Through the years, we’ve logged more miles across our viewing area than I’d like to admit. But I can honestly say I learned something from every single South Texas town, community, or historical site I visited. So, we decided KSAT Explains was the perfect platform to answer the question: how did that town get its name?
We encourage you to check out the full story on each town, but if you’re pressed for time, we decided to compile a “best of.” We hope you enjoy!
Town names tell stories often intimately intertwined with the area’s history, and we’ve got some pretty good ones around here. Take Utopia. What a name! Hollywood thought so, too, filming “Seven Days in Utopia” there, starring Robert Duval. The movie is prominently displayed in the town’s Lost Maples Cafe. It was named, by the way, after Sir Thomas More’s novel “Utopia.”
Speaking of becoming famous, rumor has it that The Fray borrowed the name of an intersection in the small border town of Quemado for one of its songs. The town is home to the intersection of First and Amistad, which is mentioned in The Fray’s song “You Found Me.” When we visited, it was nothing more than a couple of desolate streets crossing paths. But it turns out it’s the only intersection in the country with that name.
Quemado, if you were curious, translates to burned or scorched in English. Why would it be named that? We heard multiple theories.
“It was because the Spaniards thought it was the remains of a burned volcano,” said John Stockley, a longtime Quemado resident.
Considering no volcanoes are in the area, we were a little stunned by that one. But it wasn’t the first time we ran into some name-origin tales that caught us off guard.
“And they came up with the name Wohlfahrt,” explained David Lawhorn. That is the German translation of Welfare, Texas, a beautiful, small Hill Country town. After causing a few too many laughs at the train stop (sound it out), residents renamed the town to the English version, and the rest is history.
Meanwhile, a bird gave Quihi its name. The story dates back to 1844 during a meeting between area Germans and Native Americans.
“There was a bird that was flying around that kept saying something like, ‘qee-hee, qee-hee.’ Well, the Native Americans came up with that it was Quihi,” said Clyde Muennink, secretary-treasurer of the Quihi Gun Club and Dance Hall.
Sometimes the origin of a town name is not abundantly clear. So was the case in Concan.
“Rumor is — from all the locals — that it did get its name from a card game named ‘coon-can,’” said Patsy Cofer, a longtime Concan resident. “I can honestly say I’ve never heard of that card game, but it’s interesting nonetheless.”
D’Hanis is a town name that many people pronounce incorrectly. If you were wondering, it was founded by the legendary Henri Castro, and the name is French. Initially, it was pronounced: “dee-hawn-ee.” Through the years, we put our Texas spin on it, and it’s now pronounced like “da-hen-us” by the locals. It also gave us this legendary quote:
“Remember, there’s no anus in D’Hanis,” one of the town locals said.
There are other towns that suffer from mispronunciation, too. Jourdanton comes to mind. As I was told, treat it as if it is one syllable.
“The ones that we usually hear are Jordan-ton,” explained Deanna Burns, or as it was with an out-of-town caller: Jordan-town. “Which is totally wrong!”
Gruene, Mico, Von Ormy and Boerne
We found that Gruene (pronounced like the color green) is in the same boat, as is Mico (pronounced my-co, not mee-co). Fun fact: Mico is technically an acronym for Medina Irrigation Company. This list of mispronounced names continues with Von Ormy (pronounced like army, not Ormy) and Boerne.
“Born,” “bearnaise,” “Bjorn,” and “burn” were variations residents mentioned when asked what they’d heard.
“We tell people: ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ or Bernie. That’s how you pronounce it,” said Larry Woods, who was director of the Boerne Visitors and Convention Bureau at the time.
I think we can all agree that the odd vowel structure of the German language can sometimes be a challenge for those who don’t speak the language. Germans, whose influence on the Hill Country is vast, were also good at understanding irony, as we found out in Comfort.
“They called it Camp Comfort, thinking it would get better. It didn’t. So, they dropped the word camp and went with Comfort because there wasn’t any,” said Anne Stewart, a lifelong resident and member of the Comfort Heritage Foundation.
