Why's That: How did Chevy Chase Boulevard get its name?
This is WMUK’s “Why’s That?” answering your questions about life in Southwest Michigan. I’m Sehvilla Mann, and you’re not.
If you watched Saturday Night Live in the 70s (which I didn’t, because I wasn’t born yet), you’ll get the reference to comedian Chevy Chase. SNL made him a star, as he played in segments like the newscast parody Weekend Update.
“President Ford is over that weeklong bout with that stubborn cold,” Chase intones in one episode. “White House physicians say that after a mild cold of that sort, it will take the president a few days to recover his motor skills fully, citing the period after his last cold, when he tied his shoe to his hair blower and inadvertently pardoned Richard Nixon.”
Chase went on to star in movies including the National Lampoon “vacation” series and 1980’s “Caddyshack,” where he memorably offered this advice on golfing:
Kalamazoo has a Chevy Chase Boulevard. The woodsy residential street winds through the Westnedge Hill and Winchell neighborhoods. Listener John Liberty got to know it while dropping his kids off at school. John and I recently took a stroll on Chevy Chase Boulevard.
He said he’s wondered many times “Why there’s a street named after a comedian, although it may not necessarily be a comedian, but I guess we’ll find all that out.”
John added that it’s not clear why Kalamazoo would name a street for Chevy Chase.
Sharon Oswalt and her dog Cubby are also out for a walk on Chevy Chase Boulevard. We ask Oswalt if she knows the story behind the name.
“Beats me!” she says. “I just know it wasn’t the actor!”
But Oswalt says he’s who people think of when they hear the street name.
“Even when you make a phone order. They always ask, ‘Chevy Chase?’ and they start laughing.”
To uncover the origins of Chevy Chase Boulevard, we turn to Lynn Houghton. She’s a curator at the Western Michigan University Zhang Legacy Collections Center, informally known as the archives. Houghton says Chevy Chase Boulevard goes back to an early 1930s housing development called Rolling Hills.
“The Oakwood Amusement Park had closed about six years previous so that area was ripe for housing and the demand was out there, even during the Great Depression,” Houghton said.
Of course, if the street dates from the 30s, it can’t be named for Chevy Chase the performer, who wasn’t even born until 1943. Houghton thinks the street’s name may have its roots in a clash on the border between England and Scotland, way back in 1388: The Battle of Otterburn, memorialized and partly fictionalized in the Ballad of Chevy Chase.
“God prosper long our noble king, our lives and safeties all,” it begins. “A woeful hunting once there did in Chevy Chase befall.”
As Houghton explains, according to legend, “It dealt with an area of hunting grounds or hunting land, and in Scottish that was called if I’m not mistaken a ‘chase.’”
The ballad is set in the Cheviot (pronounced CHEE-vee-it in British English) Hills. It describes Scottish forces attacking English hunters for trespassing. Both sides’ leaders and many members of their parties die in the fight.
In a development with many English and Scottish street names, like Sheffield and Argyle, Houghton thinks the ballad most likely lent its name to Chevy Chase Boulevard. Though it may have also taken a page from the tony DC-area suburb Chevy Chase, whose name likely also derives from the ballad.
“Chevy Chase, Maryland had started around the last half of the 19th century and was getting a lot of publicity,” Houghton said.
We’ve proven Chevy Chase Boulevard is not named for Chevy Chase the celebrity. But since the Ballad of Chevy Chase was a well-known folk song, the street may owe its name to pop culture after all.
When we visited Chevy Chase Boulevard, our question-asker John Liberty noted that if Kalamazoo wanted to name the street for a comedian, several have local ties.
“Stephen Lynch. We could change it to Stephen Lynch,” he said.
“Jordan Klepper,” I volunteered.
“Tim Allen,” John said. “He was a Western student, for a hot minute anyway.” (Actually, Tim Allen did finish his degree at Western, in 1976).