What’s in a name?2/5/2014
No offense, Des Moines, but, in general, we’re ignorant of our own history.
The capital city, much more so than many other cities of comparable size, is almost devoid of markers denoting its own past. There are no statues in our parks or markers along our streets or waterfronts. Aside from the rare plaque inside a shopping mall or under a forgotten tree, there’s virtually nothing that tells us about where our city came from or about the men and women who founded it.
One of the byproducts of that historical blackout is that we find ourselves surrounded by schools, streets and whole neighborhoods that are named after people and events of significant importance — men and women whose lives carved large and meaningful swaths through Des Moines and its history,
Some of our landmarks are obvious, of course. There’s the litany of streets and schools named after U.S. presidents and other patriots, including Franklin Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Euclid Avenue — the namesake of which has been exquisitely described in 1931 by Tribune writer Ted Ashby as “(the) Greek mathematician who could smack an algebraic puzzle on the bonnet with the correct solution at 80 feet”).
Others are easy enough to discern if you’ve lived in Des Moines long enough: Most of us have a decent idea of who the Hubbell, Olmstead and Pappajohn families are. But from there, it can get murky. How many people can tell you who Merle Hay was, despite the plaques in Merle Hay Mall and Merle Hay Cemetery? How did Fleur Drive get its name? Who exactly was Hoyt Sherman?
When looking for the answers, it turns out, there was really only one place to go for a source on the subject.
The Des Moines Historical Society’s Pat Meiners is one-stop shopping when it comes to Des Moines history. She founded the Merle Hay Neighborhood Association in 1999, served for a time as the Historical Society’s president and can recall an endless array of dates and stories from memory. Names? You better believe she’s got names.
“The names come from all over,” she said, sitting among a stack of newspaper clippings in the downtown city library. “Streets get named after land owners or people’s children. All the streets around Valley High School are named for the farm that used to be there. There’s even a story of a man who was working on a new development on the west side and had one street left to name, and he named it after the secretary who happened to be sitting in the office.”
But Des Moines doesn’t commemorate its history very well, Meiners said, and apparently never has.
“I’ve seen articles from 1909 saying that the Pioneer Club was going to build monuments to the city fathers, like you see in most other towns,” she said. “I’m blind or something, because I’ve never seen them.”
On a roll now, she starts ticking them off on her fingers.
“There’s only a very small sign at the site of the original capital building. Fleur (Drive), no marker. MacRea Park, no marker. McHenrey Park, no marker…”
Going down the list, it becomes clear that a lot of the names daily uttered without second thought can be traced back to one event: World War I.
Iowan Merle David Hay was born in tiny Carrollton in 1896. It’s entirely possible that Hay would have spent the rest of his life exactly where he was born, but then Gavrilo Princip had to go and put a bullet into Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s head in 1914, and the whole world changed. When a German torpedo sunk the RMS Lusitania a year later, killing 128 Americans, the U.S. joined the war, and Merle Hay joined the Army.
“They were sent over to France with virtually no training,” Meiners said of American soldiers at the outbreak of the Great War. “(Hay) was a farm boy. He knew how to shoot a gun. That was about it.”
Hay was assigned to the newly constituted 1st Infantry Division and, after a scant amount of training time on Governors Island in New York harbor, the 20-year-old infantryman from Iowa found himself steaming across the Atlantic by the end of summer 1917.
Hay’s F Company, 16th Regiment, was stationed in trenches outside of Bathelémont-lès-Bauzemont (that’s in France), in October of that year, and in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 1917, F Company’s position was trench-raided by German forces. The outnumbered and questionably-trained American soldiers engaged their German counterparts. Hay, who was on guard duty at the time of the attack, brandished his .45 pistol in one hand and his “knuckle duster” trench knife in the other and set about defending himself. It was sometime around then (Hay’s watch stopped at 2:40 a.m.) that Thomas Enright, James Gresham and Merle David Hay became the first American military casualties of WWI. The response back home was full-throated.
“They were national heroes,” Meiners said. “There’s a street in New York City (on Governors Island) named after Merle Hay. That’s how famous these boys were.”
In his home state, Hay’s tribute happened with stunning swiftness. With Camp Dodge recently expanded to serve as a regional training center for the war effort, 58th Street — then just a gravel road on the city’s western edge — was being expanded and extended to better serve the Camp. Since the newly remodeled road would serve the state’s largest military encampment, it seemed only right that it should be renamed to honor the state’s most recent hero.
What’s surprising about the naming of Merle Hay Road isn’t that it happened, but rather how quickly it came about. Hay was killed in action on Nov. 3, and on Nov. 19, the Des Moines Tribune reported that “by unanimous vote, the city council this morning decided to change the name of Fifty-eighth street to Merle Hay road, in honor of the first Iowan to fall in the battle for democracy.”
“That’s probably the quickest a road was ever named after somebody,” Meiners chuckled.
Many believe that Fleur Drive took its name from the large and varied floral arrangements that decorate the avenue during the warmer months. In fact, though, the true namesake of the busiest surface street in Des Moines comes from another WWI casualty: Captain Edward O. Fleur.
“He was a very well-loved man in the community,” Meiners said. “(After his death), his wife Minnie wound up having a real nice job with the city government. One of the first women to hold such a position.”
Born in 1874, Fleur came from a military family with long lineage. He and Minnie never had children, but with staunch morals, kindness and an outgoing character, many people in the growing capital city viewed Fleur as a kind of father figure for the community.
