The Elm City

The Elm City

A photo essay. To view all 17 images, check out the email edition.

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New Haven, the Elm City, isn’t the Elm City so much as an Elm City. The 16,000 people living in Waterville, Maine, seem almost as eager as we are to slap their Elm City nickname on institutions, businesses, clubs, events. And the 23,000 residents of Keene, New Hampshire, use their town’s identical nickname even more interchangeably than we do, based on a review of local headlines.

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You might want to know whether New Haven, being by far the oldest Elm City, has the earliest claim to the nickname, which could arguably establish our right to a the. In fact, the point is moot, thanks to a town of about 1,218 people in the eastern third of North Carolina, whose early residents gave it a name—not a nickname—that’s unique in these United States.

Elm City. The Elm City. And it’s not even a city!

Passing by Elm City during a road trip last month, I had about 90 minutes for a visit. My only planned (and only indoor) destination was the Elm City Branch Library, where, aided by librarian Camille Welch, I hoped to uncover the origins of the town’s name. What I found was a 40-year identity crisis. Upon incorporating in 1873, Elm City was first christened Toisnot, after “an Indian name used to identify a swamp which is located to the west of town” (Wilson County’s Architectural Heritage, 1981). Then, starting in 1890, a group of tree-loving citizens mounted a successful campaign to adopt the name Elm City—which irked some other residents, who got Toisnot reinstated in 1895. Continued seesawing between officialdom and colloquiality created a “curious state of affairs” wherein, for example, “express and freight mail for Toisnot came addressed to Elm City”—until 1913, when the town adopted its second name for a second time, this time for good.

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Contemplating that strange chain of events, I left the library to get the lay of the land. In 2022, as in 1873, a railroad runs like a spine through downtown, which now boasts a modest rib cage of six square blocks. Trains come through, but they no longer stop at the depot off the tracks’ western edge, which is now a community center. Boxy vintage buildings, some of them vacant and disheveled, and a dearth of foreground foliage lend a movie set ambience to Elm City’s core, encompassing the library, the municipal headquarters, an antique bank building.

Judging by the density of churches nearby, Christianity dominates local spiritual life, though a He Brews Cafe, an Oh My Lard diner, a classic car collection and a sign for the Elm City Optimist Club suggest other sources of inspiration. At Elm City United Methodist Church, the sign outside anticipates the first question people will have about the church’s next community dinner: “Pancakes again? Yes!”

I didn’t have time to see things I wanted to—the cemetery at the northern edge of downtown, the county-administered reservoir park known as Lake Wilson—and I didn’t get a chance to talk to Elm City residents. Other than Welch, the librarian, who lives in neighboring Rocky Mount, I encountered just one local, who seemed in a hurry, at least for the south. On an average day in quiet Elm City, the busiest time is probably the 15 or 20 minutes it takes for a long freight train to chug slowly through.

Then again, you can’t know a place, even a very small place, in 90 minutes. I couldn’t begin to assess the extent to which Elm City delivers on its promise of “Small Town Living at its Finest.” But I can still show you some of the fine, lived-in, small-town Elm City sights.

Elm City, NC
~550 miles south-southwest of New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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