location, not a vocation.”

I mean, c’mon. That’s just great stuff.

In my travels, I have become a connoisseur of community communications, collecting town slogans like so many refrigerator magnets, and I can’t help but be impressed. It’s a tall order to describe yourself in half-a-dozen words and then imprint the phrase on all who encounter it, especially for places that are a bit short on uniqueness. These slogans run the gamut from clever (Garden City, Missouri: “A Touch of Heaven on Highway Seven”) to hyperbolic (Livonia, New York: “Some bigger. None better.”), from historical puffery (Seneca Falls, New York: “Birthplace of Women’s Rights”) to hysterical desperation (Forest Junction, Wisconsin: “You Can Get There From Here”). But they all have one thing in common: A slogan identifies a community as a place of some significance, a destination worthy of consideration.

It’s as if the town is saying, “I boast, therefore I am.” And can you blame them?

How does a town forge an identity? At its essence, that’s the question facing the townsfolk as they settle on a town slogan. How do we describe ourselves? How do we make our mark, especially when are target audience is speeding by at 60 miles per hour?

The most common means of forging an identity seems to be by calling oneself the Something Capital of the Someplace, in which case its merely a matter of how high to aim. Consider three towns in Wisconsin: Sauk City is the “Cow Chip Throwing Capital of Wisconsin,” and Reedsburg is the “Butter Capital of America.” But Green Bay is the “Toilet Paper Capital of the World.” They must be flush with pride. Then again, the Georgia hamlet of Claxton actually calls itself the “Fruitcake Capital of the World.” Sounds like it should be a sister city of Green Bay.

Any community not comfortable being a capital can simply bill itself as the Whatzit City or the Home of the Thingamajiggy. It’s also popular for town welcome signs to announce the names of famous natives. They can be big celebrities (Yukon, Oklahoma is “Home of Garth Brooks”). Or they can be just plain big (Grantsburg, Wisconsin—“Home of Big Gust”—pays homage to a resident named Anders Gustav Anderson, who stood 7-foot-6).

Granted, some towns try to fit too much into a slogan (Bangor, Michigan: “Train City USA in the Heart of Apple Country”. Or perhaps not enough (Little Valley, New York: “A Municipal Electric Community”). But a little imagination goes a long way. Indeed, some of my favorites are the warm-hearted generalities substituting for specifics. When Wasko, California, announces that it’s “A Nice Place to Live,” I have no reason to doubt it. Pigeon Falls, Wisconsin, is “Where Everyone is Important.” Canfield, Ohio, is “The City That Cares.” Jewell, Iowa, is “A Gem in a Friendly Setting.”

Often, however, a town’s identity is about location, location, location. If it’s on the edge of something, it’s a gateway (Bolivar, Ohio: “Gateway to Tuscanawas County”). If it’s at the confluence of roads or rivers or regions, it’s either a magical meeting (Lowry City, Missouri: “Where the Ozarks Meet the Plains”) or a proud crossroads (Barstow, California: “Crossroads of Opportunity”). And if it is centrally located, then it’s vying to be the center of our attention.

Again, consider some towns in Wisconsin: Marshfield calls itself “The City in the Center.” Pittsville boasts “The Exact Geographical Center of the State.” But Poniatowski one-ups them both. In the 1970s local residents located the spot where the 45th parallel crosses the 90th meridian. The result? Poniatowski, Wisconsin: “The Center of the Northwestern World.”

Ah, but the 800-or-so people in Boswell, Indiana, aimed even higher. There, emblazoned on the village water tower like a proclamation from the Almighty, it says simply this: “Boswell, Hub of the Universe.”

Given all that there is to choose from—each an example of a clever writer’s imagination—whittling the wit and whimsy down to a list of favorite has been quite a challenge. But I’ve managed to select a smile-inducing 77:

