Have you ever been driving down one of those beautiful by-ways here in Eastern Virginia and come across a sign noting a town or village with a name so unusual you ask yourself, “Where in the world did they come up with that one”? Some names come from places in other countries. Some are the Native American names settlers found when they arrived and they remained and some are just plain weird. Either way, they have meanings, and many are unusual. Occasionally, there is more than one story as to how that name was
derived. So the origin of the name is sometimes just the “best guess”.
Just three miles from Essex County in King and Queen County, there is an area called Helmet. It has an interesting story told by several people. The story is about a crossroads, now gone forever, and how it got its name. In the later part of the 19th century mail was not delivered as it is now. Rural Free Delivery, RFD, was not available so many people in the remote rural areas had to go to the nearest post office and pick up their mail. There was a requirement for a specified distance between an existing post office and the next one.
A man wanted to open a post office because some of the residents had an extraordinarily long walk to pick up mail. To meet the distance requirement, a bandana was tied to a wagon wheel. The distance the wheel covered in one rotation was measured, and when the correct distance was covered, a new post office sprung up. When the government came to open the post office, the owner was asked the name of the location. Looking around the shelves of his new store, he saw a can of Helmet baking powder. So that became the name of the area.
In the same area there was another community trying to get a post office and after some years of trying, they finally were notified they had been chosen, and a post office would be coming. The community gathered and discussed the selection of a name. Mr. William Taliaferro was one of the largest employers in the area and was part of the discussions. Known as the “Pickle King”, he raised hundreds of acres of watermelons and processed the rind for pickling. It is said he suggested the name Hustle, noting how there always seemed to be hustling and bustling going on in the area. From his home, Oakalona, Mr. Taliaferro successfully operated his pickle business well into the middle 1940s.
Another place with a most unusual is in Middlesex County. The community of Remlik is located at the junction of Routes 602 and 637, and obtained its name from one of its most prominent citizens, Willis Sharpe Kilmer. Kilmer was a marketing pioneer, newspaper man and a horse breeder. When he established his racing stable along the banks of the Rappahannock, he named the area after his yacht, Remlik. Remlik is Kilmer’s name spelled backwards.
Kilmer was probably most noted for his marketing of his uncle’s patent medicine, Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Tonic. The tonic business began a steady decline after the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Kilmer branched out into other businesses, one of which was breeding horses. He was the breeder of Reign Count, the winner of the 1928 Kentucky Derby, and the owner of Exterminator, the 1918 derby winner.
Today Remlik is a rural area with flat farmlands and beautiful homes along LaGrange Creek, just off the Rappahannock. Watermen still ply their trade as they have for hundreds of years, evident by the docks and seafood houses.
In Northumberland County, a small village now known as Harry Hogan, just northeast of Callao, evolved over the years. In 1751, it was originally named for the last Indian family that lived there, Arehokin. In 1762, the name appeared on maps as Aire Hogan. When you read that fast it sounds like Harry Hogan, which became the final and current name for the area. Other than beautiful homes along the water, all that physically remains in an old warehouse, a tomato and fish canning house, an old marine railway and Harry Hogan Machine Shop. A fourth generation resident, Bryn Jewell, remembers the Chesapeake’s most noted sailing work boat, the skipjack, being built there as late as the 1960s.
Also in Northumberland there is Lottsburg. About 1790, Lancelot Smithers purchased some land along today’s Route 360 and opened a tavern. As time went by, folks would say I am going to Lot’s Bar for food and beverages. Lots Bar, over the years, became Lottsburg. Lottsburg remains a thriving community with a large hardware store and numerous other enterprises.
Lewisetta sits on a small peninsula jutting out into the Potomac River. A port for over 200 years, this area has seen a great deal of progress. As early sailing boats carried freight up and down the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, this spot became the site where local farmers and watermen met the boats and shipped their farm goods , lumber and fresh seafood. When steam replaced sail, and delivery time at destinations such as Norfolk, Washington and Baltimore were much quicker, the need for a dock and warehouses was obvious. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Charlie and Etta Lewis opened a store which bears their name to this day. Lewisetta is the combination of Etta and Lewis; Lewisetta. The post office closed a few years ago, but the store continues to operate. Mark and Helen Scerbo operate a marine supply, basic grocery and a marina out of the same building. Helen says she believes the business has been in operation at that location for 147 years.
