I asked this very question to history sage Chris Orange, the park manager of Buckley Homestead in Northwest Indiana and a fountain of knowledge when it comes to all things old. A wise man who tries hard to keep me from looking stupid.
Chris hung his head for a moment, staring at the ground. He casually tossed an antique pewter inkwell back and forth between his hands.
“You don’t know?” I asked, surprised.
“No,” he said. “I do. But I’m trying to think how I should I explain.”
“Explain it to me as you would to a freshly-housebroken puppy,” I said.
“Do you know what a Cartesian plane is?” he asked.
I didn’t even answer him. “A puppy,” I repeated. “That just learned not to pee on the rug.”
“Okay,” Chris plopped the inkwell on his desk and tromped over to the dry erase board. He erased a long list of smudged numbers with the side of his hand and then drew two intersecting, perpendicular lines in black marker—an x-axis and a y-axis.
He tapped the board. “Recognize this?”
“I do,” I said.
“This is a Cartesian Plane,” he said. He moved the marker side-to-side. “X-axis,” he said. Then he bobbed it up and down. “Y-axis. We doing okay? No pissing on the rug yet?”
I replied with a simple hand gesture familiar to most American drivers but will refrain from specifying which.
Chris ignored me. “Many moons ago, when counties set out to incorporate vast stretches of rural miles into townships, they realized quickly that pumping out a thousand different names wasn’t going to work. You could name them after flowers and trees all you want, but when you’re dealing with over a thousand townships in a state, calling streets Oak and Hickory and Elm doesn’t work. Especially when the feces hits the fan,” Chris said.
“Feces?” I asked.
“Emergencies,” Chris said. “When first responders and emergency personnel need to find a house, they need to find it quickly and they can’t be expected to remember hundreds of addresses and street names, so they used this chart. Let me show you.”
“You know Roman numerals, I hope,” he said.
I nodded. “Eye, eye-eye, eye-eye-eye, eye-vee, et cetera,” I said.
“So we have four quadrants on our graph here,” he said. “What officials did is create townships with 36 sections of one square mile each, so…thirty-six square miles. Just like a piece of graph paper with thirty-six squares.”
“And the very center, where the x and y intersect, that’s the center of the township?” I asked.
“You got it. It’s nice and neat, but that’s not why they did it. Look at any old city or town and you can see nice and neat has nothing to do with it. What they did was divide each of those squares into numbers and directions. Like, uh, let’s say a street is called County Road 200 N—”
“Why not just call the street 2N instead of 200N?” I asked.
“For the same reason the military says Alfa and Bravo instead of A and B. It helps eliminate confusion,” he said. “So if you have a street called 200 N, where would that be on this graph? And be careful.” He tapped the dry erase board patiently.
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I opened my mouth to answer, thinking it was simple. The street was two squares above the center of the graph. But then I clamped my mouth shut. That couldn’t be right, could it? Because that would mean the numbered county roads…
“200 N runs east and west?” I asked.
“Bingo,” he said. He picked up a red marker and drew his line on the dry erase board. “A country road named Two Hundred North—we’ll put it on here as “CR 200 N”—actually runs east and west. And a road called, say One Hundred West?”
“Runs north to south,” I said.
“Yep.” He quickly drew the red streets on the graph. “And if there’s an accident, someone might call in There’s a car wreck at the intersection of 100 W and 200 N. An emergency responder would find it in no time. And in case you wanted to know, this whole thing is called a Cartesian Coordinate System.”
I nodded my approval. “I actually think I understand. Anyone ever tell you you’re like a walking after school special, only without Scott Baio?”
“Aww, shucks. But now I have to do a few disclaimers,” Chris said. “Because this…” He twirled his hand in front of the carefully-drawn graph. “Doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
I cursed. But it was a little curse word.
“I can tell you about townships being thirty-six square miles, and you’ll find two dozen that are much larger or much smaller. I can tell you all Indiana counties used this numbering strategy, and you can look at DeKalb and Elkhart counties and prove me wrong. What I am showing you here is the most basic explanation behind the numbered naming. I am painting with a very wide brush.”
He then abruptly turned and rubbed his hand all over the graph, turning it into a smudged mess of black and red. “But even that stuff doesn’t mean much anymore. Have a guess why?”
“This one I do know,” I said. I lifted my phone. “GPS.”
“Yep. Why on Earth would an ambulance driver bother with road signs when Siri can tell him or her the distance of the destination, the estimated time of arrival, traffic delays, and where the nearest Starbucks is? There’s no reason.”
“But isn’t it important to learn that stuff?” I asked. “Just in case.”
Chris shrugged. “Four thousand years ago scholars had to learn how to use an abacus,” he said. “Then the slide ruler came along in the 1600s and you can bet there was a whole army of people saying Oh, they better keep using that abacus just in case. Then punch-card processing came along. But people held onto their slide rulers just in case. Then mechanical desktop calculators. Then electronic calculators.”
Chris cocked a thumb back at the graph. “It’s nice to know that stuff because it’s interesting and because it tells us where we came from. But will it improve or even change your life? Most likely not. Because Just in case doesn’t really happen. And if it does, we’d have a lot more to worry about than county road naming conventions.”
I finished my notes and packed up, promising to buy Chris a nice cup of Starbucks for his time and trouble.
“Nah,” he said. “Just see if you can toss a few Facebook likes Buckley Homestead’s way. Always brightens my day to see it. Also, it could get me an eventual raise.”
Toss a few likes Buckley Homestead’s way by checking out their Facebook page HERE. Let’s put a smile on Chris’s face!