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     Catch phrase: A phrase that attracts or is meant to attract attention. – See also, “jingle.”

Tourists heading west across South Dakota can’t help but smile when this billboard rhyme captures their attention:

“Where the heck is Kennebec?”

It’s probably the best highway advertisement since Burma Shave.

I can see the brows of younger readers furrowed in puzzlement.

Seriously, the Kennebec billboard is a throwback to a time when highway marketing was fun, and funny.

So who came up with the idea?

Teri and Tony Callahan use it on their KOA campground road signs and postcards, but credit the Kennebec Centennial Committee for coming up with the jingle.

Gene Mertens, town council president, said perhaps committee member Herb Sundall thought of it, but Sundall demurs.

“I won’t say I didn’t, but I don’t have a recollection of doing so.”

As clever as the saying is, it still takes second place to the story of how Kennebec was named.

One day, a settler with a heavily loaded wagon became mired in mud, known by Lyman Countians as “gumbo.” Finding he could not go forward, he tried to go back, but without success. A bystander, reportedly an Indian, was watching with interest and amusement and was heard to say, “Can no back.”

And the name Kennebec was born.

Is the story true? Historian Herbert Schell refers to Kennebec by an earlier name, Hotch City, when it sprung up on a stage route in the 1890s. Others believe that the town was named for Milwaukee railroad officials. This was not unusual. For example, Mitchell was named for Milwaukee banker Alexander Mitchell, president of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. Chamberlain was named after Selah Chamberlain, a railroad director of the same company. Railroad official John Plankinton was the namesake for the county seat of Aurora County.

Personally, I like the “can no back” story, and am reminded of what mythical newspaperman Maxwell Scott said in the film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” On learning decades later that Valance was not in fact shot by a greenhorn lawyer who then leveraged his fame to become a governor and U.S. senator, Scott said:

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

June 24, 2015