Editor’s note: Ever wonder how some of the towns in Jefferson County got their names? Beginning this week, the Spirit turns its attention to some of our county’s more interestingly named towns and villages to uncover just “What’s in a Name?”
BOLIVAR — Ron Lemon was just a boy on the day that a statue of a famed South American freedom fighter was installed in his Panhandle hometown. Lemon remembers the dignitaries and speeches, and the excitement of his uncle Clarence Garten, who was then the mayor.
“It stands out in my memory,” said Lemon, who is now 66 years old. He recalls the ceremony on the grounds of the middle school, with a podium and speakers from both the northern and southern hemispheres. He remembers the unveiling of the statue, of South American Freedom Fighter Simon Bolivar.
That is the hero for whom Bolivar in Jefferson County is named.
In the mid 1800s, Bolivar, a Venezuelan, led the peoples of his own nation, as well as Columbia, Ecuador and Bolivia to throw off imperialist control from Spain and develop self-government. For much of Latin America, Bolivar is considered as important a figure as George Washington is here.
When the town, which was seeking incorporation from Virginia, made its application, it put aside its original name of Mudfort and elected something more elevated.
“Put yourself back to 1825,” said Lisa Phillips, a local historian. “He’s the George Washington of South America. He showed the same kind of derring-do.”
Phillips said it was not uncommon for American towns to adopt the names of illustrious foreigners, and it was equally common for European towns to take the name Washington.
West Virginia’s Bolivar was the first town in the United States to be named for Simon Bolivar, but it was not the last, she said. Today in the United States, there are Bolivars from Missouri to New York, Oregon to Texas.
“He became almost a mythical figure,” Phillips said. And in the 1800s, there was “a natural affinity by Americans who had thrown off the British,” toward other nations that had equally foiled imperialism.
The name, however, Mudfort, had its historic underpinnings as well. The story goes that with its hilltop location, the town was well suited to prevail in friendly skirmishes against its neighboring adversary, Harper’s Ferry.
“They called it that because the boys used to fight mudball battles,” Mayor Robert Hardy said.
On a couple of occasions, officials from the Venezuelan Embassy and the Organization of American States have visited Bolivar to see the town named for the historical South American hero. There has been dancing and feasting, and photos taken with the Bolivar statue. And “every once in awhile, on Simon Bolivar’s birthday, someone puts a party hat on it,” Phillips said.
There are now two statues of Simon Bolivar in the town of 1,100, one installed at the Bank of Charles Town and the other at the public library. “We take great pride in our small town,” Hardy said.