If you grew up in Festus, Mo., as I did, you got used to hearing your town name disparaged, especially when you went away to college, where everybody else seemed to come from towns like Springfield, or Salem or Washington, all among the top 10 town names in the U.S.
Some of my fellow students felt the need to adopt a countrified accent when they repeated the name of my hometown – “Fehhh-stus?” and most made reference to a certain prickly deputy on a long-lasting TV show from back in the day. You know the one.
“Um, no, the town wasn’t named for Ken Curtis’ character on ‘Gunsmoke,’” I’d (patiently?) reply. “The name was actually plucked from the Bible.” (FYI, Festus was the perplexed Roman procurator who didn’t know what to do with the Apostle Paul, so he sent him off to prison in Rome, as told in Acts, chapters 24-26).
I lived in Festus until age 39, then took a 23-year sabbatical northward to Fenton – for some reason, no one makes fun of that community’s name – and moved back to Festus five years ago.
A young hotel clerk took the opportunity to join the crowd on a trip my husband and I took to Clarksville, Tenn., a couple of years ago.
“Festus?” she asked with a giggle. “I had a dog named Festus. He had a squinty eye.” Back to that deputy.
Did you notice the Leader’s own pages took a swipe at my hometown, in a Life Story about Victoria Martin, the longtime executive secretary to the Hillsboro R-3 School District superintendent?
Mrs. Martin, known for her hospitality, kindness and warm smile, died in 2020 at age 67 after a long battle with cancer. Her husband, Chuck, recalled how she got her name.
Our story said she grew up in Victoria, a hamlet near Hillsboro, in a house next door to her grandparents.
“Her dad told her she was named after the town,” Chuck said.
“She would say, ‘I’m just glad we weren’t living in Festus at the time.’”
I’m sure Vicki and Chuck meant no harm, and I hold no malice toward Leaderite Laura Marlow, who wrote the story and, may I point out, grew up just outside Festus and works in Festus now. So, there.
It made me wonder, though, whether any others in the world feel my pain (and defensiveness). Were there other towns named Festus?
Finally, last week, I asked, turning to a website called geotargit.com, which not only has the scoop on prevalence of town names worldwide, but also identifies which U.S. communities are named after foods, like Oatmeal, Texas, and Spuds, Fla.
Turns out, our Festus is the only incorporated place in the world with that name, but there are two tiny communities called Festus, one in Marion County, West Virginia, and the other in Jefferson County, Florida, in the “bend” of that state’s panhandle.
Now, isn’t that curious, since our Festus happens to be in another Jefferson County? That led me to find out that the county seat of Jefferson County, Florida, is Monticello, which was the original name of Hillsboro, our own county seat.
One question led to another, answered by geotargit, Wikipedia and an array of other websites. Before I knew it, I knew a lot. And soon, so will you.
If you suspected a lot of states felt called to honor our third president, Thomas Jefferson, you were correct. There are 26 Jefferson counties, second only to Washington, 31, after George, of course.
Other counties in Missouri are also on the top 10 list: Franklin, after Benjamin, 25 counties nationwide; Jackson, after Andrew, 24 counties; and Lincoln, 24. Most of those, including the one in Missouri, are not named after Abraham, but instead, after Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Lincoln. Makes sense, since most of America’s counties were formed before Abraham rose to fame.
After discovering the paucity of Festuses, I wondered about the popularity of other town names hereabout.
Geotargit labeled several of our communities as “the only one in the world.”
That list includes Pevely, House Springs, Kimmswick, Byrnes Mill, Olympian Village, Mapaville and Grubville (no shock on that last one).
But we hit the jackpot on popular names, too.
Sweepstakes winner is Cedar Hill, with a whopping 65 so-named communities across the country, including five in Texas alone.
Next is Eureka, with 30 in the U.S., including two in Missouri, the Leader-served town just north of Jefferson County, and a tiny community in Perry County.
There are 19 Arnolds, 10 De Sotos, 22 Hillsboros (and tons more under different spellings).
I thought there would be lots of Crystal Citys, but geotargit lists only three – ours plus towns in Texas and Virginia. Corning, N.Y., is nicknamed Crystal City because of its glass industry. There are two towns named simply Crystal in Colorado and North Dakota, and a slew of places that combine Crystal with a second word, like Crystal Beach, Ariz.
There are six High Ridges, two Barnharts and nine Fentons.
Herculaneum is perhaps our most internationally known town name. Moses Austin named our Mississippi River-side community in memory of the ancient Italian town of Herculaneum, which was buried and preserved under volcanic ash and pumice when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Except for those two, the world has no other Herculaneums.
There are a lot of Victorias, though, 22 in the U.S., and 134 others around the world.
If I had my way, we’d call all of them Festus.