Place names tell bits of Caldwell County's story

Mar. 15, 2013 @ 07:13 AM

There’s a lot in a name.

Just ask Donna Lillian. She’s a professor at Appalachian State University, where she directs the women’s studies program. But she also serves as president of the American Name Society, the world’s largest onomastics organization.

Onomastics is, simply, the study of names. Personal names, literary names, place names.

From that last one, you can learn a lot about Caldwell County.

“You can learn a lot about the history of a region by looking at place names,” Lillian said. “You can see different settlement patterns. For example, in a place like North Carolina, there’s a lot of place names that derive from original native inhabitants of the areas.”

In Caldwell, several early place names are education-focused -- and they might be a little more Carolina blue than you’d expect.

The county was named for Joseph Caldwell, the first president of the University of North Carolina. Caldwell wasn’t an Old North State native -- he was from New Jersey -- but once he settled in North Carolina, he never left. He received a few tempting offers, including one from what then was the College of South Carolina, but said no each time.

Lenoir, incorporated in 1851, was named for William Lenoir -- a Revolutionary War general and UNC trustee. When Lenoir settled in the area that would later be named for him, he called it the “sweetest place on earth.”

Before that, the town was known as Tucker’s Barn, after a family that lived there. At some point, a fiddle song called “Tucker’s Barn” sprang up, and it was recorded by Doc Watson in the 1970s.

Other place names in the area are reasonably obvious. Happy Valley was named by early settlers who described it as a place of peace and tranquility. Sawmills took its name from one of the county’s first industries.

Hudson was named for two of its earliest settlers, Monroe and Johnny Hudson. It was originally Hudsonville, but mail for the township kept getting sent to Hendersonville, so the “-ville” was dropped.

“At different times in history, you might get different sorts of names,” Lillian said. “So if you go way back, before the American Revolution, then you’ll get names that have this Colonial flair -- named for kings and queens and princesses and things like that. And that was, then, not as prevalent after the Revolution, for obvious reasons.”

It really gets interesting, though, when you dig into the little stuff -- the informal road names you won’t find on a map and the stories you won’t find in history books.

Karen Barlow lives on Pigtail Road in Happy Valley.

“I was told by my grandparents that in the late 1800s, early 1900s, a sawmill and a pig farm was located here, and during slaughtering season, the farmers will throw the pig’s tail in the creek for good luck, and that’s how it got its name,” Barlow said. “Whether it’s true or not, who knows.”

Also in the Happy Valley area is the Tranquil Hills community.

Gary James said his uncle, Victor Lee Harrison, came up with the “Tranquil” name.

“Uncle Victor was a minister and loved the mountains, thus named the community Tranquil Hills because he thought the area was so peaceful,” James said.

Cathy McCoy, who lives in the Tranquil Hills, joked that something may have changed: “We should be a lot more relaxed than we are,” she said.

Especially in rural areas, informal place names tend to compete with the names on the map, Lillian said.

“Once a street is named or a town is named, people tend to want to keep that name,” she said. "So they don’t change lightly. People, even sometimes after it’s officially changed, people will call it by the old name.”

James said he’s jarred by signs for Nu-Way Circle in Valmead.

“The original name for years and years was Lizard Ridge,” he said. “I still call it Lizard Ridge.”

There are plenty of other unusual street names scattered throughout the county. There’s Carousel Lane in Lenoir -- named for a woman who collected carousels, resident Melissa Greene King said. And “Possum Holler” off Deal Mill Road.

“When I first moved here, I always knew I had turned the wrong way when I saw that sign,” said Ann Spencer of Hudson.

And of course, all throughout the county, another type of name is scattered.

There’s the Broyhill Civic Center, T.H. Broyhill Walking Park, Bernhardt Court -- evidence of the region's furniture history is everywhere.

“That’s the thing about names,” Lillian said. “Even when things change, they don’t.”