Have you ever driven down a Maine road and seen a sign that made you wonder just where on Earth our names come from?
Meddybemps. Mars Hill. Argyle. Misery Gore. That last one might have made you want to turn back.
There are some pretty odd place names in Maine and, especially for those with several centuries of history, often there is debate about the etymology. In fact, the term “Maine” is itself a source of speculation. Some say Maine was named after the eponymous former province in France, through which the Maine River (La Maine) still flows. Others contend the name is derived from Mainland, the principal island of the Orkney chain, where English navy Captain John Mason had served prior to being granted, along with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a large tract of land north of Massachusetts. Still others argue that “Maine” is a cognate of “mainland,” and point to excerpts from early surveyors who called the region “the Mayne,” “the maine” or “the maineland.”
We may never know. We are fortunate to have more concrete etymologies for place names within Maine.
Many of Maine's place names are already well known. Often-photographed street signs in several Maine towns direct travelers to Maine's many country names (Norway, Paris, Denmark, et al.), its many presidential names (Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren and the like), and its many European cities (Lisbon, Vienna, Belgrade, Rome and more). See related story.
Many well-known Maine names also find their roots on the English coast and countryside, including Portland, Bath and Auburn.
But other Maine place names have more unique derivations.
Some are named for the characteristics of their inhabitants. When the Rev. J. Thompson, a town petitioner, asked his wife to provide a name for a new town, she replied: "Name it after the character of the people. Call it Industry." Similarly, some towns, it seems, were named for an ideal, a hope: Harmony, Unity and Amity. Still other names were derived from the environment — the characteristics of the land, geological features or uses of the land. Take Cornville or Farmington, for example.
But working chronologically, we have to credit many unusual Maine names to the Algonquin-speaking people, from whose own place names ours have been borrowed.
Take Meddybemps. Though it might make a fitting locale for an A. A. Milne story or a Bronte novel, the town’s name is not English. It comes from a Passamaquoddy term meaning “plenty of alewives,” that originally referred to the bountiful fish found in Meddybemps Lake.
As a resident, you come to recognize most Algonquin place names, like Androscoggin, Sebasticook and Penobscot. Though rarely do we endeavor to learn their histories. Most Algonquin terms originally referred to geological features. Those words for rivers, valleys and bays were lent over time to cities and counties. (For instance, some authorities say Androscoggin meant "turbid, foaming, crooked snake" in Algonquin.)
It is also true of Casco, which comes from the Eastern Abenaki word “ancocisco,” meaning “muddy bay,” and originally referred to Portland’s Back Bay. The term came to signify the larger bay surrounding the city and was then borrowed to name the town in Cumberland County.
One deceptive place name that is associated with the aboriginal population is Old Town, which could be the oldest continuously inhabited town in Maine. The island was the site of a settlement for the Red Paint People and then became the chief village and fort for the Penobscot Indians. When Europeans arrived after the Revolutionary War, they recognized that the area was, in fact, a very old town, and so named it.
Religion has also played a strong role in naming places in Maine. While the etymologies of Lebanon, Bethel, Hebron, Hermon, Carmel and Benedicta might be easy to guess at, others are harder to recognize.
Bangor is a prime example. Bangor comes from the Latin: Benchorense. It was the name of an old abbey town in Northern Ireland. When an ancient codex was found in the abbey, residents called it the Antiphonary of Bangor. Later, they wrote a hymn that they titled “Bangor” after the religious codex. This hymn was all the rage in the 18th century. In fact, it was the favorite song of the Rev. Seth Noble, who petitioned the Massachusetts government to grant township to a little settlement on the Penobscot River previously known as Sunbury.
The story is similar for China, which was also derived from a hymn of the same name. Concerning this etymology, the late Quaker preacher Rufus M. Jones wrote that “China was not named for a country, but for an old and very doleful hymn which the pioneer settlers loved to sing.”
The same could be true for Poland, though there is ongoing speculation as to the origins of the town’s name. The consensus is that the town was named for an old melody found in most collections of ancient psalmody. This song was a favorite of Moses Emery, one of the first settlers of Poland and the man who secured the town’s grant and, in the process, chose the town’s name.
Finally, there is Mars Hill. One might suspect that Mars Hill is named for a geographical feature, but the town actually takes its name from a Bible verse: “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars Hill and said, ‘Ye men of Athens I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.’” This verse was read, long before the town’s incorporation, as part of a religious ceremony held on what came to be known as Mars Hill (the town later borrowed the name) way back in 1790 by a British surveying party.
