“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose would smell as sweet by any other,” mused Will Shakespeare’s Romeo. As Romeo soon discovered, his thinking was fatally flawed. In the third millennium, names have only temporary quantifiable value, at least when it comes to things that endure much longer than a rose. Remember when the local baseball park was called Sec Taylor Stadium, the Iowa State football stadium was Clyde Williams Field, and the main north/south road west of downtown was Warren Harding Way?
Today, honorary names are ephemeral. Buildings are built to become obsolete, and naming rights are sold with expiration dates. Political correctness has factored into name changes as quickly as statues of Mussolini were toppled or the Ten Commandments were chiseled off courthouse facades. Yet some names endure and become more famous than the memories of the people who inspired them.
Consider the MacVicar Freeway in metro Des Moines. That name is here to stay, but who was this MacVicar guy? The freeway named for MacVicar has been one of central Iowa’s great construction feats of the last half century. Its northeast by due west route directed future population changes in central Iowa. Suburbs with seamless freeway connections to or from Interstates 35 and 80 — West Des Moines, Waukee, Clive, Altoona and Ankeny — grew dramatically faster than other, less-connected suburbs.
When the freeway’s first section (from Keo Way to Cottage Grove Avenue) opened in 1961, my high school football coach marveled that the trip from Roosevelt to East would soon be shortened by more than 10 minutes. The further the freeway extended, the more astounding the time savings became. Today it is Iowa’s busiest road, with 75,000 to 125,000 cars a day, yet rush hour traffic jams are insignificant compared to those in larger cities across America, including Omaha and Kansas City.
Still, almost no one today has any idea who MacVicar was. Actually, he was two former mayor-bureaucrats of Des Moines — a father and son team. John MacVicar Sr. was mayor from 1896–1900, 1916–1918, and in 1928. John MacVicar Jr. was mayor from 1942–1948. The elder MacVicar was Canadian by birth and came to Des Moines in 1882, making it big in the wallpaper business. In 1888, he was elected recorder of North Des Moines and that former town’s mayor a year later. After North Des Moines was annexed by Des Moines, he became the larger city’s mayor as well as Superintendent of the Department of Streets, a fiefdom he ruled for decades. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery. John, Jr. followed his father as long-time Superintendent of Streets and as a one-term mayor. The two held office in Des Moines for half a century. When naming of the local freeway was discussed, it was pointed out that Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway was named after a local official who had worked to expand the streets and highways of the Windy City.
The Brunnier Museum anchors the Iowa State Center, a series of cultural and sports complexes south of the main campus. It is internationally renowned for its 28,000-piece permanent collection. European and American decorative arts, glass and Christian Peterson sculptures are its major strengths.
It is named for Henry Brunnier, an Iowa State graduate who turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club to seek his fortune in San Francisco, where his legend grew Dimaggio-sized. Brunnier went west after the fire and earthquake of 1906 had decimated the city and completely wiped out its transportation system. During the next 50 years, his engineering firm would build many of “The City’s” landmarks such as the Embarcadero sea wall, the Santa Cruz wharf and the Sharon Building (where his firm still resides). In partnership with famed architect George Kendrick, Brunnier built the San Francisco Public Library, Standard Oil Building, the Mount Davidson Cross, Federal Reserve Bank Building, Shell Building and Russ Building which, until 1964, was San Francisco’s tallest skyscraper.
Brunnier was technologically ahead of his time. The old ballplayer also built Seals Stadium, the baseball park that was considered America’s most beautiful minor league stadium. It was the country’s first ballpark built to host night games. He also supervised the construction of Oakland Bay Bridge, the nation’s first bridge built to withstand earthquakes. In World War II, he supervised the construction of a state-of-the-art submarine base in Panama.
Sherman Hill is one of Des Moines’ oldest neighborhoods, known for its Victorian mansions, restaurants and gentrification. It’s also home to Hoyt Sherman Place, the home of the Des Moines Women’s Club since 1907. The club added an art museum — the city’s first ever — to display its collections. In 1923, it built a 1,400-seat theater to host speakers such as Amelia Earhart and Helen Keller. In 2003, the theater was modernized and downsized to 1,252 seats. It’s a niche venue for musicians like Lyle Lovett and Elvis Costello, who miss the mainstream but have loyal followings.
But who was Hoyt Sherman? The brother of the infamous Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, Hoyt was born in Ohio, the son of a Supreme Court justice. His other older brothers were a U.S. senator and an Ohio Supreme Court justice.
He moved to Fort Des Moines, then on the western frontier of America, in 1848.
One year later, he was admitted to the bar and began to practice law while starting a real estate business. The same year he was appointed by President Zachary Taylor to be postmaster of Des Moines, holding that position until the inauguration of President Francis Pierce. He was then elected clerk of the District Court. In the next few years, he began the banking house of Hoyt Sherman & Co. When the State Bank of Iowa was established, Sherman became cashier of its Des Moines branch and a director.
