6 Weird Town Names In Iowa And Their Origins

Photo courtesy of the City of What Cheer 

Part of the fun of going for a Sunday drive or taking a road trip to a new place is seeing unique, funny, and simply weird names for villages, cities, and towns. Sometimes names come from other countries and languages. Other times they are named for people or an event. Iowa has its share of weird town names with origins that are not obvious. It’s undeniable that some town names in Iowa leave you wondering how they came up with them. Here are a few of our favorites and their origin stories.


Photo courtesy of Correctionville, Iowa Facebook page

The word correction conjures up various images, including a prison or a teacher with a red pen. However, none of these are related to the origins of Correctionville, a small town east of Sioux City established in 1855. The name actually comes from the original land survey of the town. A correction line adjusts for the convergence of longitude lines, keeping sections close to the same size. Correctionville lies on one of these correction lines. With 15 letters, Correctionville is also Iowa’s longest town name. If you visit, make sure to check out the Correctionville Museum, which houses local artifacts in the old Merchants State Bank Building.

What Cheer

Established in 1865, this cheerful Iowa town found southeast of Des Moines was originally named Petersburg, but the post office rejected the name. In 1879, a local politician lobbied for the name change to What Cheer. Local folklore reveals the origin of the name comes from an English expression of joy, “what cheer!” A Scottish miner yelled “what cheer” when he discover coal near the town. Today, fewer than 700 people call What Cheer home, but in its heyday as a major coal-producing center in Iowa in the late 1800s, more than 3,000 people lived there. 


Defiance is likely not on the list for anyone thinking of an intangible noun to name a city. Yet, on the banks of the Nishnabotna River in Shelby County, only an hour from Omaha, you will find the small town of Defiance, incorporated in 1883, with about 300 people. Originally named Marmon, residents who were angry because the railroad did not come through their town changed the name to Defiance and proclaimed themselves “defiers.” 

Today, Defiance remains famous for its story about Dixie Shanahan, who shot her abusive husband, Scott, in the head and left his body in their bedroom until authorities discovered it a year later. Dixie suffered severe abuse at the hands of her husband, which led to multiple police reports before his death. In one of those reported incidences, in October 2000, law enforcement found her with two black eyes and she told them her husband dragged her around the house and tied her hands behind her back with a wire coat hanger. 


Photo courtesy of Hans Asper via Wikimedia Commons

Zwingle, incorporated in 1900, is a very small town of only about 100 people. Located on Highway 61, south of Dubuque, the town’s namesake is Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Protestant leader in the Reformation. Zwingli is not as famous or studied as other Protestants, like John Calvin or Martin Luther, but his work in Switzerland was part of the break with the Catholic Church. Zwingle is certainly an unusual name, but maybe not as unusual as its location in two counties. The county line between Jackson and Dubuque counties runs right through this tiny place. 

Crab Town

Iowa isn’t exactly a seafood haven that is close to the ocean, so you might wonder what exactly its name means. Crab Town, now an abandoned ghost town, was named after the Crab Family. During the mid-1800s, the town had some inhabitants, but they abandoned the settlement around 1900. Today, the only thing that is still there is a cemetery, a few buildings, and the bridge that crosses the Maquoketa River.


Elkader Keystone Bridge
Photo courtesy of Joseph Elliott via Wikimedia Commons

You might assume that Elkader is someone’s name, and you would be right. It’s the Arabic origin that makes this Iowa town’s name a little weird, considering Arab immigrants—mostly from Syria and Lebanon—did not really come to the Midwest until the 1900s. Elkader is a small town with around 1,200 residents in eastern Iowa. Although residents first settled in the area by the Turkey river in 1836, the town was not officially platted until 1846. 

One of the town’s founders decided to name it after a famous Muslim Algerian religious and military leader, Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (anglicized Abdelkader El Hassani El Djazairi or sometimes shortened to Emir Abdelkader), who led the fight against French colonialists between 1830 and 1847. Today Elkader is famous for the Elkader Keystone Bridge, the largest stone arch bridge west of the Mississippi. 


by Jessica Lee

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