While doing your family research you might come across some towns you have never heard of. But have you ever really given any thought to where the names of towns come from? In modern times, town names come about when a post office is established. As such, it was often the post master, or someone close to them, that submitted town names to the Post Office Department. Here are 26 towns (one for each letter of the alphabet) in Kentucky with unusual names and their origins. These are certainly not the only unusual towns in the state, but a small selection. What strange town names have you come across in your research?
Arjay (Bell County): A coal town located along KY 66, 3 miles north east of Pineville. The name was created from the initials of coal operator R.J. Asher. The post office was established on Feb. 23, 1911.
Bachelors Rest (Pendleton County): 5 miles east south east of Falmouth is Bachelors Rest, so named because of the bachelors that spent time sunning themselves in front of the local store. The post office was established in 1870 (as “Batchelors Rest”) but renamed Mains in 1887 after Sarah Mains became the post master. The post office was closed in 1903
Canoe (Breathitt County): Named for the nearby Canoe Creek, this post office, 7.5 miles south by southwest of Jackson was named Canoe Fork on Aug. 14, 1891. It lost “Fork” becoming the simpler “Canoe” in 1894. Story of the creek’s name says that the creek waters got so low that a person’s canoe couldn’t be floated out and was abandoned there.
Democrat (Letcher County): Located on KY 7, 8 miles north of Whitesburg, this settlement was first named Razorblade. There was a post office named Stick which was renamed to Democrat on Halloween in 1902. The origins of the names “Razorblade” and “Stick” are a bit mysterious, but everyone agrees that Democrat was so named because the post master was the only democrat in a diehard republican county.
Elkatawa (Breathitt County): Supposedly named by the Kentucky Union Railroad (that later became Lexington & Eastern and is now known as the L&N) in 1891 to honor Tenskwautawa, brother to Shawnee chief Tecumseh. It’s not obviously named for him because it’s a two-step corruption of the name: Tenskawautawa became Ellskwatawa which became Elkatawa. While this seems a bit far-fetched, no one has been able to come up with a better explanation for the name Elkatawba.
Fisty (Knott County): Located at the junction KY 8- and 721, this area was populated with a large amount of people with the surname Combs, so many that the Combses were distinguished with nicknames (why their given names were not used isn’t mentioned). One man was named “Fisty Sam” and the lore says that the town of Fisty is named for him. Margaret Ritchie was named the first post master on August 18, 1906.
Grab (Green County): This post office gained its named due to the store that was created between KY 88 and 1464. Its owner, Daniel K. Cramer, owned another store about a mile away where he was notorious for selling candy for a penny for one fistful. This first store became known as the “Grab Store” so when the new post office was established it was simply called Grab.
Helechawa (Wolfe County): This town name may appear Native American in nature, but it’s not. Helechawa was established around 1900 as a station on the Ohio and Kentucky railroad. The name actually comes from taking the first letters from the name of Helen Chase Walbridge, the daughter of the Ohio and Kentucky Railroad’s first president, W. Delancy Walbridge of New York. Nobody is entirely sure why he decided to take the letters to create a new word, but it certainly created an unusual name in 1900. There are numerous other stories as to how the name came about. One claims that it was named to honor Tecumseh’s brother, another story says it was named to honor someone (it’s not stated whose) children, Helen, Charles and Walter, another says that it was named for Walbridge’s children Helen and Charlotte. The most popular legend says that pioneers found the one dirt road to the place to difficult to traverse that they referred to it “hell-each-a-way.”
Indian Old Fields (Eskippakithiki) (Clark County): The no-longer in existence town is what is widely considered the only “genuine Indian settlement in Kentucky.” The village of Eskippakithiki may have been established as early as 1718 by a group of Shawnee people that had been separated from their families on the Savannah River. In 1752 a local area was settled by John Finley, but both the Finley location and Eskippakithiki were abandoned when the area was attacked by another group of Native Americans. It took another 23 years for people to return to the area, this time it was white settlers who named the area that had been cultivated by the Shawnee “the Indian Old Corn Fields” which was later shortened to “Indian Old Fields” or “Indian Fields”. The post office was established on August 27, 1828 by Levi Goff. The post office closed and it is now part Levee and Hedges.
Jugornot (Pulaski County): This settlement, established September 15, 1909 was located 7 miles south east of Somerset. According to lore, the people that lived in this area did a lot of business making moonshine. “They would charge one price if customers brought their own containers but a little more if they did not.” So, when a customer arrived to make a purchase they were supposedly asked “jug or not?”
Kaliopi (Leslie County): Located at the mouth of Devils Jump Branch of Hell For Certain Creek was established on February 27, 1929. It was original named for the son of Elmer Huff, but when Sam Pilatos moved the post office to where his store was located on March 1, 1945 the name was changed to Kaliopi for his mother and their home country of Greece. Additionally, the name of the creek Hell For Certain is as old as the county itself and has numerous origin stories for it, one of which states that during a heavy rain the stream was overrun a traveler said “this is hell” the other answered “for certain” resulting in the name of the creek.
