This is a story about how a city got its curious name and what it means to be a namesake. The story begins in the late 1890s and takes place in rural Minnesota. James Hare had become the new postmaster of Burns Township, but he had a problem. He wanted to reactivate the Burns Post Office but was told by the United States Post Office Department that he had to come up with a new name for it. Sometime during the three years the post office had been deactivated, another one had opened up elsewhere in the state using the name Burns. In order to ensure the proper delivery of mail, the Postal Department stipulated that post offices in the same state could not use the same nameopens PDF file . Although it was also required that post office names match the name of the city, town, or village where it was located, exceptions were made and this was one of those cases.
Instead of submitting just one suggestion, James Hare sent a list of possible names for the Postal Department to choose from. Two of the names on his list were Haresville and Hare’s Corners, even though making a post office the namesake of its postmaster was a discouraged practice being phased out by the Postal Department. So it should come as no surprise that the Postal Department did not choose either of Hare’s suggested eponymous names.
However, much to Hare’s surprise the approval letter he received said the new name of the post office would be Nowthen (the words “now” and “then,” but written as one word: Nowthen), even though that name wasn’t one that he had suggested. Or was it?
Those who knew James Hare couldn’t help but notice that he frequently used the phrase “now then” in conversation and that he wrote the same way that he spoke. So, you guessed it, somewhere in his letter to the Postal Department he had included his oft-used phrase.
Although there are different versions of how James Hare used “now then” in his letter, there is agreement that he did include the phrase. Various newspapers and books say he had some sort of ending to his letter that read “Now then, enough said” or “Now then, you can select from this list,” or something like that — and its location made it appear as though it was one of his suggested names. But it remains a mystery as to why postal officials selected and approved “Nowthen” (again, as one word) over all the other suggested names. At the time, the Postal Department required short or one-word names, so if it looked like Nowthen was one of Hare’s suggested names, then perhaps it was chosen because it was the shortest on the list that didn’t use someone’s name.
As a result of the Nowthen Post Office being established in Burns Township, the immediate area around the building was often informally referred to as Nowthen. In 2008, when residents of Burns Township voted to incorporate as a city, they could have simply kept the name Burns, but they decided to officially be called Nowthen. By that time, the post office no longer existed, but a few businesses, along with a park and a church, were using Nowthen as part of their names.
The name Nowthen continues to intrigue people, and journalists still write about its origin. Such was the case with an article in the “Anoka County Union Herald” in the summer of 2023. The article reported on a ceremony that took place in Lakeview Cemetery in Nowthen to belatedly honor James Hare as the last Civil War veteran from the Union army to die in Anoka County. Of course, the article also mentioned the credit Hare is given for the city’s name, but in so doing erroneously referred to him as the “namesake of Nowthen.”
The only way James Hare could be the namesake of Nowthen is if he had been named after the city, which he obviously was not. A namesake is a person, place, or thing intentionally given the same name as someone, something, or some place. So even if the Postal Department had selected Haresville or Hare’s Corners from his list of suggested names, James Hare would not have been the namesake. The post office would have been the namesake, and Hare would have been the eponym. If that had happened, we’d simply say the post office was “named after” Hare. The namesake is the person, place, or thing that is given the name, and the eponym is the source of the name. (“Eponym” from a Greek word that means “giving one’s name to something.”) For example, the Eiffel Tower is named after its creator Gustave Eiffel, which makes the tower the namesake and the engineer the eponym. Likewise, some cities (and their post offices) are the namesakes of people, such as is the case with Lincoln, Nebraska; Hamilton, Ohio; and Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
Although James Hare never intended a post office or city to be called Nowthen, he is rightly credited with the name. However, he is not the namesake. He’s just the guy who, through a quirk of his own speaking and writing habits and a misunderstanding on the part of the federal government, inadvertently gave the name Nowthen to a city in Minnesota with the current population of only 4,500 people sparsely inhabiting 33 square miles of land.
It was reported that James Hare laughed when he received approval to name the post office Nowthen. If he were still alive today, perhaps he would also find it amusing that the city eventually adopted that name and the story behind it is being used on a grammar podcast to talk about what it means to be a namesake.