The Origins of Weird State Park Names (Part Four)

In part one of this series on the origin of state park names, we had park names with stories behind them. In part two, we found out why some names are scary or depressing. In part three, we looked behind names that were double entendres. In this edition, the names are so mundane and pedestrian that we can hardly believe they couldn't come up with a better name. They fall into three categories: 1. there is an interesting story behind the name, 2. whoever named it took the simplest route that made any sense whatsoever, and 3. there is scant evidence that the state park even exists.

Roman Nose

Roman Nose State Park is listed on the Oklahoma state parks site. It was named after Chief Henry Roman Nose. The chief was a Cheyenne warrior who was arrested for raiding white settlements in 1875 and sent to Florida. When he returned to Oklahoma in 1881, he became a policeman for the Indian Agency and worked to make peace between the southern Cheyenne tribes and the white settlers. Roman Nose was made a chief in 1889 and served until his death in 1917. Image by Flickr user Josh Bozarth.

Black Hand

Black Hand Gorge State Nature Preserve in Ohio was named after a hand-shaped petroglyph carved into the cliff. The hand is no longer there, as the cliff face was dynamited in 1828 to construct the Ohio-Erie Canal. An old Native American legend says that no bloodshed was allowed in the area because all tribes needed to gather the flint found there for arrowheads. However, two warriors got into a fight over a girl there and one cut the other's hand off before all three perished. The hand stayed behind on the cliff as a warning against spilling blood. Image by Wikipedia user ChristopherM.


Water falls

Gunpowder Falls State Park in Maryland got its name from Gunpowder Falls on Gunpowder River. As for the river's name, even the Baltimore Public Library doesn't know for sure, but thinks it is probably due to the saltpeter discovered along its banks. Saltpeter is an ingredient in gunpowder. Image by Flickr user Phil Romans.


Purse State Park in Maryland doesn't have the history of its name on the official website, but apparently it was named for a Dr. Purse, who bequeathed the land to the state.

Yellow Barn

Yellow Barn State Forest in New York was named for Yellow Barn Road. No one seems to feel the need to explain Yellow Barn Road's name, so it is assumed that at one time there was a yellow barn at the junction where the road begins. The state forest was carved from a collection of farms that became economically unsustainable during the Great Depression, starting in 1956. As the farms are now defunct, the barn is gone -if it even survived into the 20th century.


Similarly, Potato Hill State Forest, also in New York, was once farmland. Early Irish immigrant tried potato farming in the area, but production peaked in 1845 and then declined steadily, possibly because of the soil erosion problem. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted 602,000 trees to combat erosion (and to create jobs) between 1939 and 1941. The park is a popular hiking area.


Bootleg State Wildlife Management Area in Minnesota exists on maps, but does not turn up on the Minnesota state parks lists, nor does it have an entry in Wikipedia. All of which leads one to wonder if this wildlife area was downloaded illegally. However, the map shows that Bootleg State Wildlife Management Area is near Boot Lake Scientific & Natural Area, so one name might be a corruption of the other, but that is only speculation.

Toll Gate

Similarly, New Hampshire has Toll Gate State Park, or at least I thought it did, since you can find accommodations, but the park itself is not listed at the New Hampshire State Parks site. I began to believe you have to pay someone to get the information. However, a look at Google Maps shows that when you search for Toll Gate State Park, a listing for Rollins State Park comes up instead, so maybe the name was changed. Another clue: the history of Rollins State Park includes the building of a toll road. This park is named in honor of Governor Frank W. Rollins, who founded the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Besides, it's a much better name.

Strip Pits

Strip Pits State Wildlife Management Area is another of those parks that does not appear on the state parks website -in this instance, Kansas. However, it does exist on Google Maps. With so little documentation, we can only assume that the area is actually named after strip mining pits that were (we hope) reclaimed.

Burnt Cabin

Burnt Cabin Ridge State Park does not appear on the Oklahoma state parks site. However, you can find advertising for amenities near it, and you can find it on Google Maps. And I was so hoping to find an interesting story behind this name!


Thickhead State Wildlife Area in Pennsylvania is on the map, but is not listed at the Pennsylvania State Parks website. That area is known for birdwatching, so the wildlife area may be named after the group of birds known as thickheads.

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

8 Surprising Uses for Peeps

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.


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.


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.)


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

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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