Some Maine names are just spooky. For example, you might be afraid to travel to Misery Gore. The name conjures images associated with a horror movie. But, the etymology of Misery Gore is completely benign. A gore, in New England parlance, is a triangular-shaped piece of land left over from creating towns. The first settled towns had very specific land grants and well-defined boundaries; often, creating several towns in a small area would result in having "left-overs," smaller slivers of land that belonged to no town. This same thing happened in England centuries ago, and the term that developed for these triangular slivers was "gore." When Europeans began settling New England, they produced many gores, one of which was Misery.
But, then, what about "Misery?" Misery is a name that appears in many places in Maine, denoting hills, lakes, ponds and settlements. Paul Fournier, who authored the book “Tales from Misery Ridge,” published last year, notes that “misery” is a corruption of an Abenaki word meaning “many things,” as in many hills or many ponds.
"Speaking of spooky, what could have inspired Lewiston residents to call a spur that currently runs off of Old Green Road “Old Bloody Hill Road”? That was once the name of Old Greene Road, until about a century ago when the road was routed farther around the hill that dominates Thorncrag Nature Sanctuary, straightened and paved. The spur and its original name remain. In the 1980s, when this newspaper investigated the history of the road, it reported that the road was named for Bloody Hill, at the foot of which the road runs.
It’s unclear, however, where “Bloody Hill” comes from. But there are many who speculate. The Field family lived on Bloody Hill Road for four generations. Speaking about the history of the road’s name, Daniel Field said in that Sun Journal account, “What my father used to say was that there was a pig farm up there” on the hill, “and when they killed the pigs, the blood used to run down the sides of the hill.” Local residents, at the time of the interview, said that as children they remembered the pig farm. However, other residents speculated that the name was bestowed because of the number of car accidents that have occurred on the road.
Three other distinctly named Maine roads share a commonality: women . . . maybe.
Katies Crotch Road, which connects Embden and New Portland, has been a source of controversy in recent years. Because of vandalism — people just love stealing the road sign — Embden town officials have sought to have the name changed. But area residents have voted down the initiative, most recently in March of this year. Marilyn Gorman, 78, of New Portland, when interviewed in March by the Kennebec Journal, offered what she said was the most likely explanation for the road’s unique name: A family named Katie used to live on the road, where it intersects with Route 16, forming a V shape. The Katies’ lot was located in the crotch of the V, hence the name. But Gorman admitted that she has “never found anything written down about Katies Crotch Road, and said one other — likely fictitious but nonetheless popular — story is that a woman named Katie used to live on the road and was in the habit of sitting on her porch while wearing no underwear.
The second road is Greenwood’s Alcohol Mary Road. Like with Katies Crotch Road, there have been attempts to change this road’s name, though they have been rejected by residents, some of whom say the road is a source of pride for the town. Amy Harren, who attended a town council meeting last year to oppose the name change, told the Bethel Citizen the road’s name “embodies Maine’s independence and resilience during a time that was very difficult.” Harren is referring to Prohibition, and the Mary in question is Mary Heikkinen, whose family lived on the street in the early 1900s. Ivan Morey, 93, grew up nearby and remembers Mary. “She made moose milk (moonshine),” he said in an interview last week. “Her whole family would do that. I used to go fishing below her camp and I’d watch as she was busy inside.”
The final road is Jackass Annie Road in Minot, and like the others, it is a source of controversy. The history of the road’s name, however, is well-documented. Mesannie Wilkins, born in 1891, was known as “Minot’s Annie” to locals. She was a character, according to town historian Eda Tripp, who spoke with the Advertiser Democrat last year. She lived in “a hovel,” said Tripp, on land that had been her family’s farm before a fire destroyed the farmhouse. She raised animals and worked odd jobs, sometimes working at a local shoe mill, and she rode her donkey around for transportation. Eventually, she came to be called Jackass Annie. In 1954, she rode her horse, Tarzan, to California. (At the age of 63, her doctor had told her she needed rest. Apparently in defiance of his orders, Annie packed up Tarzan and her dog, Depeche Toi, and headed west, mumbling “California, here we come, I go forth in the fate of strangers.”) Annie became a national celebrity. Television interviews and a book followed. She passed away in Maine in 1980. But before that, Minot residents were already calling the road where she lived “Annie’s Road.” According to Tripp, in 1995, when road names were formalized for mail delivery, the name was sent to a “town meeting to be approved. It was passed and named Jackass Annie Road.”