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What Cheer in What Cheer, Iowa

"What Cheer" water tower

Once a thriving coal mining town of over 3,000, What Cheer, Iowa stands today at a dwindling population of 646. Largely abandoned, What Cheer’s rusting infrastructure today seems incongruous with its peculiar name. But a deeper look into its etymology reveals an absurd and widely disputed naming history.

What Cheer was founded in 1865 under the name of Petersburg, named after its creator, Peter Britton, who staked his claim for 14 acres of Iowan land in the mid-19th century. But the Post Office rejected this toponym, forcing a name change December 1, 1879. "What Cheer" was chosen by store owner Joseph Andrews, and his exact reasoning is unknown to this day.

There are a wide variety of theories as to how What Cheer was the name of choice. Some believe that it stems from the 15th century British saying “what cheer with you,” often simplified to "wotcher." Or perhaps, some believe, it originated when a Scottish coal miner exclaimed “what cheer!” upon striking it rich.

A more elaborate theory proposes that Andrews got the toponym from the saying of "what cheer, Netop" (translating to 'what cheer, friend') that was popularized in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. The phrase was first uttered by the Narragansett Native Americans, who combined English with their native language to greet the British colonists.

This strange naming history is a source of life and uniqueness in a decaying town. The city clerk commonly receives letters from across the nation asking for the meaning behind the name. In addition to its unique etymology, What Cheer is also home to a two-story museum, the Masonic Opera House, built in 1893, and the What Cheer Flea Market, which operates on Saturdays and Sundays from May 1 to October 4. Sounds like quite a cheerful time!


via Atlas Obscura - Latest Articles and Places