A Note from Cottonwood Corners

A number of the earliest towns which were established on the prairie of the upper Midwest disappeared from the map before the beginning of the 20th Century or shortly thereafter.  There were numerous reasons for their passing; however, the location or relocation of the railroad was a significant factor.  Losing the site of the “county courthouse” also contributed to changes on the map.

“Ghost Towns” possess a peculiar fascination, both as points of interest and as subjects of research, study, and speculation.  The unpredictable whims of fate that caused prosperous, growing, young towns to languish and die fascinate us.  The stories of faith and courage, of passion, romance, and greed that surround these skeletons of the past stir the imagination with visions of a vanished era.

During the last half of the 1930s, the study of place-names in America had not yet progressed very far.  Some work had been done in several states, but only in Missouri was a really scientific study underway.  About 1937, Dr. Ehrensperger, Chairman of the English Department at the University of South Dakota assigned several graduate students to work on the place-names of certain counties in the State.

The urgency of the collection of this information was obvious.  Much of the information needed had to be collected from those who had heard the stories from their grandparents and great-grandparents.  In South Dakota at that time, many old settlers were still living who remembered when the first settlements were made.  Yet these early settlers were passing away at an alarming rate.  It was important that their stories be collected without delay.

Each student was to select a county.  They were required to travel about that county extensively (one traveled over 2,000 miles) and consult with as many old settlers as possible to discover all the information available about all the place-names of any kind in that county.  Four such country studies were completed during the first stage of the plan.  Eight or ten were expected to be completed the following year.

Just what is a ghost town and what forces combine to produce one?  Opinions differ; however, for the “Writer Program” directed by Dr. Ehrensperger any site of a former town that still showed some sign of human habitation was considered a ghost town.  The evidence of occupation might have been only a few cellar holes in the prairie or a graveyard on the hillside, but they served as a ghost for the extinct town.

On the other hand, in some cases a few individuals were still living on the old site, perhaps working in some near-by town or occupying a summer cottage.  But the town itself was dead.  The scores of discontinued post offices, many of which were located at farm or ranch houses and moved at will, were not properly ghost towns at all.  These sites played an important and prominent role in the history of their community.

The “Ghost Towns” of South Dakota can be conveniently divided into two classes.  Black Hills ghost towns and prairie ghost towns.  The chief factor in the decline of the numerous lively towns of the Black Hills was, of course, the uncertainty of gold strikes and gold mines.  The fate of the prairie ghost towns were decided largely by the location of the railroad and the decline of the land boom.

In general, the names of ghost towns followed the same trends used for the naming of other towns which exist today.  Remember, when the “ghosts” were named, their future appeared as bright as, or brighter than, the future of the towns today.

As might be expected; however, the largest group of Black Hills names has to do with mines and miners, such as Carbonate City and Rockerville.  The names of pioneer settlers, examples of Blaha and LaBeau, are most numerous through the rest of the State.

The efforts of Dr. Ehrensperger and his graduate students eventually became a part of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of South Dakota. In the fall of 1938, he learned that the Federal Writers’ Project for South Dakota was interested in getting involved in the place-name project.  He was willing to serve as the consultant and the University of South Dakota sponsored the project.

English students in the University’s Graduate School worked intensively on the counties and the members of the South Dakota Writers’ Project covered a small number of topics on a statewide basis.  The material was published in six volumes (902 total pages) including:  (1) State, County, and Town Names, (2) Lake Names, (3) River and Creek Names, (4) Mountains, Valleys, and Other Natural Features, (5) Historic Sites, Parks, and Other Features, and (6) Gold Mines and Ghost Towns..

They collected a vast treasure house of place-name material which is available for anyone with a computer. Google “hathitrust digital library,” type in “South Dakota Place Names,” and spend an afternoon or evening reading South Dakota history.

Robert Louis Stevenson always contended that the most beautiful place names in the world were those of North America.  “The names of the states and territories,” he declared, “form themselves into a chorus of sweet and romantic vocables:  Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, Minnesota and the Carolinas.  There are few poems with a nobler music to the ear; a songful, tuneful land. . .”


The study of place names reveals a great deal about the history of the times in which they were adopted.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on February 14, 2024