A name is a defining characteristic. Some are rooted in family history, perhaps coming from a great-great grandfather. While some names may have simply been the first named flipped to in a baby book.
Suffice to say, names are important and names carry a certain weight with them. That’s why ever since I came to work for The Oldham Era about a month ago nothing has bewildered me more than one thing: the spelling of La Grange.
At first, I was confident that the correct spelling of Oldham County’s seat of government was, in fact, La Grange, with a space between La and Grange. But my confidence waned.
I began reading letters to the editor and when people would sign off with their name and city I would see it, clear as day, looking right at me: LaGrange.
Was this just an isolated incident? That’s what I thought, nay hoped, at first, but no it wasn’t isolated. I began to see more and more instances of these two variations of the city’s spelling.
Even the La Grange city government website switches between the two variations as if they were whimsically flipping through the pages of a book.
Once my eyes were opened I began to see the discrepancies everywhere.
Before I could delve into the variation of the spelling, I needed to learn the history behind La Grange’s name.
In 1987, Robert Rennick published the first book detailing a systematic investigation behind the names of over 100 thousand places in Kentucky. Rennick wanted to uncover the origins, significance or history behind these names.
If you were to flip through Rennick’s book you’ll come across entries for both Oldham County and La Grange.
Oldham County’s entry tells us the county was established in 1823 and named after Colonel William Oldham, a Revolutionary War officer from Virginia. According to this entry, the county seat is La Grange, two words.
Additionally, the entry for La Grange also includes the space. And from that entry, and additional manuscripts Rennick kept, we learn La Grange received its name from the French estate of General Marquis de Lafayette, the American Revolutionary war hero, who visited the area in 1824.
Yes, La Grange derives its name from Château de la Grange-Bléneau, a 14th century castle.
The most important thing to take away from this quick history lesson is the spelling of the castle. Both its French name, and the multiple entries about the estate in “Adrienne The Life Of The Marquise De La Fayette” by French author André Marois’s book, spells it La Grange.
So that’s that, case closed, right? I wish, I really do.
A problem arises, however, when you look at Rennick’s second book on Kentucky place names, “From Red Hot to Monkey’s Eyebrow: Unusual Kentucky Place Names.”
La Grange isn’t an entry in this book, but it does make an appearance in an entry about the naming of Pewee Valley.
“…for good measures, they added Valley to the name, a curiosity since the town is on a ridge on the road to LaGrange,” Rennick wrote.
For all intents and purposes, the city is officially known as La Grange. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, recognizes the City of La Grange.
Early records kept by the Oldham County Historical Society also support the case for the separation between La and Grange.
Historical topographical maps of the region also spell it La Grange. But, nonetheless, Nancy Theiss, executive director of the historical society, says over time the spelling has varied.
“When I was in grade school in LaGrange, we also wrote it all together when we were taught cursive,” she said. “I think you will see it both ways over the years. I am not sure there is a firm answer.”
We at the Era have been guilty of printing LaGrange. The earliest archival of the newspaper I could find in the Era office, which was from 1946, spells it LaGrange. Evidently, it wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century we started separating the two.
Rennick’s research may provide closure on the matter. It’s possible at one point when the city was first established the post office at that time listed its name as LaGrange. If that was the case, it wasn’t uncommon for a place to be known by more than one name—with one of those names reflecting that of the post office.
Another possibility is the LaGrange spelling has become a nickname of the official name. According to Rennick, sometimes the nickname of a place is better known than the official name.
The official spelling is La Grange, and of that I’m sure. Yet, where and why the different spelling has proliferated over the years remains foggy.
I’d like to reach out to the citizens of La Grange, and Oldham County, to help put this mystery to rest. Feel free to call (502-222-7183) or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) letting me know how you spell La Grange, and why you spell it that way.
Together we may be able to solve this ongoing identity crisis.