All across Michigan are places whose names are rich with interesting but sometimes forgotten history. "Mackinac" means "big turtle," which is what the local Indians thought the now-famous resort island looked like. In 1861, while surveying a road through the Thumb area, a man camped at an old hunter's cabin where he found a well-worn hatchet—giving rise to the community known as Bad Axe. The Livingston County town of Hell offers two conflicting theories as to the origin of its appellation, but this much is certain: It's not the same place many of us have often been told to go to.
In the Upper Peninsula, two towns, one hundred miles apart, have different names but were named for the same man—though he never set foot in either one. The towns are Kipling and Rudyard, and the man was Rudyard Kipling. Who he was and how the towns came to honor him is a story worth retelling.
Born a British subject in Bombay, India, in 1865, Rudyard Kipling is remembered mainly for his significant contributions to English literature. His novels, short stories, and poetry earned him an immense following and in 1907, a Nobel Prize in literature. Before the age of 40, he was acclaimed the world over for his "Jungle Books," poems like "Recessional" and "Barracks Room Ballads," and his masterpiece novel about life in India, "Kim." He was unofficial Poet Laureate of Great Britain—unofficial only because he could have had the title but declined it. His professional writing spanned 50 years until his death in 1936.
It was in the 1890s, before Kipling was even 30 years of age, when his fame prompted one Frederick D. Underwood to name two stations on a railroad route through Michigan's Upper Peninsula after his favorite author. As general manager of the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad (known as the "Soo Line"), Underwood certainly had that right, but local townspeople enthusiastically approved. The tiny settlement at the head of Green Bay on the northern end of Lake Michigan became the town of Kipling. About 30 miles south of America's third-oldest city, Sault Ste. Marie, the name of the hamlet of Pine River was changed to Rudyard.
When the esteemed author learned of the honor, he immediately wrote to Underwood to thank him, saying ". . . I write to beg you to send me a photograph if possible, of either Rudyard or Kipling or preferentially both. I shall take a deep interest in their little welfares." He may have appreciated the irony of the town of Kipling being situated next to the larger city of Gladstone, named for a famous British prime minister of the late 19th century. Kipling the author didn't much care for Gladstone the politician. The former was an unabashed advocate of British imperialism while the latter worked to scale back the costly reaches of the British Empire.
Rudyard Kipling's outspoken views on the foreign and domestic policies of his day made him some powerful enemies and sometimes rattled his friends. He coined the phrase, "white man's burden," when he urged the United States to take a more active role in civilizing backward regions of the world. He so vehemently criticized America's "belated" entry into World War I that the governments of Britain and France publicly disavowed his remarks. He opposed compulsory military service but argued that a man who had never enlisted should lose the right to vote. When his beloved cousin Stanley Baldwin became prime minister of Great Britain, Kipling chastised him as "a socialist at heart."
His views on labor unions were forever colored by an experience he had while on a visit to Australia. The purchase of superior lifeboats made in Britain was rejected there in favor of buying inferior ones made in Australia. Kipling believed the unions were sacrificing the safety of the larger community. Thereafter, he regarded the well-paid leadership of organized labor as self-serving and irresponsible.
Both towns of Rudyard and Kipling remain small today, with a few hundred residents in each. But named as they are for a man of large stature and notable accomplishments, they should be proud their very existence helps keep his memory alive.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)