Illustration by Jungyeon Roh
In the mid-to-late-19th century, Milwaukee was such an exotic, prosperous-seeming and forward-looking young city that it inspired no fewer than three imitators to take on its name: “Milwaukie,” Ore., now a suburb of Portland; Milwaukee, Penn., an obscure hamlet northwest of Scranton; and Milwaukee, N.C., now the most prominent and consistent copier of the northern city’s final name. According to Historic Milwaukee (of Milwaukee, Wis.), a railroad conductor named Hesikiah Lasker founded the North Carolina town in 1886 after searching a map for a place name that was “different and prestigious.” Milwaukee, which other town fathers thought had the ring of industry and progress, fit the bill.
The Wisconsin’s city’s use of its own name was fraught with inconsistency throughout much of the 19th century. The odd transliteration of a Potawatomi word describing prosperity and a crossing of waterways could have turned out Meneawkee, Mahnawauk, Milowages, Wilakie or even Milwacky. Early settlers used all of these until a word-war pitting Milwaukie against Milwaukee ended in 1862 with the latter becoming the definitive postmark. Until then, Democrats favoring the “ie” spelling had imposed it on the city’s post office thrice, only to lose control of the building to local Republicans, who preferred the sterner-seeming “ee” version.
Milwaukie, Ore., is the largest and most urban of this Milwaukee’s name-children. Milwaukee, Penn., has half-faded from commonly used maps (where it was originally marked “Milwaukie”). And Milwaukee, N.C., the “ee” standard-bearer outside of Wisconsin, is probably the second-most humble. Its Milwaukeeans consider themselves as much citizens of Conway, N.C., a slightly larger town to the north, as of Milwaukee. Driving south from the somewhat-more-developed Conway, they pass several irregularly shaped farm fields ploughed into the sandy soil, as well as the 150-plot Milwaukee Cemetery and the Bethany United Methodist Church, which is the town’s heart. Houses nearby cling to a crossing with Buck Boone Road, in sight of a small water tower, and at the intersection, drivers turn west for the Doolittle Millpond or continue south to stop at Milwaukee’s sole store, Martin’s Mini Mart.
“Milwaukee’s nothing but some houses and a church,” said a woman answering the phone at the small, squarish store. She asked a couple men there if they knew how the name had originated. Neither did. “We don’t have much, but we do have ‘The Fly Bros.,’” she continued, “where you can get your car fixed. People fish and hunt, and that’s about it.” The anglers mostly catch bass and catfish from ponds. “Oh, and people have cookouts,” she said. You’d expect nothing less of a town called Milwaukee.