Oddest Utah Name? Panguitch Beats The Odds for Honor

by Phil Miller

(The Salt Lake Tribune - 14 March, 1997)

Lobbying for La Verkin or campaigning for Koosharem won't do any good. The decision is in, the envelope opened: Panguitch owns Utah's oddest name. So says Neil Swanson, though he acknowledges he never has visited the Garfield County hamlet.

And why should you take the word of a 78-year-old retired minister from Nevada, Mo., someone who wouldn't know a Lynndyl from a Levan or a Bicknell from a Blanding? Good question. Even Swanson says so. ''If someone else had done the picking, probably most of the names would be different from mine,'' he concedes. But someone else did not spend two years of his spare time picking through U.S. atlases, making lists of peculiar city names and researching their histories. Swanson did, and the result is Odd & Peculiar, in more ways than one. It's the title of his new book, which traces origins of the nation's strangest city names, one for each state (two in the four states where he could not make up his mind).

Oh, the Places He Went: He searched for communities with unusual names that had good stories to go with them. He found plenty of unique places, from Ninety Six, S.C., and What Cheer, Iowa, to Uz, Ky., and Zap, N.D. In fact, the book gets its name from two of those places -- Odd, W.Va., and Peculiar, Mo. As Swanson says, that's better than naming a book for Nameless, Tenn.

Swanson made an exception to his informal criteria when it came to Utah. He tried not to choose cities with American Indian names, figuring they wouldn't be odd to the people who named them. But he chose Panguitch, anyway. The name is derived from the Paiute words for ''water'' and ''fish,'' which Swanson decided was unusual in naming a town in any language. ''The fishing must be awfully good in that lake,'' he said. OK, he's the expert. Panguitch is a distinctive name. And not many towns are named for fish. Who can quibble?

Panguitchites can.

''It doesn't seem peculiar at all to us,'' said Karen Swanger as she minded the Panguitch post office. ''I've lived here 20 years, and it doesn't strike me as strange. I'd say Kanarraville seems stranger.'' Clearly, peculiarity is difficult to quantify. For instance, a place named La Verkin, named for a Spanish pronunciation of the nearby Virgin River, may seem goofy to one person, but not to La Verkins. ''Familiarity makes a difference,'' said La Verkin Postmaster Steve Wilcock. ''It's home. It's not strange. Toquerville seems a lot stranger. And Paragonah is stranger than that.''

And sure, naming a city for a fish is unusual, but how about naming one for a potato? That's what they did in Koosharem, which comes from an Indian word for ''edible tuber.'' Talk of the Town: Utah has plenty of other good origin stories, too, like the town that was named by a 2-year-old child. When townspeople in the Kane County community couldn't agree on a suitable moniker in 1912, they decided to settle the question at a town social. Residents dropped their suggestions into a hat. A child reached in and drew the winner, and Alton, named after Alton Fjord in Norway, was created.

Or how about Bicknell and Blanding, towns that foretold the trend of selling naming rights to big donors? Once known as Thurber and Grayson, the towns changed their names in 1914 after Rhode Islander Thomas Bicknell donated 500-volume libraries to each. Blanding was the maiden name of Bicknell's wife.

Then there's Levan, which old-timers insist got its name because the Juab County town is in the center, or navel, of Utah. Levan is navel spelled backward. Is the story true? ''We don't really know for sure,'' said Mayor Connie Dubinsky. ''But that's what we tell people.''

There are more, too. Ephraim, Tooele and Annabella could challenge Panguitch for most peculiar. Swanson concedes the point. In fact, he embraces it. "People have suggested so many other names, I'm already working on a sequel."