On The Street Where You Live

History Comes Alive in Madison Street Names

It’s easy to think of historic sites in terms of specially-designated places—battlefields, old homes with distinguished architectural details, living history museums.  Recently three Madison, WI, researchers reminded residents that history is everywhere.

Burr Angle, Dolores Kester, and Ann Waidelich compiled and published a series of articles called The Origins of Some Madison, WI, Street Names.  I’ve lived in the Madison area for seventeen years and learned a lot from the book!  Street names reflect the changing layers of local history, and the individuals, ethnic groups, and businesses sometimes honored.

I’m delighted to welcome Dolores Kester to Sites and Stories today.

Two streets in Madison, Wisconsin—Cordelia Crescent and Harvey Terrace—are named for Cordelia Harvey. Cordelia was the “Wisconsin Angel” to thousands of sick and wounded during the Civil War and to hundreds of war orphans into the 1870’s. (Engraving from "Woman’s Work in the Civil War," L. P. Brockett, 1867.)

KE:   D, how did this project come to be?

DK:  Kathleen, thanks so much for inviting us to discuss our project.  It all started with my suggestion to Burr back in 2006 that he write up a few paragraphs for our neighborhood newsletter on street name history since he walks our Sheltie all over our neighborhood and spends a lot of time at the historical society library.  Burr started doing some research, remembered that Ann had done some talks on history at our Lakeview Branch library, and we teamed with her to start working on a few articles on Northside history, where we live.  All three of us have a background in education and resources such as libraries, so it was a natural fit for our interests even though we hadn’t done much  research on this subject.

KE:   How did you and your colleagues go about finding the information? 

DK:   We started pulling together information from city directories, plat books, old newspapers, Wisconsin and Madison histories, and online databases.  We found that for the last 150 years, most histories of Madison have concentrated on the period before 1900, so our articles deal mostly with the period from 1890 to 1990 in suburban areas beyond the original city limits.

Large portions of Madison’s South Side had already been platted by 1910. ("The Standard Historical Atlas of Dane County, Wisconsin," Cantwell Printing Company, Madison, 1911; The University of Wisconsin Digital Collection.)

Just as important as the archival research was input from residents such as Marlyn Sachtjen and Annie Stuart of Annie’s Bed and Breakfast here on the Northside.  One of the best things about this project, aside from the thrill of the chase, was that we met some very nice and intelligent people of many backgrounds.  We could not have done this project without this support and interest from the community.

By October 2010, our articles had grown to 275 pages.  Since the three of us are getting along in age, like many of the folks who shared their information with us, we thought it was time to share our discoveries.  Copies are now available in most Madison area public libraries, at the Historical Society, in several UW libraries, and in all Madison public schools.

KE:   I enjoyed getting glimpses of the first Euro-Yankee settlers in places that are now largely obliterated by development.  Did you find any surprises in areas you thought you knew well? 

DK:   You bet!  Especially in areas developed since 1900.  Did you know that Whitney Way is named for a crabapple?

Many of these areas reflect their earlier history, as in the names of the four lakes, and in areas like Nakoma where many of the street names are based on Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha.”  Indian words frequently appear in place names, such as “Wingra” which is Winnebago/Ho-Chunk for “duck.”

KE:   I also learned about choices made as neighborhoods were planned and developed—such as Nakoma, where the Madison Realty Company ran a street-naming contest.  Can you share any other neighborhood discoveries you found intriguing? 

DK:  The story behind the intersection of Hooker and Pleasure Drive on the Northside is always popular.  About 1906 the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association decided to build a connector between the northern section of Farwell Drive and Sherman Avenue.  The road ran across the Maple Bluff Country Club golf course (where it was known as Golf Road), bridged the Chicago and North Western Railway tracks, and curved around to the present McPherson Street, at the northern border of the Sherman Park subdivision which contains Hooker Avenue.  This created, about 1928, an intersection—Pleasure Drive and Hooker Avenue—which has been a source of much amusement.

Joseph Hooker was a sometimes brilliant civil war general who was fond of hard liquor and fast women – so much so that reporters wrote of “Hooker’s brigade” of camp followers.  The term “hooker” was actually in use long before Joseph Hooker, but popular legend attributes its origin to the general.  The street signs at Hooker and Pleasure Drive are reportedly the most often stolen of any in Madison.

