Thursday, October 8, 2015

Honoring Tater Patch

This summer, President Barack Obama made a much-publicized trip to Alaska, during which he emphasized the effects of climate change on the state. In addition to photo ops involving glacial backdrops and face-to-face meetings with native Alaskans on the verge of losing their village to rising sea levels, Obama’s trip took him above the Arctic Circle, making him the first sitting US president to venture so far north.

Obama also attended an international conference named GLACIER, as in “Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience”. Kudos to the PR person who managed to make that cumbersome acronym work. Mostly.

The GLACIER conference agenda reads like a workshop for high-level bureaucrats, which it kind of was. I was a bit surprised to see on the evening news Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini hosting one of the GLACIER panels. But, of course, that does make sense, as Finland is in that select group of eight nations with territory within the Arctic Circle, or as they say in Finnish, Napapiiri.

Still, it seems that the thing that got the most attention in the US during Obama’s trip was the announcement just before the trip that he was renaming the highest mountain in North America.

It was amusing to see how some American conservatives fell over themselves to complain about the move, though this act by the Obama administration has, in fact, long been desired by the people of Alaska, Democrats and Republicans alike.

The mountain previously known as McKinley.
Courtesy the National Park Service

Denali, as the mountain has traditionally been called locally (and will now be known officially nationwide), was given the name Mt. McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector who was a supporter of presidential candidate William McKinley. The prospector favored McKinley’s strong position on the gold standard (as any self-respecting gold prospector would), so his christening of the mountain was a bald-faced act of branding for political purposes. The name caught on, however, especially after McKinley was assassinated in 1901. 

Caught on, that is, except in Alaska, were locals have reportedly always referred to the mountain as Denali, its name in one of the local indigenous languages. Since 1975, the State of Alaska has lobbied the federal government to change the name, but politicians from McKinley’s home state of Ohio have successfully prevented any such “disrespecting” of their native son. It is the very essence of petty politics.

Anyway, this whole episode brought to mind something I read recently, something much closer to home than Denali.

I have a book about the history of my home county in Georgia, published in 1965 by George Gordon Ward, the husband of my second grade teacher. The book is not a straightforward history, as such, though at some 600 pages it is in many ways a comprehensive one. It consists of a sometimes randomly organized collection of interesting bits and pieces about Gilmer County and the people who lived there in the past. As the author was also something of a small-town “booster” with an eye toward advancing the county’s prosperity and economic progress, he even included in his book some suggestions for improving the county’s image. One such suggestion was the renaming of a mountain.

Mr. Ward felt that some of the local mountains had decidedly hillbilly-sounding names that reflected poorly on the up-and-coming prospects of a county like Gilmer. As he saw it, "some of these early-day designations were temporarily applied by pioneers as a joke or without thought the names would stick." Sounds a bit like how Mt. McKinley got its name. 

As an example of an "absurd" pioneer-era name, he singled out "Tater Patch", as locals usually refer to Potatopatch Mountain, a high ridge dominating the horizon north of my teenage home. For this 3560-foot (1085m) knob on the edge of the present-day Cohutta Wilderness area, Mr. Ward proposed the more respectable name of “Mount Ivan Allen”, in honor a prominent Georgian at the time. 

Tater Patch Mountain, the ridge line to the right in this photo.

Reading about this long-forgotten proposal-in-passing made me cringe a bit. While someone bearing the name Ivan Allen had been active in public life in Georgia for some 70 years, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the name, even now, is office supplies. As in paper, pencils and desks.

The company founded by and named after Ivan Allen was an Atlanta institution, I guess, and well-known far beyond the city. In my youth, the company’s adverts reached across North Georgia, though perhaps not quite as far as the secluded and forested summit of Tater Patch. At least, they must have stuck with me somehow.

When I ran across our homegrown historian’s suggestion of assigning Allen’s name to natural spot I remember well, it struck me as very wrong. For my taste, the Allen’s name reeked too much of commercialism to deserve being honored in that way. 

As I researched (read, "Googled") Allen's background, I learned that he was quite the civil booster himself, active in service organizations and writing booklets promoting business in Atlanta. He also donated land that he owned on a mountaintop near my home for the creation of Fort Mountain State Park, a recreation area I have a long history with. This act of charity is probably what prompted our homegrown historian to think of bestowing Allen's name on a different, but (as he felt) poorly named, mountain nearby. 

So ingrained was the name of the Ivan Allen Company in my mind that I didn’t even remember that Ivan Allen's son, Ivan Junior, had been a leading light in his own right during my childhood and a two-term mayor of the big city a couple of hours south of my birthplace. Obviously, I didn't follow the news a lot back then. 

I have now come to realize how progressive, for the times, Ivan Junior was as mayor. He evolved from his early segregationist leanings to embrace civil rights in a sincere way and ushered in a relatively smooth racial transition for Atlanta during the turbulent 60s. He was even asked by President Kennedy to advise Congress on the creation of what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

He deserves recognition for, if nothing else, defeating the hard-core segregationist politician (and Georgia’s best-known embarrassment) Lester Maddox, who was then also running for mayor of Atlanta. Sadly, Maddox went on to become governor. My hometown, to its discredit in my mind, named a prominent street after Maddox.

Still, despite gaining some long-overdue appreciation for the legacy of the Ivan Allen name, especially Allen the Younger, I’m grateful that Mr. Ward's notion of changing the local map never caught on. I still prefer “Tater Patch”, a fine name just as it is. 

1 comment:

  1. There are a lot of cool names for mountains in the southern Appalachians. I think there's a peak in Georgia called Hemp Top. Two of the last Black Mountain summits I had to hike to complete all of the major ones were Big Butt and Little Butt. Devil's Courthouse is an impressive peak with a name that I'm surprised wasn't renamed because of Christian agitation. And of course we're both familiar with Charlies Bunion and The Sawteeth.

    Another weird thing that I have noticed about the southern Appalachians is how many times names are repeated throughout the region. There seems to be no way to count all of the Pine Mountains, Rocky Mountains, Sharp Tops, Deep Gaps, etc.

    I liked Tater Patch. A major peak in the Cohuttas. It would indeed have been a shame if it had been renamed out of shame for an Atlanta area citizen.

    My mom admired Ivan Allen Jr. and I recall that she voted for him. I also recall that she made sure to vote AGAINST Lester Maddox. I met the crazy old racist governor on a school field trip when I was in grammar school. I almost missed seeing him because I was much more interested in the two-headed snake preserved in a Lucite block than I was in seeing a guy whom I knew was loathed by my parents. He seemed friendly enough.

    And what kind of state displays a two-headed snake in a block of Lucite at its capital building?