When the Civil War broke out, Sherman was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to be paymaster in the Union army with the rank of major. He later became a founder of the Equitable Life Insurance Company of Iowa, and was, for many years, its general manager. After the war, Sherman became a member of the House of the Eleventh General Assembly where he was chairman of the committee on railroads and a member of the committee of ways and means. In 1886, he became a founder of the Pioneer Lawmakers’ Association for which he served as president. In 1877, Hoyt Sherman built a grand mansion, which is now Hoyt Sherman Place.
FRANCIS MARION DRAKE
Drake University is one of the best-known private institutions in central Iowa. It has 3,160 students, and its graduate programs in business, law and pharmacy are renowned. Its law school is the nation’s 25th oldest. The school has cosmopolitan connections with well-regarded exchange programs in China, France and other countries, and extensive foreign language programs. It hosts an internationally known athletics competition known as the Drake Relays. When Drake upset a powerful Colorado football team in a 1980s game, Sports Illustrated wrote that “Colorado lost to a school named after a track meet.”
They were wrong. Drake is named for Francis Marion Drake, a Civil War hero and a banking and railroad mogul in the coal-driven southern Iowa economy. Born in 1830 in Illinois, Drake came to Centerville, Iowa, at age 7. He was an adventurous soul, leading two expeditions of Iowans to California during the Gold Rush. On one occasion, he defeated an attack of 300 Pawnees without major casualties to his band. On the second trip, he brought one of the first herds of English cattle to California. On his return from that trip, he survived a shipwreck that killed 800 fellow passengers.
A brigadier general, he fought in several Civil War engagements in Mississippi and Arkansas for Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the West. After the Battle of Helena in 1864, Drake was promoted to command the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 7th Corps in addition to his Iowa Regiment. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Mark’s Mills. Fourteen months later, he felt recovered from his wounds and returned to service, with increased command assignments.
He returned to Centerville after the war and practiced as a criminal lawyer for six years. After railroads crossed the Mississippi River, he turned to building and managing railroads for the next 30 years. He was president of the Missouri, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad; the Indiana, Illinois & Iowa Railroad; and the Albia & Centerville Railroad. He also founded the Centerville National Bank for which he was president until his death.
In 1881, the Disciples of Christ Church decided to move its support for Oskaloosa College to a new college in the woods outside Des Moines. They announced that the largest financial pledge to the project would include naming rights. Drake, a church member, easily outbid everyone with a $20,000 pledge in railroad bonds.
The naming rights were contentious, especially because Drake stipulated that his gift would take place only after the first structure had been completed. Officials from Oskaloosa, many of whom wanted the school to be named for someone else, pressured Drake to contribute sooner. He refused adamantly until, for reasons unknown, he suddenly withdrew his stipulations and doubled his pledge while asking that a large share go to building a School of Music.
Despite the fact that the city was still without paving or sewers, Drake University grew dramatically. In less than 10 years, it included eight departments, 53 professors and 800 students. Francis Drake would also endow schools in India and Japan. In 1895, he was nominated as the Republican candidate for governor of Iowa. He was elected by an overwhelming majority and served from 1896 through 1898.
Merle Hay Plaza was central Iowa’s original suburban mall. It is named for Merle Hay Road on which it is situated. But who was Merle Hay? Merle David Hay was a Carroll County farm boy and farm implement salesman who volunteered for military service, despite being too young for the draft, during World War I. His 15th Infantry Regiment was sent to St. Nazaire, France, in 1917. Posted in a trench near the village of Artois, Hay’s regiment was attacked by the Imperial German Army on Nov. 3. He and two companions became the first Americans to be killed in the “War to End Wars.”
The marker on his tombstone in Artois reads, “Here lie the first soldiers of the illustrious Republic of the United States who fell on French soil for justice and liberty.” In the 1920s, his body was interred and returned to Glidden, Iowa, for reburial. That cemetery was renamed then for Hay. Merle Hay Road was named for him because it was built to connect Camp Dodge to Des Moines. The first American casualty of World War II was also an Iowan — Andrew native Robert Losey, who was killed while trying to evacuate the American diplomatic corps from Norway after that country was attacked by Germany.
EDWARD O. FLEUR
Des Moines’ Fleur Drive is also named for a local casualty of World War I. Edward O. Fleur was a career military man in a career military family. When the U.S. entered the war, he was promoted from second lieutenant to captain and sent to France with Camp Dodge’s 168th Infantry. 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.
EBENEZER JARED INGERSOLL
Ingersoll Avenue is named for a little known Iowan who loved a good card game. Ebenezer Jared Ingersoll came to Des Moines from New York and practiced law while acquiring land holdings for breeding livestock. During an 1865 game of whilst (similar to bridge), Ingersoll’s card playing buddies talked about the need for an insurance company in Des Moines. All companies at the time were out-of-state operations with an office in town. Ingersoll took the idea to heart and soon founded the Hawkeye Fire Company, later Hawkeye Insurance. After his death in 1891, the city named a new east/west street after “the father of Des Moines’ insurance industry.”
These are but a few of the names that have endured the test of time in central Iowa. As for the stories behind them, Mark Twain wrote it best: “Names are not always what they seem.” ♦