originally published February 14, 2013

A city’s nickname holds, in my estimation, no appeal to tourists. Some may possess the kind of staying-power that shortens the legs on advertising execs’ pants, like The Big Apple, The Big Easy, The Easy Apple, The Windy City, or The Big Easy Sister Cities of Brotherly Love Of Wind. But more often, they don’t mean much to anyone, aside from the council members who voted for it and the guy who got paid to build the signs.

Edmonton, where I greet and curse each new day, is known as the City of Champions. This designation came about in the 1980’s, when the Oilers were winning a lot of Stanley Cups (hasn’t happened in 22 years and counting), the Eskimos were Canadian Football champs (there are eight teams in the league – everybody ends up winning eventually), and I think our minor-league baseball team was pretty good (they’re long gone now). We’d also gone through a tornado that killed three dozen people in 1987, so mayor Lawrence Decore slapped that slogan on all the signs leading into the city. But are we champions? I don’t see it.

The cities and towns in Iowa have their own slogans, likely none of which truly identify the soul of their city. I don’t know, let’s have a look.

Fort Madison, Iowa, is known as Pen City, which would be perfectly apt if the entire city – or even just a building or two – was constructed out of pens. Sadly, this is not the case. Fort Madison is the hometown for Sheaffer Pens though, which employed much of the town after its founding in 1912. But the company up and split for Shelton, Connecticut, leaving Fort Madison pen-less.

Well, almost. There’s still that other pen – the Iowa State Penitentiary, the most nefariously tough maximum security prison in the state. I’m not certain if this is the means by which Fort Madison resents wish to be identified, but for now, this is the pen they get.

Behold… the world’s largest Cheeto.

I know, you probably want a moment to let the reverence of that sink in a little. I understand. Take your time. And if you’re so inspired, take a drive down to Algona, Iowa to see it in person (bring the whole family!). You can find it at Emerald’s restaurant atop its velvet cushion behind a glass dome, which is where such a snack belongs.

The Cheeto, which is roughly the size of a ping pong ball, was not built especially for Algona, nor was it discovered inside an Algona-bought bag of the snacks. But it came out of some lucky muncher’s bag of Cheetos, and luckily for Algonans – hell, luckily for humanity – the guy or gal who found it had the good sense to save it.

Then sell it. To Algona, who was looking for something to bring in the tourists. Now they are known as the Home of the World’s Largest Cheeto. Impressed? Here it is again, wearing a little hat:

Now I know you’re jealous. Here’s a link to some real estate listings. You probably want to move there..

If you head to Sioux City, then you should feel honored that you are visiting the town that calls itself “Little Chicago”. Again, this has nothing to do with anything the locals can identify with – I’m sure they don’t walk around wearing Bulls jerseys, eating deep-dish pizza and plopping giant reflective beans into their park areas. But back in Prohibition days, Sioux City was known for being rather loose with the sauce. If you’ll forgive my 20’s-ish lingo, that means it was fairly easy to get a drink in Sioux City.

Des Moines, Iowa’s capital and what should be at the forefront of the movement to self-identify within the state, calls itself “Hartford of the West.” No, really. They have this prestigious (I guess) nickname because Des Moines is home base for several insurance companies, just like Hartford, Connecticut. Honestly, even if they called themselves “Home Of Seven Of The Nine Members of Slipknot” that would be at least a little more relevant. Well, for heavy metal fans, anyway.

Cedar Rapids is “The City of Five Seasons”. That includes winter, spring, summer, fall, and time taken to enjoy the other four. That’s pretty meta for a place that could probably attract a lot more tourism if they called themselves “The Birthplace of That Guy Who Played Frodo.” Just sayin’.

Dyersville Iowa is the “Farm Toy Capital Of The World”. Sure, the Ertl Company, manufacturer of fine farm toys despite the sparse vowel population in their name, is based in Dyersville. But this is also where you’ll find not one but two farm toy shows every year, including the prestigious National Farm Toy Show the first weekend of November (again – bring your family! If they’re still talking to you!).

In a town of only 4000 people, a number of local businesses are intertwined with the farm toy industry. This appears to be a case in which the nickname really fits the town. Well played, Dyersville.

Villisca, Iowa: The City With A Secret.

So what is the secret? And why isn’t that nickname found anywhere else (at least through all 30 seconds of my research) on the internet? I can’t say for certain, but it might have something to do with the axe murders.

On the night of June 9, 1912, Josiah Moore and his wife Sara and their four children were sleeping at home. Josiah owned the Moore Implement Company, which supplied local farmers with the full-size versions of the toys they make in Dyersville. Someone broke in and murdered the entire family with Josiah’s own axe. Oh, and the kids were having a sleepover too, so two non-Moores were added to the death toll.

Eight people, six of them kids, all dead. There were suspects galore, but nobody was ever tied to the murder. So yes, Villisca has a secret, a gruesome secret. One that will never be brought to light because the only people who knew what happened on that grotesque evening are long dead. So the name applies here, but is this really what the good people of Villisca want as their slogan?

Actually, yes. A look at the town’s website – not the Chamber of Commerce’s site, but the first one that pops up on a Google search – reveals that these murders are the lone tourist draw to the town. The Moores’ home was not torn down, nor was it occupied by another family. Now it is the Villisca Ax Murder House. And for a mere $400, you and your loved ones can stay in the allegedly haunted home where eight people were butchered a century ago.

I think I’ll stick with the giant Cheeto.

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