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The Origins of Weird State Park Names (Part Three)

When you see these names, you tend to say to yourself, "Does that mean what it sounds like?" In most cases, no.

Bong

You've seen the sign, if not from the highway in Wisconsin, then on the internet. And you've heard the jokes about "recreation" involving either a water pipe for marijuana, or more recently a funnel for drinking beer. But if you follow the signs, you'll find the name of the place is actually the Richard Bong State Recreation Area. Its namesake, Major Richard Ira Bong, was called the "Ace of Aces." He flew 200 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, scoring 40 victories. Bong was presented with the Medal of Honor in 1944, on top of a number of other wartime medals. He then became a test pilot for the Air Force and flew the P-80, which malfunctioned during a flight in 1945. Major Bong bailed out of the plane, but was too close to the ground for his parachute to deploy properly, and he died on impact. The Richard Bong State Recreation Area is just one of many memorials to the flying ace.

Big Bone Lick

Big Bone Lick State Park in northern Kentucky is famous for its name alone. It should be more famous for its fossils, since the area was once a swamp and home to all kinds of huge prehistoric animals like mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths. A salt spring in the area attracts animals, who would come and lick the salt that was difficult to get in the rest of their diet. Hence, it was a "lick", the same name that sticks with other such areas. Native Americans also got salt there, and passed this tip on to a French Canadian named Baron de Longueil, who explored the area in 1739. A 1744 map marks the spot as the "place where they found the elephant bones in 1739." By then, the bones found at the lick were used for all kinds of purposes. Image by Wikipedia user Mattguyver.

When John Filson published the a map of Kentucky in 1784, the lick was labeled, as well as Big Bone Creek and "Salt Springs and Medicinal Spring the large Bones are found here."

Saddleback Butte

Saddleback Butte State Park near Lancaster, California might give you pause when you see the sign. When I saw this state park listing, the name struck me as a medical condition along the lines of tennis elbow, since the last time I spent all day in a saddle my butte was quite sore. It could also be a descriptive term for the appearance of a person's posterior, although not a flattering one. But this butte is pronounced beaut, which Americans should know because of the small city of Butte, Montana. It's a term for a geological formation, a hill distinguished by steep sides and a flat top, like a large rock set on a relatively flat plain. Those who've been to Saddleback Butte (or who've seen the pictures) say it looks nothing like a saddle and is hardly a butte. Someone lost to history thought up the name. Still, the park offers hiking trails up the hill to an elevation of 3,651 feet, with the reward of a spectacular view. Image by Wikipedia user Matt Jalbert.

Big Bottom

Big Bottom State Memorial Park in Stockport. Ohio is a park that commemorates the Big Bottom Massacre of 1791, a skirmish between Wyandot Indians and Ohio Company settlers that resulted in the deaths of 14 settlers. The Native Americans attacked in part because they resented the settlers encroachment upon the large fertile area on the Muskingum River. A "fertile area" on a river floodplain was commonly called "bottom land", and since the floodplain was extensive, the settlers called it Big Bottom. However, in the modern usage of the term, you don't want to pose with the sign if you are insecure about your weight.

Nimrod

Nimrod State Wildlife Management Area is named for Nimrod Lake in Arkansas. The lake was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1940-42 by damming the Fourche LaFave River. They named the lake after Nimrod, the grandson of Noah, who, according to the Bible, was a mighty hunter. The area surrounding Lake Nimrod has plentiful game. Little did they know that the name Nimrod would later be a slang term for a clueless person.

Bogus Basin

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Bogus Bason State Park in Boise County, Idaho, is one of those names that, yes, means exactly what it sounds like. Bogus Basin was once a destination for gold miners. However, that gold was actually pyrite, or "fool's gold," which led to the name. Miners warned others away with the name, but colorful tales sprung up to explain the exact circumstances. In one, "Pan Handle Pete" and "Jughead Jake" sold the mining rights and skipped town in a hurry. Other legends have hucksters planting gold dust in the mines or broadcasting their nugget sales to fool other prospectors into buying a claim. Image by Flickr user Disodium.

Ha Ha Tonka

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Ha Ha Tonka State Park is near Camdenton, Missouri. If the name were spelled Hahatonka, we would all assume it has native origins like Minnesota or Mississippi. But the real story is even more interesting. Land speculator Robert Scott bought up a lot of Missouri wilderness in the 1890s, and wanted a better name for the area than Gunter Springs, so, inspired by the Longfellow poem "Hiawatha," he came up with Hahatonka. Scott said it was an Osage Indian name meaning "laughing waters," but there is no evidence to back up his story. Wealthy Missouri businessman Robert Snyder purchased 2,500 acres from Scott in 1904 and started building a castle, intending it as a resort area. But Snyder died in 1906, and the castle (completed in 1922) burned in 1942. When the state park was founded in 1978, the state Parks Division put spaces in the name, either to distance it from the fake Osage term or to highlight the laughing waters idea. Or both. Image by Flickr user Amazing Brian.

Humbug Mountain

Humbug Mountain State Park, Oregon

Humbug Mountain State Park in Oregon takes its name from the mountain. It was first known as Sugarloaf Mountain until Captain William Tichenor brought a group of explorers and settlers in the 1850s. He sent out an exploratory party with instructions for climbing the mountain, but they disregarded his directions and became lost. The men named the hill Tichenor's Humbug (according to Tichenor) "to palliate their gross failure." The name was later shortened to Humbug Mountain. Image by Flickr user Mark Hillary.

Frozen Head

Snow on Frozen Head Mountain

Frozen Head State Park in east Tennessee is named after Frozen Head Mountain. There are no corpses associated with the place name, despite stories told to children of the area. Settlers name the mountain Frozen Head because the peak is 3,324 feet high, and the top is covered with ice and snow in winter -unlike smaller hills in the area. Image by Flickr user Michael Hodge.

A couple of notable suggestions for this post should be included, even though they are not state parks. Head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump is a Canadian provincial park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. A buffalo jump is an area in which buffalo were herded over a cliff to their deaths by hunters. The only reference to the name Head-Smashed-In I found was an unsubstantiated legend about a Blackfoot who was killed by falling buffalo through his own foolishness. Then there's Beaver Dick Park in Rexburg, Idaho, which is a county park, so you can read the story of the name on your own.

See also: Part One and Part Two of this series.

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Food
8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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