When America hopped into WWI, Second Lieutenant Fleur found himself quickly promoted to Captain and sent off to France to serve in Camp Dodge’s 168th Infantry. In a war that claimed nearly 117,000 American lives, Capt. Fleur would ultimately not be one of the lucky ones. He was killed by German gas in the Third Battle of the Aisne in June 1918. Today, Capt. Fleur rests not far from the street that bears his name, in the Gold Star section of Woodland Cemetery.
Enclosing 63 acres of land at Southwest Ninth and Davis, MacRae Park is tucked far enough away from the bustle of downtown as to be easily overlooked. Founded in 1897, the park was originally christened South Park, a name it held until 1919 when it was renamed.
Donald H. MacRae was born in 1895. He attended North High School and Drake University before joining the National Guard and shipping off to France to fight the Huns in WWI alongside Capt. Fleur in the 168th Infantry. Little is known of Corporal MacRae’s time in France, but in the lead up to the Champagne-Marne campaign, the 23-year-old was killed by a shell fragment to the left temple on March 5, 1918.
Three weeks later, in further testament to his character and love for his “Iowa boys,” Capt. Fleur wrote a letter to Cpl. MacRae’s parents. There, among other condolences, he penned: “I have (MacRae’s) helmet with me in my own bags, and will bring it home to you, if you want it, and if I get home myself.”
Almost a straight shot north from MacRae Park, on Oak Park Avenue, sits the 17 acres of McHenry Park. Created in 1916, the park was originally named Frase Park, after then Parks Commissioner H.B. Frase. The park was then re-named in 1919 to honor Capt. Harrison Cummins McHenry.
Born in Des Moines in 1890, Capt. McHenry attended West High School and went on to become a two-sport star at Drake University. He came from a wealthy and influential Iowa family: His paternal grandfather was Des Moines’ first mayor, and his maternal uncle served as both governor and U.S. senator.
McHenry enlisted in the Iowa National Guard as a private at age 18. But by the time Merle Hay’s blood was mixing in French mud, the now-Captain McHenry was a veteran of the Mexican border conflict and was what The Des Moines Register called “…an ideal soldier, physically, mentally and morally.”
In 1918, McHenry found himself stationed along with Capt. Fleur and Cpl. MacRae in the 168th. It was outside the Marne, in the same artillery attack that claimed Cpl. MacRae, where Capt. McHenry became the first Iowan officer to fall in WWI. The Des Moines Register ran Capt. McHenry’s death as front-page news. His image was used in war bond ads, including an excerpt from a letter to his mother, where Capt. McHenry wrote, “I will try to be a credit to you. I will never be a coward to bring disgrace to you. Good-bye, mother, God keep you safe.”
As proud of those “Iowa boys” as we are, you didn’t have to die in WWI to get stuff named after you in Des Moines. Hoyt Sherman — younger brother of Civil War general (complete badass/possible crazy person) William Tecumseh Sherman — etched his name into the history books the old fashioned way: by being a rich white guy.
“He was in insurance mostly,” Meiners explained. “He was involved in starting Equitable Life Insurance.”
Sherman also was a prominent and successful lawyer around town, in addition to his land holdings and various other business interests. He was instrumental in establishing Des Moines’ first college, first public school and first railway. He also helped get the Des Moines Water Works up and running, relieving Des Moines’ citizens of their outhouses. He served as Postmaster of Des Moines and even served as a member of the State Legislature.
In 1877, Sherman built his impressive brick home on a small hill at the corner of 15th and Woodland Avenue. When he died in 1904 at 77, the home sat empty for three years until the Des Moines Women’s Club began using the space. Now, Hoyt Sherman Place — nestled in the green embrace of Sherman Hill — is on the National Registry of Historic Places and is a jewel in Des Moines’ crown.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Clearly, nobody needs a history lesson on where the name for MLK Parkway came from. But what’s interesting is just how long it took to get a street named for the civil rights leader, and the difficulty in deciding just where it would go.
Public records show a desire to honor King as far back as the late 1970s. The process for getting a street re-named goes something like this: Someone (public official or private citizen) submits a formal proposal to the city council with a persuasive argument; the council votes; and if the vote passes, a street is re-named.
While the results of individual votes are public record, the reasoning behind them, unfortunately, isn’t. So while we know that the council voted down proposals to re-name both Keosauqua Way and University Avenue, we have no record as to what objections stood in the way. But then there’s the interesting matter of Oct. 23, 1987.
That’s the day that then-city manager Cy Carney sent out a government-wide memo entitled “Street Name Change.” The memo began: “At its meeting of October 19, 1987, the City Council approved the renaming of East River Drive and East First Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.”
This (apparently approved) name change would have put MLK right smack downtown, making it the permanent address for City Hall, the Armory Building and the police station, among others. Obviously that change never took place. The reason is a mystery even to Meiners, and recent phone calls to various city works offices went un-returned. Four years later, the city council again approved a name change, this time selecting the street formerly known as Harding Road. Despite the hiccups and delays, it’s a change that Meiners sees as fitting.
“President Harding was a big supporter of suffrage,” she said. (Women were given the vote in 1920, thanks in large part to the efforts of then-Senator Harding). “It makes sense that the road should go from someone who fought for women’s rights, to someone who fought for civil rights.”
The stories don’t end at a T-intersection, though. And as a community, we shouldn’t let them end with Meiners or other historians who’ve taken the time to do the research. As citizens of this metropolitan, we should take it upon ourselves to go beyond a mere Google search when curious about a roadway, building or park and discover for ourselves what’s in a name. CV
Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines who would love to take his talents abroad if the rent were not so much more affordable in Des Moines.