Ironic indeed. And while we’re on the topic of literary devices and language, it turns out that spelling back in the 1800s was an issue for some of our local city and county officials, too.
“Back in the old days, not everyone could read, write, or spell, leaving us with what we see today: Dimmit. They dropped the second ‘t,’” explained Burt Bell, a Dimmit County historian.
Dimmit County honors Phillip Dimmitt (two ts), a scout during the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto.
Sometimes, town names were changed due to bad handwriting, which was the case with Divot, a small town south and west of San Antonio. Originally called Pivot (it was at a pivot in the road), when the paperwork came back from the state, officials had named it Divot. So, Pivot had to pivot and stick with Divot.
Natalia is one of the more prominent misspelling examples.
“The post office dropped the ‘e’ and added an ‘a,’” said Ruby Vera, a local historian and former mayor of Natalia.
Yes, it should have been Natalie, named for the daughter of famed engineer Dr. Frederick Pearson, designer and financer of Medina Dam. In a tragic twist, he and his wife died in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. It was an event that propelled the United States into World War I.
This isn’t the only connection to world events and power people. In fact, U.S. presidents have had some direct ties to some of our area communities. That includes Lyndon B. Johnson. Did you know he was an elementary school teacher in Cotulla?
In Catarina, we learned that one of the early landowners in the area was Charles Taft, the half-brother of 27th president William Howard Taft.
Charles Taft would build the famous Taft summer house near Catarina. The house was later moved and used by former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe.
More ties to Texas towns
The list of big names and ties to South Texas towns doesn’t end there.
We visited the now-abandoned hospital where George Strait was born in Poteet. We learned that Strait’s cousin, Jeff Bezos (yes, it’s true!), also has ties to the area. His parents owned a ranch near Cotulla that he would visit often.
And how could we forget about European aristocrats? Count Norbert Von Ormy, an Austo-Hungarian nobleman, came into money and grew tired of Europe, so he decided to move to the outskirts of San Antonio, hence the story behind the name of Von Ormy.
One of my favorite trips was to the ghost town of Frio Town. Now on private property, it felt like we took a trip back to the 1800s. A dilapidated courthouse and jail gave way to some incredible stories.
“My understanding is that Jessie James and Frank James spent the night there,” said Gus Roberts, whose family owns the property.
Eagle Pass, Uvalde and Bandera
Eagle Pass sprouted from a military installment, and once hosted Charles Lindbergh.
And for its size, Uvalde boasts an impressive list of hometown celebrities, not the least of which being Matthew McConaughey.
In Bandera, we heard a legend that truly surprised us: “Legend has it that it was actually John Wilkes Booth that had survived and was able to escape after assassinating President Lincoln and settled here in Bandera,” explained Rebecca Norton, executive director of the Frontier Times Museum.
Hancock and Crane’s Mill
We can’t confirm that, but we know that divers have found proof that a couple of towns are at the bottom of Canyon Lake. Hancock and Crane’s Mill disappeared from the map after Canyon Lake was created.
We also learned of Polly, which you won’t find on many maps, but has a rich history. It was named after legendary Tejano Jose Policarpio “Polly” Rodriguez.
“If you’re talking about a frontiersman, a Texas frontiersman, and you compare him to the guy from Tennessee who killed 10 bears -- well, he killed almost that many on his trip to the Valley here,” said Rudi Rodriguez, head of the Polly Texas Pioneer Association and Polly’s great-great nephew.
That’s a lot. But the stories just kept coming.
Other Texas towns you may have heard about
Did you know that St. Hedwig is the Patron Saint of Silesia? Or that Sutherland Springs was known as the “Saratoga of the South,” a nod to Saratoga, New York, because of all things, the spa industry? Panna Maria is Polish for ‘young girl,’ an ode to the Virgin Mary. And in Bigfoot, there’s no mythical creatures in the trees, but the town is named for a colorful character: William “Bigfoot” Wallace. Yes, he had big feet.
We could go on and on, but one thing is for sure. South Texas does not lack fascinating history, and just about every town has a story to tell!