NOLL: Not seeing the forest for the 'trrees'

Michael Noll 

Under normal circumstances everyone who reads the above title should discover a typo. Alas we are living in times when nothing seems evident anymore.

Even in the age of word-processing programs and spell-checks, typos can happen, because writing can be tough stuff.

I probably read my final dissertation draft a dozen times before I handed it in and still discovered mistakes once I received the bound version of it.

Just last week Jim Zachary wrote about the large Democratic field of presidential candidates and in his article one could discover a curious mistake. Instead of the phrase “one by one” it read “on by one” and I am sure he noticed this too once he opened the pages of his own paper.

Typos are especially easy to come by when you are not a native speaker, and every now and then I have to listen to the laughter of my daughter when I make a mistake. You see, words like “wine” and “whine” or “Wales” and “whales” may sound the same, but they are spelled differently and mean different things.

Then there are terms which only fit into specific cultural contexts. When you talk, for instance, about a “buggy” in Pennsylvania, you are referring to a horse-drawn carriage. However, in southern Georgia a “buggy” is a shopping cart. The first time I went shopping in Valdosta and brought my groceries to the car, I had no idea what the fellow wanted from me, who offered to take my “buggy” back to the store.

For a while now I have been paying attention to the Forrest Street controversy. In the South, street names like Lee (named after Robert E. Lee) and Gordon (named after John B. Gordon) are still part of our urban landscapes. Thus, I did not question the explanation of a former colleague that Forrest Street was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

As the controversy unfolded, readers of The Valdosta Daily Times also learned that Forrest Street may be named after Elbert Forrest, a former slave and founder of First Antioch Baptist Church. And it is true that his name appears in minutes of the Valdosta City Council from 1883, but you do not find the phrase “Forrest Street” in them.

And back in 1989 it was reported that “the late Susan McKey Thomas, a Valdosta historian, said she discovered some street names had been misspelled and that those misspellings have been accepted over the course of history.” Although she did not refer to Forrest Street in her report, if you walk the streets of Valdosta, you find examples for misspelled street names. “Thomwall Street,” for instance, turns into “Thomwal Street” at one point.

Eventually an article surfaced in The Times that “according to documents received from the Valdosta State University Department of Archives and Special Collections, Forrest Street may have initially contained one r.” Yet despite the evidence provided by Stacey Wright, no one seemed to pay attention, and the fighting continued.

As a geographer, I have a natural affinity for maps, so I did some research, and what I found confirms the “From Forest to Forrest” VDT article from Aug. 10, 2018.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Sanborn maps were created to help fire insurance companies in their assessment of liabilities in cities like Valdosta and they have a reputation for being accurate. The earliest map I could find is from 1900 and on it the name “Forest Street” appears, as it does on the 1911 Sanborn map, on a 1911 map by the Valdosta city engineer John M. Cook, and a 1919 Automobile Blue Book map. “Forest Street” also shows up in our city’s earliest directories, as it still does on the 1940 US Census forms.

I do not know when the original spelling “Forest” changed to “Forrest” or why, but if anyone does, please share your evidence. Meanwhile, our community has some options to consider:

1) Correct the misspelling, which would coincidentally mean that the owners of “Forest Park Center” and “Forest Park Laundromat” on the corner of Forrest and Park can simply smile.

2) If there is evidence that the misspelled word “Forrest” was accepted to honor Elbert Forrest, the city can make a declaration to confirm this historical aspect.

3) If it turns out that a misspelled “Forrest” was accepted to honor the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, it is time for change, because no one wants to live on a street with such a name.

Whatever we decide to do, I will be glad to help with a fundraiser to cover the costs for any changes, just as I would be happy to live on a street named in honor of Barack Obama.

Dr. Michael G. Noll lives in Valdosta.

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