Thursday, February 14, 2019


Apropos of a conversation about throwing out old photos from high school and college, I mentioned to my wife a measure of how geography-obsessed I am.  If I cannot remember what town someone in college is from, it is a strong indicator I did not know them well, and this goes double for females. Yet there was a cultural difference it took a year or more to adjust to - the difference between defining by town and defining by county. A girl might be listed as from some interesting-sounding town, but if one struck up a conversation about it, she might look puzzled.  "I'm from Nelson County." I learned that this is more common across the south, and I think parts of the midwest.

In New Hampshire, people go all through school and graduate without knowing what county they live in. Houses of Correction, probate (now circuit) courts, sheriffs, and public nursing homes are county items, and what you use to get people to identify their county. Fill in the blank with the first thing that comes to mind: _______House of Correction.  That's actually a fair bit of government, but no one thinks that way in NH, except maybe the police and lawyers.


james said...

"for Incompetent Tempters"

Texan99 said...

That's funny, I always knew what county I was in, even while living in a big city. I remember knowing even when fairly young the counties that were associated with the larger cities in the state. Are counties a bigger deal in Texas? We have 254 of them, so you'd think they's all run together in one's mind.

Donna B. said...

Texan99 - exactly what I was thinking. I always knew my county and the surrounding ones in Texas. Although, part of that was *needing* to know which counties were wet...

Though I knew the same when I was growing up in Colorado. In the southern part of that state, many counties have the same name as the county seat, making it fairly easy. Montrose, Delta, Gunnison, Ouray, Saguache, Alamosa, Pueblo.

I don't remember anyone in Colorado or Texas saying "I'm from ____ County." That does happen in Louisiana and Arkansas if one is from such a small town that they figure anyone not born and raised around there would know of it. Example: "I'm from Rocky Comfort in Little River County, not too far from Texarkana." Not too far was 40 miles, but it's better than saying between Dallas and Little Rock.

Just looked it up - New Hampshire only has 10 counties!

Texan99 said...

Ten counties, that's adorable. :-)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It is adorable! It's a legitimate trivia question to name them (lawyers and policemen nail that), or give to 4th-grade students studying NH history to color in the map, whereas only deeply OCD people would be able to name 254 Texas counties.

State history is different here. It is certainly more contained in geography, so that even some schoolchildren can manage it and have a hazy idea what Lakes Region, North Country, Golden Triangle, or Seacoast means. Though no one really gets good at local geography until they learn to drive. But the depth is different here because we have actual history, rather than a few scattered events before 1950. Unlike some other states.

Texan99 said...

How very unfeeling to the indigenous inhabitants and their richly diverse 12,000-year history, or is it 25,000? But I acknowledge the force of your comparison. In Texas, 1836 counts as practically prehistoric; nothing of real importance predated the Alamo, and nothing of comparable importance has happened since, here or elsewhere. Of course, we were busy doing manly things out here back then, conquering the vast wilderness on horseback with lots of guns, while you Yankees made leisurely Sunday drives through all ten of your tiny little domesticated counties, usually in sleds drawn over frozen picture-postcard wastes.

I'm glad no one expected me to memorize the Texas counties.

Donna B. said...

I'm now memorizing those 10 counties. Trivia is very important in my family. Thanks, AVI!

T99 - "or elsewhere" is so true! Some people just don't get it. I'm glad no one expected me to memorize Colorado's 64 counties, but I can easily name 10 of them. 10 Texas counties too!

"until they learn to drive" I have a feeling that learning to drive in New Hampshire is different than learning to drive in Texas or Colorado.

Somewhat off topic... My brother was born in DeQueen AR and graduated from high school in Colorado in the 1960s. He went to college in NYC and was asked if he rode a horse to school. According to him, this was a serious question and not intended to make fun of him.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Donna B - I well believe it. We discussed people's general geographic ignorance of other places and their cultures at beer night last week. People think New England is a state. My son explains that of the two little state in the northeast corner, NH is the one that's right-side up.

It's mostly true about NH's smallness, but there are surprises. It's almost 200 miles top to bottom - it's the narrowness that's small. Yet even with that, there's a big lake in the middle of it which makes it difficult to go from here to there, and a bunch of lakes near it, so there's a frustrating inefficiency. Ditto with many rivers and having to go out of your way for bridges once you get out of the cities.

