One hundred years ago the people of East Germantown thought it would be a good idea to change the name of their town, but that decision came with a lot of unintended consequences.
One of the early reactions to President Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany in April 1917 was a burst of patriotism. Unfortunately, that pro-Americanism came along with strong anti-German sentiment. All of a sudden everything, and everyone, who sounded German was suspect.
Along the National Road in Wayne County was the small town of East Germantown. Laid out in 1827, it was first called Georgetown after its founder, George Shortridge, but by 1832 it was known as Germantown. When the town became large enough to warrant a post office, it had to be changed. Another Germantown already existed elsewhere in the state, so they tacked “East” onto the name. This was a nice official solution, but the the offices in both Germantowns had to deal with a lot of misrouted mail.
Rather suddenly in the spring of 1917, having the word “German” as part of the town’s name was something to be ashamed of, so the town leaders started the process of having it changed, and apparently the first step was to change the name of the Post Office. The first name the townspeople chose was Verdun, after the French town that was the scene of one of the largest and longest battles in history, but the officials wouldn’t allow it because it was too close to “Vernon, Indiana.” They needed another name, and what better way to demonstrate the town’s patriotism than to rename it after the commanding general of the American army in Europe, General John Pershing?
The Post Office immediately agreed to the change, thinking it would solve the problem of too many Germantowns. On August 18, 1917, postmaster Frank Gipe was notified to change his bond to “Pershing,” and change the sign on the front door.
Unfortunately for those who thought this change would make things easier, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had a station in East Germantown — called simply Germantown — would not agree to make the name change to its station, stating that a name change would have to be approved by the state legislature. State officials later said that all that was needed was a popular election within the town. It wasn’t until February 14, 1920 when this election was held. With the war long over the rush of patriotism subsided, and property owners were more concerned about invalidating their deeds to property in East Germantown.
The citizens decided to keep their town name of East Germantown, and all the confusion that goes with having a Post Office with a different name, no matter how patriotic.
— Sue King