By Susan M. Thigpen © 1995
Issue: Winter, 1995
When you look at a map, you see many unfamiliar names of places on it. It's easy to figure out how some places got their names, because they are obviously the names of persons. Perhaps that location was named for a famous person, or named for a person who owned a great amount of land in the vicinity, or even a person who built the first settlement there from which a village grew around.
Other places were obviously named an Indian name for the location, a name probably used for centuries before the white man arrived. Many times, a river or spring was named first and then the settlement that grew on its banks was named after the water. Early settlers named streams and mountains to use them as reference points for giving directions to other travelers. Most often, early settlers followed established Indian or animal trails.
And then there are a few places that defy logical deduction about how they got their names. You have to be told the story behind how they got their names to make any sense out of them. A few of these derived their names from a wry sense of humor at the unsuitability for human inhabitation, as witnessed by a few names in the west such as Purgatory.
When we were doing research about the BACKROADS tour into southeastern West Virginia, the first thing I did was scan a map for interesting place names in the area. One of the most intriguing was Pipestem State Park. I speculated about the origin of the name - Was it named because of a large rock was shaped like a pipe? Was there a straight stream that dumped into a round pond that looked like the shape of a pipe when viewed from the mountains above?
In doing research, time was spent in the public library looking up references to the area locations. In one old book, A History of Monroe County, West Virginia, published in 1916 and written by Oren F. Martin, I found the answer to where the name Pipestem came from.
It seems a large part of the area was covered with a tall, dense growth of stickweed. As early as 1826 references were found that gave evidence that the pesky weed grew there in abundance. The early settlers were good at finding a use for any and everything and soon found that the stiff stalks of stickweed could be used for stems for tobacco pipes, thus the name - Pipestem.
If you also enjoy and collect how places in the Blue Ridge got their names and have interesting stories about them, send them to us and we will share them with our readers.
(See the Mercer, Summers and Monroe Counties of West Virginia - Backroads Tour for the location and directions to Pipestem Resort State Park in West Virginia.)