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Chew on This: There's a Town Called Gnaw Bone

Indiana: There are several possible explanations for the hamlet's curious name. The least fanciful? It might be a corruption of Narbonne.

February 13, 2000|REX W. HUPPKE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

GNAW BONE, Ind. — The name on the town-limit signs here has been known to turn a head or two, leaving motorists on winding state Route 46 wondering, "Who came up with that?"

It's a good question.

Plenty of curiously named towns dot the rolling hills of Indiana's Brown County: Needmore, Bean Blossom, Bear Wallow, to cite a few. But none quite as shrouded in uncertainty as Gnaw Bone, pop. 200.

This has always been home for Harry Johnson, born 66 years ago on the Fourth of July atop a hill overlooking the hamlet. He spends his days now working at the feed store.

"I've lived here all my life, so it's just natural," Johnson says of his oddly named hometown. "It was Gnaw Bone before I was even born."

And it's been Gnaw Bone for as long as any history book can tell.

Frank Gallant, author of "A Place Called Peculiar: Stories About Unusual American Place Names," says the United States is the world leader in made-up town names. His book lists 517 quirky places, from Smut Eye, Ala., to Hygiene, Colo.

"You find in a lot of these things the American independent spirit," Gallant says. "People named villages and towns for something that tickled them or appealed to them, and they didn't worry about how it was going to play back East."

He says the tales behind the place names are often funnier than the names themselves. And Gnaw Bone's a perfect example. Stories of the town's name gather dust in the Brown County library or are routinely recited to curious passersby.

Most Gnaw Bone-ites embrace this version:

A company of Union soldiers marched through the area during the Civil War. When they stopped to eat, one hit the bottle and got so drunk that the others left him by the side of a road, gnawing a bone left over from lunch.

The book "Indiana Place Names" lists another explanation. It tells of the Hawkins family, which had built a store and sawmill in the area. Apparently one man asked another if he'd seen Mr. Hawkins. The reply: "I seed him settin' on a log above the sawmill gnawin' on a bone."

Sandra Dolby, a folklore professor at nearby Indiana University in Bloomington, knows an entirely different tale. The town, it's rumored, was originally named after the city in southern France, Narbonne. Years of Hoosier French eroded that.

"You kind of hope that nothing like that would ever happen," says Dolby, chuckling.

The town stretches for less than a mile along state Route 46, and just a few side roads wander off the main drag into the tree-covered hills bordering the Hoosier National Forest.

There's no stoplight, no post office, no bar, no city government or video store. Just a church, a few businesses and a junkyard that stands on the site of the original settlement. It does have a Web site: www.gnawboneindiana.com.

For Johnson and other residents, the beauty of the town is in the familiar. The perfect line of hardwood trees along Valley Branch Road, where Johnson takes daily walks in the summertime. The sound of cars rolling over the gravel parking area behind the feed store.

There's also the sorghum, apple butter and persimmons sold alongside fresh-baked bread at the Gnaw Bone Sorghum Mill. The bartering that still goes on when resident fishing expert Jack Weddle trades bluegill filets for bread and pies.

Johnson hasn't seen much change since the days of kerosene lamps and "gettin' water from the crick," but some entrepreneurs are now taking advantage of the curiosity Gnaw Bone piques.

Head to Gnaw Bone Food & Fuel for the big jar filled with bright yellow bone-shaped key chains that read, "Yep, there really is a Gnaw Bone, Indiana."

And smell owner Roger Sharp's favorite creation: the oversized, breaded, deep-fried Gnaw Bone Tenderloin. Sharp, wearing a Gnaw Bone baseball cap and lifting another pork tenderloin out of the broaster, says residents embrace the town's name.

"That's one thing they've never wanted to change," he says. "People laugh about it. They think it's pretty neat."

Gayle Roberts, who works at the Gnaw Bone Sorghum Mill, is one of the fans. She loves looking out the window behind the cash register and watching visitors pose for photos.

It's kind of like a celebration, she says, and yet:

"To me it's just home. And that's what I like most about it, I suppose."

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