What Cheer was founded in 1865 as Petersburg, named after Peter Britton, its founder. This name was rejected by the Post Office, forcing a change of name. Joseph Andrews, a major and veteran of the American Civil War, suggested the name "What Cheer," and the town was officially renamed on December 1, 1879.
Sources differ as to why the name What Cheer was chosen. The phrase what cheer with you is an ancient English greeting dating back at least to the 15th century. One theory of the name is that a Scottish miner exclaimed What cheer! on discovering a coal seam near town.
A more elaborate theory suggests that Joseph Andrews chose the name because of one of the founding myths of his native town of Providence, Rhode Island. According to the story, when Roger Williams arrived at the site that would become Providence in 1636, he was greeted by Narragansett Native Americans with "What Cheer, Netop". Netop was the Narragansett word for friend, and the Narragansetts had picked up the what cheer greeting from English settlers. It is possible that the connection between What Cheer, Iowa and What Cheer, the shibboleth of Rhode Island, was merely coincidental - the entries for these subjects are adjacent but not connected in the 1908 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana.
What Cheer has frequently been noted on lists of unusual place names.
Robert Forsyth, born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, came to America in 1857, and made his way to Rock Island, Illinois, where he arrived penniless. He worked for most of a decade as a coal miner before coming to Petersburg, the future What Cheer. In the 1870s, he began buying coal lands around town, mostly on credit. When the railroad came to town, he leased his land to the coal companies and bought into a local drug store, eventually operating stores in What Cheer, Mystic and Jerome, Iowa. Other Scots from the Kilmarnock region (Ayrshire) also settled in the area. Robert Orr came in 1875 after working in the coal mines of Colchester, Illinois. His son Alexander went on a successful career as a mine owner in Mystic.
- Betty De Boef, Iowa State Representative and resident
- Frank Hayes, president of the United Mine Workers, 1917–1920, born in What Cheer in 1882
- B. J. Palmer, the developer of chiropractic was born in What Cheer in 1882.
- Ed Thomas, raised in What Cheer, was NFL high school football coach of the year in 2005; he was murdered four years later by one of his former players
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- 1 pound ground beef (see Note)
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 (1.25-ounce) envelope taco seasoning mix
- 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 cup small curd cottage cheese
- 4 cups crushed tortilla chips
- 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Colby Jack cheese