On the other hand, even though it's 200 miles high, the upper 100 is mostly empty. People travel there to go skiing or hiking, or for away sporting events if you are in a small highschool playing other small highschools. Other than that, one is mostly driving around in the 100 x 100 lower half. If you live in the middle of that, as the people from Nashua, Manchester, Concord and suburbs do, then you're not much more than an hour from anywhere.

Texan99 said...

It is small but mighty.

JMSmith said...

My first semester teaching in Texas, I was given the course on the geography of Texas. I haven't taught that course in many years, but I remember one student boasting that he could name all 254 counties in Texas in alphabetical order. I told him that was remarkable, but not much use in the class.

I think county identification is stronger in the South because the Southern population was for a long time much more rural. That has changed, but the habit of county identification remains. Southern counties are often somewhat smaller than counties in the North, especially in those states that have towns or townships. I grew up in western New York, and the Town of Sweden was a part of our day-to-day life in a way that Monroe County was not. Texas has some huge counties out beyond the Pecos River, but in the east they are rather small.

I'm sure that this is also somehow related to higher levels of state loyalty in the South. Texas is an outlier, but many Southerners love their state (although not the state). I can think of only one song about Massachusetts, and that was written by an Australian pop group that liked the sound of the name. I can think of no songs about New York State There "Down on the Farm" about Michigan, but I'm guessing it was just a tin pan alley composition.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In Michener's Texas there is an elderly high school teacher who can name all 254 counties, which he (rightly) regards as revealing of the state as a whole. In NH there is no official state song, and I may be the last remaining person who can sing the one we were told was official when I was in grade school, "Old New Hampshire." The folkie one by the Shaw brothers came in and vanished in a generation.

I think your rural/urban theory is a big part of the story.

An anecdote. My wife, an elementary school librarian, taught NH history for decades. Every fourth-grader take it here. We know our stuff in this household. (We are kicking ourselves that we did not write the book about the historical markers and a decent elementary text, which others have recently done. Missed chances.) When my second son was first working in The Woodlands, we went out to lunch with his then-girlfriend. Where NH has one year of required history, she informed us that Texas has three - 3rd, 8th, and 12th. Even though, as T99 noted, they only have the Alamo (and okay, San Jacinto), some oil and cattle, and then became the center of the universe after air conditioning was invented.

Texan99 said...

There was also Jane Long, running her undies up the flagpole in some coastal battle or crisis or another, which exhausts the supply of really memorable events that should be included in the Texan version of "1066 and All That." That was long before AC, which rendered many parts of the state habitable and made possible the Ewing Family saga.

charlie said...

So much to discuss here. Yes, it's perhaps a topic for nerds and people a little bit aspergers.

In Iowa the license plates list the county of registration at the bottom of the plate. Methinks this is done in Ohio as well. You pay for the auto registration by writing a check to the county treasurer. Iowa has 99 counties. New York State has roughly half that number. Texas, we salute you!

An odd fact about Iowa is that the counties usually don't have towns of the same name inside the county.

Des Moines is in Polk County, Iowa. But there is a Des MOines County elsewhere in the state. There are a number of cases like that. The county seat of Iowa County is Marengo, while Iowa City is the county seat of Johnson County, Iowa, immediatedly to the east of Iowa County. Cedar Rapids is not in Cedar County but in Linn COunty. Tipton is the county seat of Cedar County. At least the Cedar River flows through it.

There is a song that will enable you to to learn all the counties in the state. I've never met anyone who could sing that song from memory,but it may have been taught in schools during the 20th century.


Charles W. Abbott

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ T99 - I had not heard of her. Great story.

@ Charlie - You are speaking my language. In NH, and MA in earlier years, one could tell the county the car was registered in from the initial letter on the license plate. We also have the situation where Merrimack is not in Merrimack County and most counties have no town of that name in them.

Texan99 said...

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered.

james said...

I had to learn "Fifty Nifty;" nothing about counties.

I thought that song was awful when we had to sing it, but I've used it from time to time to remember states that had slipped my mind. Forgetting names is one of my superpowers.