On June 28, 1899, a man named David H. Wisman bought a few acres on the southern fringes of Harrisonburg. The property sat on the east side of South Main Street and just south of the “Episcopal rectory” we know today as Emmanuel Episcopal Church.1
Now, the northwestern corner of Wisman’s lot is occupied by the intersection of South Main Street and Cantrell Avenue, potentially soon to be renamed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. (More reading on that here and here.) Since that renaming was proposed, the source of the name “Cantrell” – one that some say carries local historical significance – has remained a mystery, prompting plenty of conjecture but little in the way of actual documentation. A public hearing on the proposed renaming is scheduled for this Tuesday evening’s city council meeting.
Like many city residents interested in the debate, Poti Giannakouros also wondered how the name Cantrell came to appear on our maps. But unlike almost everyone else, Giannakouros actually rolled up his sleeves and did some heavy duty original research, looking both into the history of the street’s name and the general civic climate in Harrisonburg at the time the street was built. He spent “many, many” hours at the library, reading an entire decade’s worth of newspapers (c. 1900-1910), tracked down and perused hand-written city council minutes from the same period, and posted a huge amount of detail on that period in our city’s history on this website. This account is largely based on Giannakouros’s work, with a little bit of supplemental in-house research.
Back to Wisman’s lot, situated at a lucrative spot at the turn of the 20th century, when the neighborhood surrounding the Episcopal church became the scene of rapid development. Wisman subdivided his property and began selling lots that fronted a new road that we now call Cantrell Avenue.
When Wisman started selling off his lots, though, the road went by at least two separate names. Deeds for at least three lots he sold in the fall of 1903 list their location on “New or South Street” – both of which make sense, it being a new road on the very southern edge of town.2 (Specific geographic details in the deeds make it clear that this “New or South Street” is indeed modern-day Cantrell Avenue.)
By March of 1904, however, something had changed. Wisman sold yet another of his lots, located – according to reports in two local papers, the Rockingham Register and the Harrisonburg Daily News – on “South Street or Central Avenue.”3 In a curious twist, that very same sale was recorded in the county deed book with a different spelling of the street name: “South Street or Cantral Avenue.”4
Cantral Avenue was not a one time spelling error, however. While two other real estate transactions in 1904 used the name Central Avenue, one of them was later changed by hand to Cantral Avenue.5 And in early 1905, another deed records a sale of a lot on “East South Street or Cantral Avenue.”6
In another curious twist, when the newspaper reported on the transaction pictured above, with Central changed to Cantral, it used the spelling that persists to this day: Cantrell Avenue.7
Throughout 1904, the city council preferred the Cantral Avenue spelling. This appears twice in council minutes from May and October of 1904, when the city was discussing running a water line to service the new houses on Cantral, or Central, or Cantrell, or South, or New, or whatever people were calling the street.
The Rockingham Register, however, used Cantrell Avenue in its coverage of both these city council meetings. Here are the city council minutes from May 3, 1904:
“The petition of J.C. Staples and others for a water main extending from South Main Street along Cantral Avenue was on motion referred to the water committee.”
Here’s what the Rockingham Register published on May 6, 1904:
“A petition from property owners on Cantrell Avenue asked for an extension of water main eastward from South Main street to Mason street extended, which was referred to the Water Committee.”
Five months later, the exact same thing happened. City council minutes recorded discussion of the water main on Cantral Avenue, and the Rockingham Register reported on the council’s discussion of the water main on Cantrell Avenue.8
It’s hard to imagine this was an accident that happened twice. And while it’s also hard to guess at what the newspaper’s intentions were, it seems to have begun insisting on the name Cantrell Avenue while the city and the courthouse were both using Cantral Avenue or Central Avenue.
Just for extra fun, let’s introduce another bit of confusion. The very earliest documented appearance of Cantrell Avenue was also in the Rockingham Register, in an item on the social page, published on March 25, 1904. Several weeks later, the paper called the same street Central Avenue when reporting on a real estate transaction, and just several weeks after that, it went back to Cantrell Avenue in its coverage of the city council meeting.
Over the next few years, real estate deeds remained confused, recording the street as Cantral, Cantrel and Cantrall between 1904 and 1908.9
In any case, the newspaper’s preferred spelling eventually prevailed. By 1907, the Sanborn Insurance Maps were using the spelling Cantrell Avenue, and after 1910, records in the county courthouse begin using it as well.10
Looking back, it’s hard to tell why all these changes happened, but the documented proof is all there. New Street and South Street, used interchangeably, became Central, or Cantral, or Cantrell. Central to Cantral seems like a plausible, if unusual, evolution. Cantral to Cantrell seems like plausible change in spelling. Central directly to Cantrell seems like a bit of a leap.
But “seems” is a far cry from fact. In any case, for reasons that remain entirely unclear, all three of these names appear in print within weeks of each other, in early 1904. Rather than appearing as isolated occurrences, ones that could be explained as spelling mistakes, all of these appeared repeatedly and concurrently for several years.
Most telling, though, may be something that’s not documented. No city council minutes, newspaper accounts or any other sources, at least as far as anyone’s yet been able to dig up, reveal an active, intentional decision to name the street Cantrell Avenue for specific reasons or in honor of any specific person, family or event. Instead, Cantrell seems to be the newspaper’s preferred name for the street, which it alone used (again, to the extent now known) for several years in the early 1900s, until the city, the circuit court, the mapmakers and others finally fell in line.
1. Rockingham County Deed Book (DB) 61 p. 204
2. DB 71 p. 1; DB 71 p. 247; DB 71 p. 247 (second occurrence)
3. Harrisonburg Daily News, April 12, 1904; Rockingham Register, April 15, 1904
4. DB 72 p. 331
5. DB 73 p. 232; DB 74 p. 155 (Central changed by hand to Cantral)
6. DB 76 p. 255
7. Rockingham Register, Jan. 27, 1905
8. Harrisonburg city council minutes, Oct. 4, 1904; Rockingham Register Oct. 5, 1904
9. DB 74 p. 319; DB 79 p. 193; DB 83 p. 71
10. DB 94 p. 434