Iowa Weird: The History Behind These Iowa Towns’ Color-Themed Names

The Orange City water tower no longer looks like this and we’ll explain why below. Canva photo

By my count, there are at least six Iowa cities that have the name of a primary or secondary color in their name. 

Here’s a little refresher for those of us who can’t remember what we learned in elementary school art class: Red, yellow, and blue are primary colors, and orange, green, and violet (purple) are secondary colors.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m sticking with names based on the primary and secondary colors otherwise—and this is meant with no disrespect—I would have to include Cobalt and other cities whose names have been coopted by Crayola to sell their ever-expanding crayon boxes.

So here are the cities and how their names came to be:

Blue Grass

Google Maps Screenshot of Blue Grass City Hall.

I had never heard of Blue Grass before diving into this Iowa Weird, but I’m the first to admit my knowledge of eastern Iowa pales in comparison to my knowledge about northwest Iowa and parts of central Iowa.

Located in Scott and Muscatine counties, Blue Grass, Iowa, wasn’t incorporated until 1903, but white settlers had been in the area since 1836, according to the city’s website. 

Like many Iowa cities and counties—and the state itself—Blue Grass’ name can be traced back to Native Americans. Here’s how the city’s website describes it:

“The site of Blue Grass was originally on an Indian trail between the Mississippi River and the Cedar River. This area was the Indians’ choice for their camping site, and over the years as they and their ponies trampled the taller grass, they noticed that the newer grass which sprouted up had a bluish tint (similar to Kentucky bluegrass). This area became known as Blue Grass Point.”

Greenfield

Downtown Greenfield. Shutterstock

Before I read this entry, I assumed the city of Greenfield was literally named after a green field in the same vein as Blue Grass being named after bluegrass, but perhaps  I was wrong?

Greenfield was first laid out in 1856 and became incorporated in 1875, but neither the city website, the History of Iowa Volume III, the History of Adair County and Its People, or Greenfield Through The Years explain the origin of the town’s name.

In a fit of desperation, I turned to Wikipedia which says Greenfield, Iowa, is named after Greenfield, Massachusetts. Obviously, never take Wikipedia at face value so I followed the link that Wikipedia cited the information from and it led me to a book called “The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States” which was published in 1905.

According to that book, Greenfield, Iowa, is named after the Massachusetts version and that town is named after the Green River that intersects the city. In fact, the city was originally a settlement called Green River District before it was incorporated.

So that’s how Greenfield, Iowa, got its name. If you want to find out why the Green River is called the Green River, please reach out to whatever the Massachusetts version of Iowa Starting Line is.

Orange City

Photo from City of Orange City Facebook.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dutch culture, you probably assumed that Orange City is named after the color, which is sort of true.

The Sioux County seat community is named for William of Orange, a prominent figure in European history whose lineage can be traced to the current royal family of the Netherlands and who is said to have inspired the Dutch War of Independence.

I’m sure you can guess what color William of Orange is famous for.

Orange City was founded by Dutch settlers from Pella—most notably Henry Hospers—in 1870 and it was incorporated in 1884.

Also, random fun piece of trivia. Orange City famously used to have an orange water tower, but it’s now a vibrant white with an orange band and ORANGE CITY in white letters. 

So why did the city change it? Well, there are a couple of reasons. White paint is cheaper and lasts longer and, oh, another northwest Iowa city copied the design! 

Don’t believe me? Here’s what the city’s then-public works director Bryan Gerritson told me in 2015 for a story that ran in The N’West Iowa REVIEW:

“While Orange City’s water tower is known for being, well, orange; Gerritson noted there were several reasons to change the color scheme.

“‘Sibley copied ours,’ Gerritson said. ‘If you go down highway 60 and go by Sibley, they put up a new water tower and it’s identical to our color scheme.’”

This wasn’t just sour grapes, by the way. When the City of Sibley was getting ready to build the new water tower, they held a design-the-water tower contest and the kid who won the contest admitted he copied off Orange City’s design.

Redfield

Photo from the City of Redfield Facebook.

Redfield—originally named New Ireland—is another colorful city that’s not named after a color.

According to the city website—FYI, this is a top-tier city website for a town of fewer than 1,000 people so kudos to Redfield!—the community was founded in 1860 and was named after Lt. Col. James Redfield, a Union soldier who died in the Civil War.

Redfield has purchased land along the South Raccoon River in Dallas County. Presumably, this was going to be his destination after the war and this reminds me of just about every action movie that features a cop who’s so close to retirement.       

Red Oak

 

Photo from Red Oak Chamber and Industry Association Facebook.

These days, Red Oak is probably most famous for being the hometown of US Sen. Joni Ernst, who is the first woman to represent Iowa in the US Senate. It is also the county seat of Montgomery County in Iowa’s southwest corner. 

Finding the namesake for this one was pretty easy because the city of Red Oak also has a nice city website: “The earliest white settlers arrived in the early 1850s settling near a small stream they named Red Oak Creek for the Red Oak trees that grew along the banks.”

Since this was one so cut and dry, I’ll share some things I learned about red oak trees courtesy of the Iowa State Ext. Office: They are native to all of Iowa except the northwest corner, their wood is always in high demand, and in the fall, their leaves vary from red, orange-red to deep reddish born.

Greene 

Screenshot from City of Green website.

I’ll state the obvious here: Yes, I know that the color is spelled G-R-E-E-N whereas the Iowa city is spelled G-R-E-E-N-E, but work with me here.

Greene, Iowa, is another two-county city but is primarily in northwest Butler County. The city was established in 1878 and just south of town was another town site, Elm Springs, that was a predecessor, according to History of Butler County.

Now for the elephant in the room, the town of Greene has nothing to do with the color—duh, we all know this—and was named after Judge George Greene of Dubuque.

So why was Greene, who was born in England, worthy of having an Iowa town named after him?

Well, let’s see: He served on the Iowa Supreme Court, was a member of the Iowa Legislature, and was a co-founder of a little town called Cedar Rapids. You know Cedar Rapids, as in the second-biggest city in Iowa, the City of Five Seasons, and the namesake of Ed Helms’ movie? Yes, that Cedar Rapids.

 

by Ty Rushing
07/15/22

To contact Senior Editor Ty Rushing for tips or story ideas, email him at ty@iowastartingline.com or find him on Twitter @Rushthewriter 

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