  1. Gettysburg, South Dakota: Where the battle wasn’t
  2. Hooker, Oklahoma: It’s a location, not a vocation
  3. Jewell, Iowa: A gem in a friendly setting
  4. Livonia, New York: Some bigger, none better
  5. Peculiar, Missouri: Where the odds are with you
  6. Spring Lake, Michigan: Where nature smiles for seven miles
  7. Drumright, Oklahoma: Town of oil repute
  8. Boswell, Indiana: Hub of the universe
  9. San Andreas, California: It’s not our fault
  10. Readlyn, Iowa: 857 friendly people & one old GRUMP
  11. Forest Junction, Wisconsin: You can get there from here
  12. Moscow, Maine: Best town by a dam site
  13. Garden City, Missouri: A touch of heaven on Highway Seven
  14. Eaton Rapids, Michigan: Welcome to the only Eaton Rapids on Earth
  15. Linesville, Pennsylvania: Where the ducks walk on the fish
  16. Union Springs, Alabama: Serendipity center of the South
  17. Rockwell City, Iowa: The golden buckle on the Corn Belt
  18. Apex, North Carolina: The peak of good living
  19. Manhattan, Kansas: The Little Apple
  20. Walla Walla, Washington: The city so nice they named it twice
  21. Paradise, California: It’s all the name implies
  22. Melbourne, Iowa: Right on top, not down under
  23. Newton Falls, Ohio: The town with zip
  24. Freeland, Pennsylvania: The most happening place on Earth
  25. Gretna, Virginia: Ain’t no big thing, but we’re growing!
  26. Hereford, Texas: Town without a toothache
  27. Littleton, New Hampshire: A notch above
  28. Morrison, Colorado: The nearest faraway place
  29. Gravity, Iowa: We’re down to earth
  30. Leavenworth, Kansas: How about doin’ some ‘time’ in Leavenworth
  31. Boardman, Oregon: On the river and on the way
  32. Hico, Texas: Where everybody is somebody
  33. Wakefield, Kansas: It’ll take you by surprise!
  34. Beaver Dam, Wisconsin: Make yourself at home
  35. Buckley, Washington: Below the snow, above the fog
  36. Bushnell, South Dakota: It’s not the end of the Earth, but you can see it from here
  37. Swanton, Nebraska: Dear hearts and gentle people
  38. Hampton, Virginia: First from the sea, first to the stars
  39. Show Low, Arizona: Named for the turn of a card
  40. Phoenix, Oregon: The other Phoenix
  41. Blue Earth, Minnesota: Earth so rich, the city grows
  42. Beaman, Iowa: You’re not dreamin’, you’re in Beaman
  43. Andover, Kansas: Where the people are warm, even when the weather isn’t
  44. Knox, Indiana: Where opportunity knocks
  45. Gas, Kansas: Don’t pass Gas, stop and enjoy it
  46. Eastland, Texas: Where the Wild meets the West
  47. Delmar, Maryland: The little town too big for one state
  48. Broadview Heights, Ohio: The highest of the heights
  49. Algoma, Wisconsin: Warm welcomes, cool breezes and hot fishing
  50. Britt, Iowa: Founded by rail, sustained by the plow
  51. Lodi, California: Livable, lovable Lodi
  52. Hershey, Pennsylvania: The sweetest place on Earth
  53. Happy, Texas: The town without a frown
  54. Weed, California: Weed like to welcome you
  55. Ormond Beach, Florida: The birthplace of speed
  56. Lowry City, Missouri: Where the Ozarks meet the Plains
  57. Glenpool, Oklahoma: The town that made Tulsa famous
  58. Addison, Texas: Where Dallas goes for fun
  59. Poniatowski, Wisconsin: Center of the northwestern world
  60. Cherryfield, Maine: Blueberry Capital of the World
  61. Tombstone, Arizona: The town too tough to die
  62. Claxton, Georgia: Fruitcake capital of the world
  63. Dodge City, Kansas: The wickedest little city in America
  64. St. George, Utah: Where the summer sun spends the winter
  65. Eustis, Florida: The city of bright tomorrows
  66. Lufkin, Texas: See the forest for the trees
  67. Cairo, Illinois: Where northern enterprise meets southern hospitality
  68. Anita, Iowa: A whale of a town
  69. Harrison, Michigan: Twenty lakes in twenty minutes
  70. Janesville, Wisconsin: Wisconsin’s Park Place
  71. Riverside, Iowa: Where the Trek begins
  72. Coachella, California: City of eternal sunshine
  73. Hyder, Alaska: Friendliest ghost town in Alaska
  74. Whittemore, Iowa: Cares more, shares more
  75. St. Louis, Michigan: Middle of the mitten
  76. Burkeville, Virginia: The little town that could
  77. Madisonville, Kentucky: The best town on Earth

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