03 August 2016

Wordcatcher Tales: Minidoka, Owyhee, Spudnik

On our recent Overland Trail roadtrip through Oregon, Idaho, and other northwest states, the Far Outliers encountered more than a few unusual names. Here are three of them.

Minidoka is a Dakota Sioux word that means 'water-spring'. The same root meaning 'water' occurs in the names Minnesota, Minnetonka, and other places where the Dakota Sioux once roamed. It occurs in several placenames in Idaho, including the name of Minidoka County, the eastern neighbor of Jerome County in south central Idaho. On our way through Jerome County, we got off the Interstate to visit the Minidoka National Historic Site. In 1942, nearly 10,000 people of Japanese ancestry were evacuated from Alaska, Washington, and Oregon and interned in Jerome County at a place locally known as Hunt. The historic marker (above) that directed us to the camp did not call it "Minidoka" but did mention Japanese internment. The internment camp built in Jerome County was soon renamed for neighboring Minidoka County to distinguish it from another Japanese internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas. There is lots of new signage within the Idaho site now, but only the one historic marker to help strangers find their way there.

Owyhee is an old rendering of what is now spelled Hawai‘i, the name of the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. How did it come to name so many features of the region where Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada come together? According to the Owyhee County Museum in tiny Murphy, Idaho, the name honors several Hawaiian fur trappers who worked for the North West Company of fur trader Donald MacKenzie, who explored the area between 1818 and 1821. The Hawaiians disappeared, but an echo of their homeland graces Idaho's first incorporated (and second largest) county, as well as a city, a desert, a mountain range, a river, a lake, and a dam far into the interior of the Pacific Northwest.

Spudnik is a cutesy name for many different things. A few of them even have something to do with potatoes. In the quirky but informative—and sometimes corny—Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho (the “Potato Capital of the World”), we saw an early model of a potato-scooping machine invented by local potato farmers Carl and Leo Hobbs about the time the first Sputnik was launched in 1958. They decided to market their new line of potato harvesting equipment under the name Spudnik. Now they sell the largest-scale potato planting and harvesting equipment in North America.

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