Towns on I-90 signs have amusing names

Published 9:49 am Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

Driving along Interstate 90 to the west of Albert Lea affords one time to contemplate the peculiar town names along the route.

Kiester stands out. Living in Albert Lea, we are accustomed to the name. It loses its distinctiveness. But surely for someone motoring coast to coast on America’s longest highway, the I-90 sign for Kiester provides a chuckle. The town’s name is the butt of many jokes for folks on long car rides.

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Kiester, a Faribault County town with a population of 501, is famous for Ronald Reagan’s use of the olden-days term to mean heinie. Only that term is spelled keister. And it actually is a German word for rear end.

“I’ve had it up to my keister with these leaks,” the president griped in 1983.

The Kiester Jaycees informed the White House of the pride they have in their city name, and Reagan kindly and cutely issued an apology.

Kiester and Kiester Township are named for Jacob Armel Kiester, a lawyer known as a historian for Blue Earth County but before that a legislator, county attorney and county surveyor, among other roles.

I suppose it wouldn’t be Minnesota if there weren’t a town named Frost. After all, our state is lampooned for being cold. Rocky and Bullwinkle are from the fictional Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. Hollywood films such as “Grumpy Old Men” and “Fargo” employ bitter-cold winter backdrops. And the reputation is deserved. International Falls is the coldest National Weather Service bureau outside of Alaska, and the Twin Cities is the coldest major metropolitan area in the United States.

But Frost isn’t named for the cold.

The Minnesota Historical Society says Frost, a town with 198 people in Faribault County, was named for Chicago architect Charles S. Frost, who designed train stations for the Chicago & North Western Railroad. He designed the famous Navy Pier Auditorium in Chicago.

The Faribault County sign alone must confuse some people. Why is Faribault in Rice County, not Faribault County? Why is Blue Earth in Faribault County, not Blue Earth County? At least Freeborn is in Freeborn County, like it is supposed to be. What were these first legislators drinking? “Hey, the folks in Faribault will never know if we name a county 60 miles away after the same pioneer fur trader. It’ll save us time, and we can adjourn.”

When I was a kid, our family would go through Blue Earth on U.S. Highway 169 after visiting my uncle in Mankato. It always sounded like a beautiful name. I thought maybe the seat of Faribault County was so named because the planet is blue. Or maybe because the soil was so rich and loamy, but I was confused because it had the Jolly Green Giant statue. Why wouldn’t it be Green Earth?

It turns out this city of 3,353 is named, of course, for the river. The river was named for the English version of the Dakota word Mahkato, which means blue earth. The term refers to the blue clay along the banks. By the way, Mankato means blue skunk. Ha! Talk about a typo.

It’s not long until drivers enter Martin County and encounter a sign for East Chain, but there is no indication of a Chain or West Chain or South Chain or North Chain or Chain Locks or Chain City or Chain Falls or Chain of Fools. (Thank you, Aretha.) Shouldn’t East Chain be east of a town with Chain in the name, at least? On the I-90 sign, there’s East Chain, all by its lonesome.

East Chain is in East Chain Township. It is not east of Chain Something. It is east of Silver Lake Township. Motorists must be puzzled by the name.

The county map affords a guess. Martin County has chains of lakes. The longest one runs north-south nearly the length of the county down through Fairmont. Another chain, to the east, runs through East Chain and East Chain Township. Aha!

The county even has one chain that forms a half circle. Part of it is in Lake Belt Township. Now I understand Martin County a little bit better.

And the Minnesota Historical Society says my guess is correct.

After Fairmont, there is Welcome. Motorists must be thinking the city was named as some sort of marketing ploy to get people off the freeway. Welcome to Welcome!

The truth is, the Martin County town of 686 was named for Alfred M. Welcome, whose farm was on the southwest side of town. It had been named Lily Creek, but when that was found to be in existence already, the name was switched to Welcome.

Also in Martin County, Sherburn, at first, seems like another one of those drunken pioneer legislator stories. After all, there’s a county with the same name. (OK, I admit they probably weren’t really drunk, but the imagination runs wild with reasons while zoning out on Interstate 90.)

But the keen observer will note they are not the same. The county has one more letter.

Sherburne County was named for a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court of Minnesota Territory.

Sherburn, a town of 1,137, was named for one of two people, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. It is either a wife of a Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad official who resided in McGregor, Iowa, or for Sherburne S. Merrill of the Southern Minnesota Railroad but with a dropped final e.

Alpha, a town of 116 in Jackson County, probably was founded by someone in a college fraternity. The town is named after the first letter in the Greek alphabet. It turns out, several states in America have a similar name. Who knew?

OK, that’s enough of I-90 for me. I’m turning south at Jackson to get to Okoboji, Iowa.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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