Lionilli (Pike County): This post office was located near Beefhide Creek, two and half miles from where it met with Shelby Creek. The post office was established by Benjamin F. Wright who named it, at the request of an Illinois based company, after the state Illinois. The idea was to spell the state backwards, but the name became Lionilli when a Post Office Department clerk misspelled the name
Mummie (Jackson County): This post office was established 7 miles away from the town McKee. Its name was submitted by Bobby Farmer to honor the discovery of a mummified human body at the location by early settlers. The area is now known as a part of Sturgeon.
Nonnel (Muhlenberg County): A coal town that established 5 and half miles from Greenville was first known by the name Elk Valley. It was later renamed for John Lennon (no, not that one), an L&N Railroad maintenance superintendent, by spelling his name backwards. In the years from 1919 to 1931 it was called Tarma for unknown reasons. It is often misspelled on topographic and state highway maps with two “L”s, perhaps to show emphasis on the second syllable.
Ordinary (Elliot): This post office that was located on KY 32 until its demise has two possible origins for its run-of-the-mill name. One story says that someone suggested it was “such an ordinary place it would be hard to find a name for it.” Another possibility is that it was named for the local tavern, The Ordinary, which was the generic name for taverns during the early days of pioneers.
Pactolus (Carter County): This small town was established in 1824 when Joseph McMurtry and David L. Ward built a charcoal-fueled iron furnace. They named the furnace for the Pactolus Torrent, a river which flowed, according to tradition, over a bed of pure gold near Sardis in the ancient kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor. The two men who built the furnace were probably hoping that their creation would result in their own bed of gold, but it closed in 1834. The Pactolus post office was established in 1882. Though the origin of the name is pretty well determined, there are still a few folklore stories about the name. One claims that there was Mr. Toll who owned an excellent mule named “Pac” so the name was a form of “Pac, Toll’s Ass.” Another states that farmers would pack their grains at the nearby mill owned by Richard Deering and tell him “Here’s my pack, toll it for us” which later became “Pack-tol-us”.
Quicksand (Breathitt County): On the North Fork of the Kentucky River, this hamlet takes its name from the Quicksand Creek that sits opposite of the town. The post office originally had the name of Quick Sand Mills in 1878, but ten years later in 1888 it was renamed Quicksand. According to tradition it was named for “treacherous shifting sands” that caused difficulty for 19th century travelers.
Regina (Pike County): Located at the junction of US 460 and KY 195, this town was originally named Marrowbone for the creek that it sat on. The post office was established on March 13, 1895 and was named by John E. Ratcliff. The name was supposedly suggested by a traveling salesman for his home in Canada, which is why the name as the British pronunciation, instead of the American one.
Sacred Wind (Lawrence County): This extinct town is 17 miles from Louisa and was established on July 24, 1903. According to local lore, the town was named by the first post master James N. Sturgill for his father who was a Baptist preacher, but it was named “not for his preaching but for flatulence from which he suffered from time to time and his admirable artistry in relieving himself.” The post office was closed in 1947.
Tearcoat (Clinton County): This town was established at the mouth of Tearcoat Creek which is where it takes its name from. According to the book Kentucky Place Names the area was hard to navigate until recently. This inspired the legend of the name, that people would tear their coats while trying to evade pursuing bears.
Uz (Letcher County): This was once a L&N railroad station and was named for the homeland of the biblical Job after numerous problems arose when an engineer started having local residents were causing difficulties for the railroad company when they refused to let their land be surveyed or purchased for reasonable prices. The town’s name is pronounced “yuzee”.
Viper (Perry County): Three miles from Hazard, this town was originally named Hallsville for its first post master, Philip W. Hall. On May 26, 1886, the post office was moved by the new post master Enoch C. Campbell and it was renamed Viper, supposedly for a large snake that had just been killed by some boys near Campbell’s store.
Whoopfalrea (Owsley County): The name of this area was first used for a set of hills, then a pioneer settlement, then the post office was established in 1931. The name was derived from the calls of owls, though some say it was named for the whoops of Native Americans in the area. There are numerous stories about the origin of the name, one particularly amusing story is about a man named Larry who became lost while out with his companions. The group spent a few days looking for him and would “whoop for Larry”. A similar story says that Larry was a moonshiner and to get his attention, one would have to go to the head of a hollow and “whoop for Larry”. Another story says that Larry was a man that lived in the area and would yell to find his way back home by a form of echolocation while it was dark. Each of these stories also came with a slightly different spelling of the town’s name.
Yancey (Harlan County): Five miles from Harlan, this town was built up around the mine that was established in about 1919. The name was selected by Elbert O. Guthrie and was named either for civil engineer Yancey Gross, or a racehorse.
Zag (Morgan County): Six miles north west of West Liberty, this now extinct post office was named by Pearl Cox who, after submitting 18 other suggested names, submitted both “Zig” and “Zag” after seeing the word in an old newspaper that had been used to paper a wall.
The content of this post was found in the book Kentucky Place Names by Robert M. Rennick (917.69 R416k)
This blog was written by Beth Coyle, Library Associate in the Local History and Genealogy Department in Covington.