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What’s In a Name?

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Quirky Southwestern town names hearken to crops, crooks, card games and gimmicks – and that’s just for starters

By Laurie Davies

A sign announces to the traveler that they are in ÒWhyÓ AZ near the Mexico and USA borders

What’s a name? History. A big, oddball helping of history. Our often gritty – and sometimes witty – Southwestern story is told by the town names that punctuate our landscape.

From Gun Barrel City in Texas to Hideout, Utah, and Tombstone, Arizona, there’s the requisite wild west sampling of shoot ’em up names that chronicle the lawlessness of the Southwest’s unsettled beginnings. In other towns, social or religious commentary of the day – or just plain whimsy – had their way. There’s Happy, Texas and Carefree, Arizona, where Ho Hum Road and Easy Street actually intersect. Take your sandals off in Burning Bush, Texas, or brush up on prophets named in the Book of Mormon in Moroni, Lehi and Nephi, Utah.

Scratch your head in Why, Arizona, only to arrive in Uncertain, Texas. If you can’t Cope in Colorado, there’s always Hope in New Mexico. Leave Sin behind, backslide for awhile on the slopes of Purgatory and then escape to Last Chance, all within Colorado state lines. Then travel from Wealthy to Utopia in Texas in a scant 4 hours, 17 minutes.

In the end, the biggest name fail may fall to Elephant Butte, New Mexico. It’s “butte,” as in “mute,” people. Sheesh.

Sniggering aside, here’s a quick trip through Southwestern towns whose names are rooted in actual history. More or less.

Show low Statue of famous card game.
A statue in Show Low commemorates the famous card game that resulted in the naming of this eastern Arizona town.
Show Low, Arizona

Two salty settlers waging a poker game led to the naming of the eastern Arizona town of Show Low. The stakes? Rights to settle the 100,000-acre ranch that has now grown into a hub for travelers passing through to the remote Arizona White Mountains. As the story goes, one of the men said, “If you can show low, you win.” His opponent peeled off the deuce of clubs (which is now the name of Show Low’s main drag), and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sugar Land, Texas

Founded as a sugar plantation in the mid-1800s with sugar cane stalks imported from Cuba, all in Sugar Land has not always been sweet. Brutal working conditions in wet sugarcane fields endured by prison inmate labor in the late 19th century caused convicts to call this Fort Bend County town “Hell hole on the Brazos.” Later, Sugar Land became a company town owned and operated by Imperial Sugar. By 1927 Imperial Sugar produced more than 300 million pounds of sugar per year, with nearly $19 million in revenue.

A sign that reads ÒAlbuquerque/Truth or ConsequencesÓ

Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

If the mineral hot springs that once soothed aching gold rushers put this town on the map, an on-air dare helped it soar into national recognition. In 1950 Ralph Edwards, the host of the popular show Truth or Consequences announced he would broadcast the show’s 10th anniversary show live from the first town in America that changed its name to Truth or Consequences. The small spa town of Hot Springs, New Mexico, took the bait. On March 31, 1950, the name change passed in a special election. The very next day, Edwards broadcast from the newly re-named town of Truth or Consequences.

Rifle, Colorado

There’s no sexy gun battle. There was no gimmick from business owners who wanted to be in the “Rifle Chamber.” This big sportsmans’ paradise with small town charm was probably just named by a cowboy surveyor who lost his rifle when he leaned it up against a tree. He subsequently referred to the place as “Rifle.” Rifle made national headlines in 1982 when Exxon locked its doors, putting 2,000 people out of work. The financial furor has since calmed, and Rifle enjoys its spot in the crosshairs of rock climbing, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, hunting and boating.

Helper, Utah

Dozens of Utah towns and landmarks pay homage to prophets or locations from the Book of Mormon. But a tiny little town called Helper, 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, captures the spirit of another game-changer in the Beehive State – the railroad. The arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway in 1881 laid the track that would later turn the town into a freight terminal. Helper is named for the “helper” steam engines on standby to haul freight trains up the steep grade to Soldier Summit. The summit still draws a steady crowd of railfans.

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