We also discovered just how much developers such as Clyde A. Gallagher, Ingvald Hovde, Albert K. Moe, Paul E. Stark, John McKenna Sr., John (Jack) McKenna Jr., and Don McKenna, contributed to suburban growth.

KE:   Do you have a few favorite stories that emerged from your research?

DK:   A moving and touching story is that most of the streets at Truax Field were named in 1945 to honor Wisconsin airmen killed during the war.  Twenty-six of these soldiers were from Madison.

Many circuses, including Ringling Brothers, performed at the Madison Airport, at the corner of Coolidge Street and North Street from about 1928 until about 1942. (The Wisconsin State Journal, August 4, 1935.)

One of my favorite stories is about the only street in Madison named for a horse.

Winchester Street on the Northside of Madison runs east from North Sherman to Huxley: Sheridan is the next street south.  Both were named by the developer, John C. McKenna, in 1910 or 1911.  On the morning of October 16, 1864, alerted by telegraph that Confederate soldiers were attacking, Philip Sheridan rode his horse Rienzi some 25 miles from Winchester, Virginia, to Cedar Creek, Virginia, where he rallied Union soldiers who stopped the Confederate advance.  His heroic ride and Rienzi’s valor were widely publicized.  Sheridan then renamed Rienzi “Winchester.”  A children’s poem, “Sheridan’s Ride,” is still popular.  Winchester, stuffed since 1871, is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Also, Burr recently had a conversation with Dana Jackson, Education Director for the Bad River Band of Chippewa/Ojibwe in Odanah, Wisconsin near Ashland, who explained the use of the name “Hiawatha” for the main character in Longfellow’s poem.  This word originates from the Mohawk or Mohican tribes that are from the New York area, while the poem is set in the Lake Superior region inhabited by the Chippewa.  Dana reported that the Chippewa name for the Hiawatha character is so powerful that you can only safely pronounce the name when there is snow on the ground.  Otherwise you might wake up with a rattlesnake in your bed.  The Mohawk name can be used safely any time of the year.

KE:   This project could be done in any community.  Can you share some tips for others considering this type of research? 

DK:   Here are a few tips for others thinking about doing this type of research.

1)    Check out what’s already been done.  For example, in 1947 the American Dialect Society published The Place-Names of Dane County, Wisconsin by Frederic G. Cassidy.  The University of Wisconsin Press published a revised edition as Dane County Place-Names in 1968; this was reprinted in 2009, also by the University of Wisconsin Press.  Professor Cassidy’s book was extremely helpful to us and saved us some tedious searching.  Burr and I both worked for Professor Cassidy on his Dictionary of American Regional English in the mid-1960’s as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, and have always admired him as much for his enthusiasm as for his erudition.

2)    Don’t dawdle—many of your best sources will be 75-90 years old.

3)    Make friends with librarians—they’re your best helpers.

4)    Use real English—not journalistic clichés like “plethora,” “eye popping,” “jaw dropping,” “passionate,” or “gold standard.”

5)    Our project was completely self-financed.  No budget.  No formal meetings.  No deadlines.

6)    Start with one neighborhood, then go on from there if you want.

7)    Circulate drafts among informants, neighbors, and fellow historians, to catch mistakes before they become embarrassing.

8)    Don’t believe everything you read, even from official sources such as census listings or draft registration cards.  They may have errors or inconsistencies.  On the other hand, neighborhood folklore and urban legends are usually at least partially true.  It’s your job to get the whole story.

9)    Physically inspect every street mentioned in an article, preferably on foot or by bicycle.

10)   Treat it as a hobby project—don’t expect fame or money.  Do it for fun.

Thanks!  I hope your work inspires similar projects.  What a great opportunity to investigate local history!

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One Response to “On The Street Where You Live”

  1. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    What a great post! I love following the trail of place names, including finding such a reference book in Arizona’ Chocise County years ago.
    General Hooker made a similar name for himself here in Sonoma County, CA! The story may not be true but it is fun o consider. Love the Sheridan story!
    Thanks to all,

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