Prior to the smartphone era, when folks still read in analog fashion upon porcelain thrones, a great many Maine residents kept a Maine Atlas and Gazetteer in the privy. Published by Yarmouth-based mapmaker DeLorme, this oversized, soft-cover booklet neatly divided the Great State of Maine into 96 pages, or quadrants, each of which depicted a specific 16-by-11-inch detail at remarkable scale. Some of the best bathroom reading in captivity, and not completely idle diversion: We studied The Gazetteer so as to better familiarize ourselves with the state’s baroque topographies and place names, in addition to those potential routes that might traverse and connect them. The conditional nature of these journeys is critical to Maine’s particular mythos, of course. The unofficial state motto, offered to folks from away seeking directions, spells this out pretty clearly: You can’t get there from hee-yah.

GPS titan Garmin purchased DeLorme back in 2016, along with Eartha, the massive, slowly rotating globe that still occupies three full stories inside the former company headquarters. GPS-enabled mapping applications have certainly reduced the need for physical maps of all kinds. However, the need to better know and understand this place we call Maine remains undiminished.

I’ve live here since 1992, for example, but the myriad places and oddball municipal naming conventions continue to fascinate. I’m a Masshole born, bred and proud — the Oxford English Dictionary added “Masshole” in 2015 (How do you like them apples!?). Until 1820, Maine was part of Massachusetts, where homages to a multitude of British place names remains common. This makes sense: Winchester and Boston and Middlesex were the very towns, cities, counties and regions from whence a great many 17th and 18th century settlers hailed.

Maine has its share of similarly UK-derived place names among its 23 cities, 430 towns, and 30 plantations. But the naming conventions here are more varied and bizarre. Way more. It’s possible, for example, that the founders of Lebanon, Norway, Poland, Mexico, Sweden, Smyrna, Stockholm, Moscow, Carthage, Monticello, Bremen, Rome, Athens, Troy, Denmark, Peru, Palermo, Dresden, Paris, West Paris and South Paris all hailed from these original locations. But I doubt it.

There would appear to be little rhyme to this geographic exotica. Rather, each place was so named for its own particular reason, on account of its own eccentric Creation story. The western Oxford County town of Peru (pop. 1,509), for example, was incorporated in 1821, in solidarity with the South Americans who had just declared their independence from Spain. It had first been organized in 1812 as Plantation Number 1 — a plantation being a rudimentary form municipal self-government that, by Maine statute, cannot pass or enforce its own local ordinances. Thirty such townships still operate this way, mainly in the hinterlands of Maine, though the islands of Matinicus and Monhegan also operate today as plantations.

Prior to its incorporation, Peru was also known as Thompsontown, in honor of General Samuel Thompson, the former Brunswick tavern keeper who emerged as one of Maine’s most prominent Revolutionary War figures. In May of 1775, shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord, he led 600 militia in capturing and expelling the HMS Canceaux from Portland Harbor, then known as Falmouth Harbor. The Canceaux would return in October 1775 and burn most of Falmouth to the ground.

Lisbon (pop. 8853) is the largest of these Maine towns whose names riff on a foreign-but-existing locales. Upon splitting from neighboring Bowdoin in 1799, Lisbon was originally founded as Thompsonborough, another shout-out to General Thompson, who, come his dotage, was a large landowner in nearby Topsham. However, it’s been reported that the local townsfolk in eventually grew disenchanted with the general’s “political views,” so they changed the name to Lisbon in 1802. It’s not clear what views might have proved so controversial. Thompson was a legit war hero and certainly no Tory. As a longtime legislator in the Massachusetts General Assembly, he was also a known political quantity. He did, however, argue against ratification of the U.S. Constitution during the late 1780s. In doing so, he also pointed out that General George Washington, the man pretty much everyone presumed would lead the new government, was an unabashed slaveholder. Thompson died in 1793, and it’s possible that his reputation suffered over time, as Washington’s grew ever more gilded. Today, there isn’t a single Maine town that goes by the name Thompson.

Back to Lisbon: Why choose the Portuguese capital as a permanent replacement? Another fair question — with no definitive answers. If there were Mainers of West Iberian descent living in West Bowdoin/Thompsonborough during the early 1800s, there is no record of or reference to them. As with Peru, the choice may have expressed solidarity with, not necessarily relation to, specific people abroad — perhaps the victims and survivors of the famous 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. This natural disaster proved a cataclysm of worldwide renown, but the event was 50 years past in 1802. Choosing Lisbon might have expressed support for those fighting Napoleon, but the Emperor’s Peninsular Campaign did not begin until 1807.


