New book names names in Columbia's villages

June 13, 2008

Barbara Kellner was placing a catalog order over the phone when it happened. She told the person taking the order that she lived on Phelps Luck Drive.

"Oh, you must live in Columbia," the order taker joked.

Kellner has heard that line before. A staff member at the Columbia Archives, she often fields calls from residents seeking to find out why their streets are named after such odd things as a stray camel and a green dragon.

Kellner, fellow archivist Robin Emrich and Columbia resident Missy Burke have spent the past four years researching the history of Columbia's place names.

This week, the Columbia Archives is releasing their book Oh, You Must Live in Columbia: The Origins of Place Names in Columbia, Maryland in conjunction with the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

The book will be on sale at tonight's LakeFest, which opens the arts festival. The three authors will sign copies from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Oh, You Must Live in Columbia will be on sale for $24.99 at the Columbia Archives through the weekend.

Sales will benefit programming at the archives.

The book opens with the story of Kellner's phone catalog experience, and explains how Columbia's streets were named and who named them.

Phelps Luck Drive comes from a land grant that Mr. Phelps, apparently, was lucky to get.

The book includes such historical, literary and artistic sources for street names, as well as photos and stories about the growth of Columbia.

Rouse Co. employees wondered how they could find a unique theme or source for the thousand streets they were planning, Kellner said.

"They settled on this idea that they would use the best of American literature," she said.

Nancy Miller, a former Rouse employee, was one of the street-namers.

"I did the final half of the streets," said Miller, who now lives in Mount Airy.

Miller donated a set of index cards, records of the street names and their sources to the archives several years ago. Soon after that donation, Burke came to the archives office with the idea to write a book about street names, Kellner said.

A former editor and graphic designer who is a stay-home parent, Burke did the initial research.

Kellner and Emrich got more involved and it became a joint project of researching the process of how the idea of using authors evolved, Kellner said.

The authors interviewed Miller and others who created names for Columbia's streets.

They went through scraps of paper, memos, even backs of envelopes on which Rouse employees jotted ideas.

Miller remembers going to the library to check out books by the author that the Rouse Co. was using for a particular neighborhood.

"I would go home and read through," Miller said. "I looked at the properties - so I knew what I was looking for."

"[The street namers] read a poem and apparently just chose words that seemed to flow," Kellner said.

"[Some are] a variation of something in the poem, where they transposed the words," Kellner said.

Other names combine one word from one line of a poem with another word from a nearby line.

One of Burke's favorite street names is Stray Camel Way in Clemens Crossing. Although the name didn't strike Burke as American, the source is Tom Sawyer Abroad by Mark Twain. The book includes a story about a camel driver.

With all of the unusual street names in Columbia, there were bound to be a few mistakes.

A famous error was Satan Wood Drive in Hickory Ridge. Miller said the name was processed incorrectly. It should have been "Satinwood," a reference to the poem Pantomime in One Act by American poet Amy Lowell.

"No one ever caught it," Miller said. "It always would come up every five years. Someone would say, 'We want to change it,' and no one ever did." The name was finally corrected in 2005. That story is one of many in the book.

And the dragon? The index cards say Green Dragon Court is named for Smaug the dragon, a character in J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit. But Emrich - a Tolkien fan - knew that the Green Dragon refers to an inn popular among Hobbits.

"Those were the kind of errors we were playing with," Emrich said.

Burke said that some of the streets are listed in the book as "a mystery." At LakeFest, she hopes people will come forward with information about those streets.

The Columbia Archives has had a presence at LakeFest for many years. This year, Kellner suggested premiering the book for the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Nichole Hickey, executive director of the festival, agreed.

"Our mission is utilizing the arts to build community," Hickey said.

At LakeFest, "People will have access to talking with these writers, learning more about Columbia and its history. ... It was just such a wonderful fit," Hickey said.


When: Today, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; tomorrow, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Where: Columbia lakefront.

What: Music, crafts, visual arts and children's actitivites everyday. Highlights - 9:10 p.m. today, , Ryan Shaw; 11 a.m. tomorrow, Kinetic Art Parade; 1 p.m. tomorrow, Howard County Boat Float; 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Glenelg High School Jazz Ensemble with special guest Deanna Bogart.

Admission: Free.

Information: or 410-715-3044.

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