What’s in a name? Jim Thorpe’s grave, in this case.
There are some things I haven’t given much thought to, and one of them is how Jim Thorpe, PA, got its name – other than for the obvious.
If I had given it any thought, I would have guessed that the town was near Carlisle, PA, where Jim Thorpe attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. And that, when the town was a newly incorporated entity, it just picked a name to honor a famous and accomplished quasi-local.
While Jim Thorpe, PA is quasi-near (100 miles from) Carlisle, PA, as it turns out, Jim Thorpe, PA was named Jim Thorpe, PA because just plain Jim Thorpe was buried there. (Main source for this post: WSJ article. May require subscription to access. Personally, I subscribe just to access gems like this story.)
It seems that, in 1953 when the great athlete died, his native Oklahoma didn’t want to put up any memorial to him.
His miffed wife struck a deal with the powers that were of Mauch Chunk, PA, and East Mauch Chunk, PA, who agreed to rename their town in exchange for just plain Jim Thorpe’s body resting there. (Mauch Chunk is pronounced mock-chunk by the way, in case it ever comes up in conversation. It’s Lenape for “bear mountain”. Thanks, Wikipedia.)
Mauch Chunk changed its name because its townsfolk were:
…desperate to attract business. They made a bet on the corpse of Jim Thorpe, a Native American athlete from Oklahoma who was the star of the 1912 Olympics and later a professional football player.
Mauch Chunk took the money they’d saved up – one nickel donation at a time – for town improvement, and spent in on the memorial rather than as a kitty for wooing factories.
Probably just as well they didn’t woo factories, even though they might have had a generation’s worth of work before the jobs went bye-bye.
In any case, the Jim Thorpe name didn’t help attract much old economy (factories) or new economy (tourism). Things did turnaround in the 1980’s. That’s when the leisure biz took hold, with tourists coming because the town is scenic, in the Poconos, offers white-water rafting, and has some interesting coal mining-Molly Maguire history. So life is okay in Jim Thorpe, PA. (Mauch Chunk, if not Jim Thorpe, PA, has also given itself the moniker “Switzerland of America.” PA’s pretty, and everything, but I would think that Colorado or Vermont might have more of a claim here. Mauch Chunk as Switzerland kind of reminds me of a motto I saw on a tee-shirt year’s ago: Worcester: Paris of the 80’s.)
But if just plain Jim Thorpe’s son just plain Jack Thorpe has his way, there will no longer be such an obvious answer to the Grant’s Tomb question that asks ‘who is buried in Jim Thorpe, PA?’
Jack, it seems, wants his father buried in Oklahoma, from whence he hailed. And he’s suing in Federal court to get the body back.
“We just want to bring him home and put him to rest where he wanted to be," says Jack Thorpe. He has no grudge against the town: "They've always treated us well." …Jack Thorpe says his message to the Chunkers is: "The bones of my father will not make or break your town."
Which is probably true, given that Jim Thorpe may not be two household words to anyone who doesn’t remember the 1912 Olympics, or who hasn’t seen the old B&W Jim Thorpe Story, with Burt Lancaster starring. Thorpe:
… was "arguably the first international sports celebrity," says Kate Buford, whose biography of Mr. Thorpe, "Native American Son," is due to be published by Knopf in October
Anyway, even if just plain Jim Thorpe’s body leaves Jim Thorpe, PA, Chunkers – as the town’s citizens are called, rather than Thorpians – aren’t looking to change their name back. (Can’t blame them there.)
Jim Thorpe, PA, will stay Jim Thorpe, PA.
But it does raise some interesting thoughts about how towns might rename their towns if they had a do-over.
Would they rename for historic greatness? (Like we need any more places named Washington…) Or would they go the fast and easy celebrity du jour route.
Would Clevelanders have renamed their city to keep LeBron? Cleveland could have become Jamestown. Or simply LeBron. (Boy, would they have been stuck if he’d decamped to Miami, anyway.)
Would some city let Donald Trump pay them a lump sum to start calling themselves Trumpchester. (“It’s the greatest, the most magnificent, the number one….”)?
Maybe Bristol, RI, or Bristol, CT, might start thinking about wooing Bristol and Levi to set their reality show there, in exchange for changing their city’s name to Bristollevi.
Hey, we’re seeing (mauch) chunks of highways going commercial. Sports stadium naming rights going to the highest bidder.
Everything’s for sale. So why not let someone who wants a memorial that will last a bit longer than the cover of People or a Tweet pay you a consideration to keep their name in the streetlights. (Imagine the town of Gaga, Texas.)
Not that just plain Jim Thorpe paid for the honor.
No, Mrs. just plain Jim Thorpe merely wanted someone to memorialize him.
But it’s not that far-fetched to see ailing municipalities, and states, even, at least considering selling their names. Britney Spears could buy Louisiana; Lindsay Lohan could take Manhattan. It might extend even further: the River Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant, Japan. Paris Hilton, France.
You never know…
Interested in Mauch Chunk/Jim Thorpe, PA history? This site is easily as interesting as the Jell-o Gallery of LeRoy, NY.