Once a thriving coal mining and agricultural town of over 5,000, What Cheer, Iowa stands today at a dwindling population of 646. Largely abandoned, What Cheer’s rusting infrastructure today seems incongruous with its peculiar name. But a deeper look into its etymology reveals an absurd and widely disputed naming history.
What Cheer was founded in 1865 under the name of Petersburg, named after its creator, Peter Britton, who staked his claim for 14 acres of Iowan land in the mid-19th century. But the Post Office rejected this toponym, forcing a name change December 1, 1879. “What Cheer” was chosen by store owner Joseph Andrews, and his exact reasoning is unknown to this day.
There are a wide variety of theories as to how What Cheer was the name of choice. Some believe that it stems from the 15th century British saying “what cheer with you,” often simplified to “wotcher.” Or perhaps, some believe, it originated when a Scottish coal miner exclaimed “what cheer!” upon striking it rich.
A more elaborate theory proposes that Andrews got the toponym from the saying of “what cheer, Netop” (translating to ‘what cheer, friend’) that was popularized in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. The phrase was first uttered by the Narragansett Native Americans, who combined English with their native language to greet the British colonists. An image of that encounter and the phrase, “What cheer?” appear on the seal of the City of Providence.
Old-timers will sometimes tell you that the town was named when a passing train stopped at the station. A newly arrived European immigrant, stretching her legs, looked around and asked, in thick accent “What’s chere?” The train began running the same year the town name was changed, in 1879.
British Composer William Walton, in 1960, composed a new setting for the ancient English Christmas Carol “What Cheer!” which has had many other settings over the centuries since the lyrics were written around 1500. Many of the early settlers in What Cheer were from the British Isles, and in addition to that carol, the words “what cheer” appear in several hymns sung in England and the United States during the 19th century.
This strange naming history is a source of life and uniqueness in a decaying town. The city clerk commonly receives letters from across the nation asking for the meaning behind the name.
A bright spot each year in What Cheer’s social Summer calendar is the Keokuk County Fair, held in the town since 1889. The fairgrounds has hosted harness horse racing during the fair annually since then, and on selected other dates during the summer. Outside of fair time, figure 8 auto races are also held at the fairgrounds.
In addition to its unique etymology, What Cheer is also home to a two-story museum, the Masonic Opera House, built in 1893, and the What Cheer Flea Market, which operates on Saturdays and Sundays from May 1 to October 4. Sounds like quite a cheerful time!
Know Before You Go
Take 170th Street four miles west at the Fairgrounds to visit the historic Indianapolis Cemetery, which has several unique period tombstones. This is found just over the Mahaska County line at County Road V21, and is visible from 170th Street. The Public Library and the Museum, which both feature historical artifacts, operate on irregular schedules, so it is always best to call before you go. The library staff and museum curator are very knowledgeable about local lore. To see the inside of the Opera House, attend one of their many performances. There is no admission charged, but a free will offering is taken.