Have you ever wondered where some of Michigan’s weirdest names originated from? Using Walter Romig’s Michigan Place Names and the power of internet research, I learned seven fascinating stories.
Bad Axe (Huron County)
Located in the thumb, Bad Axe is a small town of about 3000 people. The name “Bad Axe” stems from Captain Rudolph Papst and George Willis Pack. In 1861, they were surveying the first state road and made camp in what is now the city of Bad Axe. They discovered an abandoned hunter’s cabin to stay in. Inside of it, they found a badly damaged and well-worn axe. The name of “Bad Axe” ended up sticking, and it became official by the time the Civil War was over.
Zilwaukee (Saginaw County)
If at first glance Zilwaukee looks and sounds like Milwaukee, there’s a good reason for it. Its remiscient name stems from a scheme by two brothers named Daniel and Solomon Johnson. In 1848, they settled in an area along the Saginaw River and consequently built a sawmill. They then realized, obviously, that they needed people to run the mill. Recalling a large German population in Milwaukee, they named their new settlement “Zilwaukee.” They hoped to confuse new German immigrants into thinking they were going to Milwaukee. Now, Zilwaukee is a 2.34 square-mile, colorful city located close to Saginaw.
Upper Peninsula Cities
Christmas (Alger County)
Originally a swamp area, Julius Thorson bought the land now known as Christmas in 1938. On this land, he built a factory that produced holiday gifts. Unfortunately, only two years later in June of 1940, a fire destroyed the factory. However, Christmas today is a quaint town that is “a ‘must’ for your Upper Peninsula travels”.
Germfask (Schoolcraft County)
A curious one indeed, Germfask derives its name from the names of its eight founding settlers from 1881. The names of these founders are John Grant, Matthew Edge, George Robinson, Thaddeus Mead, Dr. W. W. French, Ezekiel Ackley, Pscar Shepard, and Hezekiah Knaggs. Today, the town has a modest population of less than 1000 people and is situated off of M-77 in the Upper Peninsula.
West Michigan Cities
Colon (St. Joseph County)
As a grammar enthusiast, Colon is perhaps my favorite city name on this list. Its name comes from Lorensie Schellhouse, one of the founders of the city. Upon opening a dictionary, he saw the word “colon.” That is how the town’s name was decided. Today, Colon is a six square-mile township with a population of about 1000. Interestingly, Colon is popular as “The Magic Capital of the World.” More than 30 magicians have graves in the town, and there are a large variety of magic festivals and magic shops. Additional information about the town’s history can be read here.
Royal Oak (Oakland County)
Though not the most interesting name on this list, Royal Oak’s origin has perhaps one of the best stories behind it. In History of Oakland County published by Philadelphia, L. H. Everts & co., they tell how Governor Lewis Cass camped under a large oak tree in 1818. As he camped, he remembered the story of the oak tree that Prince Charles of Scotland hid inside while being sought out after his defeat in a bloody battle entitled “Culloden.” After hiding in this tree, it forever became “Royal Oak.” This story inspired Cass to name the town “Royal Oak.” From experience, I agree that even today, Royal Oak maintains a similar aura of royalty similar to the original Scottish oak tree.
Northern Michigan Cities
Topinabee (Mullet Township, Cheboygan County)
If you’re not a history nerd, you might not know what, or rather, who the name “Topinabee” stands for. Topinabee is named after what many would call amongst one of the most famous Pottawattomi chiefs. The name itself translates to “He Who Sits Quietly.” In brief, Chief Topinabee signed a lot of important treaties and was quite a significant warrior. It is on Mullet Lake, one of the largest inland lakes in Michigan. Topinabee is now a community that is “currently a center for boating, swimming, fishing, snowmobiling, hiking, and biking in Northern Michigan.”
What other Michigan city names are you curious about? Comment below to share your thoughts.