Welcome to Weirdtown, USA

How some strange names came to be

Let's take a trip. Hmm.... Want to drive to Frankenstein? Noodle? How about Puzzletown? Or maybe Gross? There really are such strange-sounding places. And many, many more!

Let's begin our trip in western Pennsylvania, outside Altoona, in the rural village of Puzzletown. How this town got its name is a puzzle, too. Here are three theories:

Theory No. 1: A man named Baird or Beard (no one's quite sure of the spelling) founded a village he called Poplar Run, Pa. It was a very small place, squeezed in between mountain passageways. For an unknown reason, folks changed the name to Puzzletown a few years later.

Theory No. 2: A Marionsville, Pa., tavern owner was named "Puzzle" Jim Stiffler. Although no one recalls the date this occurred, people began calling Marionsville by Puzzle Jim's nickname. It became known as Puzzletown.

Theory No. 3: A commemorative book titled "Blair County's First Hundred Years" (Blair County Historical Society, 1945) states that Puzzletown "was probably so named because no one could explain how it happened to be there."

Which explanation sounds like the right one to you?

Skydiving into Frankenstein

Now let's visit a scary-sounding place. Last month, 25 skydivers dressed in monster costumes parachuted into the village of Frankenstein, Mo. Media representatives from 20th-Century Fox were there to film the event to mark the 25th anniversary re-release of the 1974 movie "Frankenstein."

Located on top of the highest hill in Osage County, Frankenstein is not far from the mighty Missouri River. How did it get such a monstrous-sounding name? It was probably named after Gottfried Franken, who donated land to build a church there in 1890. (Mary Shelley, incidentally, wrote her famous book of the same name in 1818. Do you suppose the townsfolk had the book in mind?)

Russell Kremer, the unofficial mayor of this village, proudly states that there is no other place in the United States with the same name.

A storekeeper who was Gross

On the vast open landscape of Nebraska, where trees are scarce and the sky seems to go on forever, there's a place called Gross.

Today, "gross" has taken on negative meanings. But it is not an apt description of this town, the population of which has dwindled to seven.

Early in 1893, Gross was founded on a section of land belonging to the Fort Randall Military Reserve. It was called Morton, then, but was renamed Gross on Feb. 28, 1895. It was renamed in honor of homesteader and postmaster Benjamin Gross. Ben opened the first general store there. With supplies now readily available, settlers moved in.

News that a railroad would pass through Boyd County swelled Gross's population to more than 600 by 1904. The town had a school, businesses (including a cheese factory), and churches. Gross was booming, but it didn't last. The railroad never appeared. Worse, two fires swept through the town, in 1909 and 1919. Most of the town's inhabitants left.

In 1980, the United States Census put Gross's population at two. Today it's up to six, in two families. The 80 acres that make up Gross resembles a prairie. Deer, wild turkey, and pheasants are common visitors to Nebraska's smallest town.

When 'noodle' meant nothing

Are you hungry? Let's stop in Noodle, Texas. Doesn't that sound like a good place to eat?

Noodle is in southwest Jones County, on Farm Road 1812, not far from Merkel.

A shepherd named Anderson Criswell arrived here in 1882. He was one of Noodle's first settlers. The town, named after Noodle Creek, has nothing to do with food, though. At the time, Texas settlers used the word noodle to mean "nothing." Noodle Creek was a dried-up stream bed.

As time went on, Noodle began to grow. By 1929, it had a post office, general store, garage, and the Noodle-Horn school. But according to state records, Noodle's population didn't get above 40 people from 1950 to 1990. It's safe to say that there are not many restaurant choices in that town!

Well-preserved former residents

Instead, let's visit a fossil banana in Oregon. It's in Fossil, Ore., population: 530. Some 50,000 years ago, the climate of this town in the Northwest was nearly tropical. Banana trees grew there. Later, wooly mammoths roamed about. Thousands of years passed, and the climate cooled. In 1891, humans established the town of Fossil.

Thomas Benton Hoover named the town. He was a rancher who found fossil remains on his property. Later, a famous paleontologist, Thomas Condon, discovered the remains of a saber-toothed tiger just outside town.

People in town began finding numerous fossils, some of which ended up in the Fossil Museum in town. Today, anyone can go to one of the public sites in Fossil and dig for prehistoric remains - absolutely free. (Most people find fossilized leaves.)

Do you suppose they laugh a lot?

Our final destination is Newfoundland, Canada's farthest eastern province. Let's spend a few moments in Pinchgut Tickle, Squid Tickles, and Headforemost Tickle.

What's going on here?

The word "tickle" appears in almost 250 names belonging to land and water features found along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. There, a "tickle" is a narrow saltwater channel where rocks and dangerous water currents make it very difficult (ticklish, perhaps?) to navigate. Pinchgut Tickle, for example, is in Newfoundland, near St. Johns. (Some now call it Assumption Passage.)

Those are only a few of the hundreds of strange-sounding place names in North America. Get out a map, or get on the Web (see story on facing page) and see if you can spot some more!

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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