John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Turns out a weirdly named landmark can be quite beneficial to the local economy.
It must be hard growing up in Toad Suck, Arkansas.
Seriously: This unappetizingly named spit of unincorporated land covers barely a mile and is twisted up in a dense thicket of vegetation. You'd have to be some kind of good ol' boy Tarzan, swinging from kudzu and washing your nutria codpiece in the river, to survive in the wilds of Toad Suck.
Despite its lack of infrastructure, though, the place recently won top honors in an online poll to find America's most unfortunate “town” name. In a survey conducted by the family-tree website Find My Past, voters the world over proved that a burg that conjures the thought of dude slurping on a nodulous amphibian was worse than Belchertown, Massachusetts; Climax, Georgia; Hooker, Oklahoma; and a charming little hamlet in Illinois called Roachtown.
In a press release heralding this important development, Find My Past's genealogist Josh Taylor said that "some people are disconcerted to learn that their forebears came from somewhere called, for example, Toad Suck, Roachtown or Monkey’s Eyebrow." You don't say! Taylor added: "If there were an Olympics for unlikely town names, America would surely be good for a medal, if not the gold."
Naturally, I just had to find out what the folks who live near Toad Suck – lone Google review: "Just lame" – think of this dubious honor from the international community. After unsuccessful calls to the Toad Suck Bucks restaurant (closed half of the week), the Toad Suck Inn "Catfish 'N Fixin's" (disconnected number) and the Toad Suck One Stop (press-shy clerk, sigh), I finally struck bufonid with the local office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Army oversees Toad Suck Park, whose manager, Scott Fryer, quickly pointed out that Toad Suck is "not actually a town, just a spot on the river." Fryer then got down to the business of explaining the "legend" behind the spot's unlikely moniker.
"It's where a ferry used to cross the Arkansas River from Faulkner County to Perry County," he begins. "Well, the story is that at the time of the ferry boat, there was tavern on the Perry County side of the river that was a local hangout for folks to go down and drink alcohol and do other things frowned upon by the local communities. Some church ladies from nearby would say, 'If you can't find so-and-so, go down to the tavern. He'll be sucking on a bottle so much he's swollen up like a toad.'"
Fryer doesn't see the appellation as anything bad. If anything, it's helped attract "a lot of positive attention," he says. "It's a name that draws people in."
For more than three decades, for instance, the nearby city of Conway has held a three-day festival in May called Toad Suck Daze that raises money for scholarships. The event organizers promise that it is Arkansas' premiere destination for "great food and everything TOAD; the Toad Market, the Toadal Kidz Zone, and the world championship Toad Races along with our lineup of headlining live entertainment. You are sure to have a 'toadtastic' time."
While there's so much toad pride floating around the area, today there's not much left of that ferry tavern and its sinful regulars who called the Suck home. The most drinking you'll find might be shady teenagers chugging SouthPaw Light by the shore (though not on Fryer's watch, thank you very much). Rather, the locale is a pleasant recreational haunt that just happens to attract a steady stream of tourists from the highway, who whip out their cameras to pose with the name sign.
Popular pastimes in Toad Suck include camping, fishing, picnicking and "just watching the river go by," says Fryer, who sounds quite immune by now to visitors laughing at his park's weird name.
"I think most people in Arkansas know about Toad Suck," he says.
Full results of the Find My Past survey:
Photo credit: Ken Lund/Wikimedia Commons