Maine’s whimsical predilection for internationalist town names is made all the more noteworthy by those burgs that alter pronunciation to better distinguish their locations from the originals. Because people are often confusing Madrid, Maine (population 173, pronounced MAD-rid) with the Spanish imperial capital.

This appellational tic almost certainly was not developed here. Cairo, Missouri (pronounced Cay-row) and Berlin, New Hampshire (BER-lin) both come to mind. Many German-sounding towns — and surnames, for that matter — were modified or changed outright during the first half of the 20th century, on account of our Teutonic opposition during two World Wars. These variations in pronunciation can be attributed to any number of factors: prejudice, verbal laxity or the vagaries of regional accents.

However, with such sterling examples as Madrid, Calais (callous), Vienna (Vie-enna) and Edinburg (pronounced like it’s spelt, but not like the Scots say it: eddin-buddah), it does feel as though Mainers have raised this geographic affectation to high art.

My favorite example is the reason this column has been written and posted here. I recently learned of a Maine hamlet southeast of Holton called Linneus (pop. 947). I’ve never been there, but this seemed a curious moniker — if only because it so resembled the surname of biologist Carl Linnaeus (pronounced lin-ay-us). This 19th century Swede is the fellow responsible for the convention that provides nearly every living thing on Earth with Latin, binomial nomenclature.

At first, I reckoned Linneus had something to do with all the Scandinavians who helped settle remote Aroostook County during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the home of New Sweden, after all. But no! It’s way more fun than that!

Because Maine was considered part of Massachusetts for some 200 years, many Bay State individuals and entities owned vast tracks of land up here. One of those entities was Harvard College. Apparently, half the property that once comprised this informal township was owned by Harvard, and then sold, in 1833, in order to endow a botany professorship down in Cambridge. Newly flush, the local Mainers took that money and promptly incorporated a new town, spelled Linneus and pronounced linney-us. Did they always pronounce it this way? Hard to know.

Madrid, which sits quietly astride Route 4 on the way to Rangeley, has recently gone the other way: Today it’s a “deorganized” township, a designation that requires approval from the state legislature. Maine’s famously flinty independence is, I reckon, another factor that contributes to these unorthodox naming conventions. If locals can find a way to thumb their collective nose at authority, while also reducing their tax burden? That, for most Mainers, is a No-Brainer. Accordingly, there exist 53 such deorganized townships today. Most were created to reduce property taxes and alleviate the trouble of finding/paying municipal employees.

The remote Somerset County communities of Concord and Lexington were created as proper municipalities, right next to each other, just north of Embden Pond in 1826 and 1833, respectively. Fully 50 years after the nation’s founding, the spirit of liberty obviously informed these bits of homage. Both towns, however, were deorganized in 1930 and 1940, respectively, and today they’re formally known as the Central Somerset Township (pop. 336). Lexington is home to Jonathan Carter, who twice ran for governor as candidate of the Green Independent Party. In 2012, Central Somerset was the only Maine city, town or plantation, deorganized or otherwise, to generate a plurality of votes for libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul.

While Lexington and Concord sit side by side, on an east-west axis, one must drive 45 minutes — down and around Embden Pond — to travel from one locale to the other. East-west travel in Maine (in all of Northern New England, to be fair) is extremely burdensome, something analog study of The Gazetteer also made clear: There are precious few roadways, and certainly no interstate highways, that enable direct, efficient travel from east to west, or vice versa. Why? Too many mountains ranging north and south, and too many massive glacier-cut lakes, like Embden Pond, around which one must navigate.

When I first moved to Portland, I would often drive west to New Hamster to play golf or ski or whatnot. Thanks to The Gazetteer, I discerned there were always at least two distinct routes to consider — one dodging Lake Sebago to the south, the other veering north. The White Mountains could be scaled through one of three or four different passes or gaps. To ferret out the best route, I would follow one path to NH, then return to Maine along an alternate path. Invariably, each route proved nearly identical in time and distance! This I found a bit eerie, and thoroughly maddening. You can’t get there from here? In actuality, the state motto should perhaps read this way. “It doesn’t much matter which way you might go, left or right. It’s all the same.”