Finally in Northumberland, there is the village of Miskimon. There is not much there anymore except the Miskimon General Store. Most thought the name came from the local Indians, but in fact it was named for the Reverend Henry Edward Miskimon. Little is known about Miskimon other than he was born in Maryland in 1845 and died at Harper’s Ferry West Virginia in 1885.
Next is Westmoreland County. It has its share of truly odd names. Northeast from the county seat of Montross is the crossroads of Zacata believed to be named for the Maryland Zechiah Indian Tribe, who frequently visited the area from across the Potomac River. First known as Muses Fork, the name was changed in 1898 when W.T. Henderson applied for and was granted a post office. Henderson operated the post office as part of his general store until that store burned in the early 1900s. Murray Henderson rebuilt the store and the post office. Operations continued there until 1950 when that store also burned. The little cinder block building seen there today became the post office until it was closed.
An interesting fact related to Zacata area is about an African American soldier, Walter Tate. Tate enlisted in the U.S. Army in May, 1879 at what is today San Angelo, Texas. He was assigned to the famous 10th U. S. Cavalry serving throughout the Southwest defending mail routes, settlers, livestock and stage lines from Mexican revolutionaries, cattle thieves and bandits. The 10th Cavalry was an all black unit, the much heralded “Buffalo Soldiers”. The Indians named the unit this because of their thick curly hair, endurance and strength. These attributes were very respected by Native Americans and reminded them of the great buffalo. Tate was discharged in May 1884 after serving five years on the frontier. He returned home, died and was buried in Westmoreland County in 1933 in his 80th year.
Further down the same road in Westmoreland County was another village called Hinnom. A post office was opened there in June 1900 and operated by Richard H. Hall. However, the Hinnom post office was closed in 1959. The name Hinnom was given to the area by Halley Hall. It is a biblical name, which is found in the Old Testament. It refers to a valley near Jerusalem. According to the Jewish tradition, Hinnom was thought to be the mouth of hell due to its location. Hinnom is also located in a deep valley.
Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Ball, both in their early 90s, have lived at “the end of the road” for years. They sport around the area in their bright red golf cart as the unofficial welcome wagon to strangers in the neighborhood. When all of the buildings disappeared, Mr. Ball thought he would just build some more. He has constructed an eight box post office, repurposed a phone booth, built a model still and provided a rest stop for the mailman. All of this is at the end of his driveway depicting bygone days of Hinnom.
Neenah is a place at the junction of Routes 600 and 621 in Westmoreland County. The name was decided by Charles Hutt, the first postmaster. It was chosen because while incarcerated in the Point Lookout Union Civil War POW camp in Maryland, a lady and her daughter Neenah visited Hutt and the southern soldiers. He remembered her kindness so well during those trying times he named his second daughter Neenah after the lady’s daughter. Some believe the name Neenah has a Winnebago Indian meaning pure.
Moving south into Richmond County there is the village of Sharps which sits on the water near the Lancaster County line. Named for the Sharp family by DeWitt C. Sharp, it has been a river port since colonial times. The post office opened there in 1873. It was changed to Milton’s Wharf a few days later, and the name remained until changed to Sharps Wharf in 1881. In 1901, Wharf was dropped and the name returned to Sharps. Sharps is a waterfront village with stately homes sitting on the banks of the Rappahannock. Front Street goes along the shoreline and is about a ½ mile long. On this peaceful looking street, you will find the beautiful Milden Presbyterian Church built in 1888 with its well-maintained and beautiful landscaping. Further to the south, a gazebo sits in what seems to be a park and appears to be the center piece of the village. An historical fact about Sharps is that it was the site of the first naval engagement on the Rappahannock in the War of 1812. Many riverfront villages, wharfs and homes were shelled by the British during that war.
In Lancaster County, there is the town of Lively on Route 3. Lively was originally named Lively Oaks because of the stand of oak trees that surrounded the home of the Rector of White Chapel Church. Years later, the Oaks was dropped and the name was just Lively. The residents once tried to change the name citing that they thought a town should be a noun, the name of a person, place or thing. Lively is an adverb noting how some action occurs or an adjective describing how that action is performed. After much discussion and not a consensus of opinion, the name remained Lively.
In the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, there are many more town names that could be considered strange or anomalies. Being from this area one may learn things history books leave out just by looking into the names of our strange little towns. History is where you find it, and you will find it here.
Information for this article would not have been possible without the information provided by the local museums. The Westmoreland County Museum, the Northumberland County Museum, the Richmond County Museum and the Essex County Museum provided excellent support. A special thanks to Larry Chowing from the Southside Sentinel.