John Clark passing on some of the interesting stuff I’ve learned about Maine as an author and librarian. Maybe it’s old hat to some readers, but you never know when a piece of trivia might help your next book. Case in point: While writing a particular scene in Singing the L.A. Blues, I needed to be certain I set a fatal accident in Washington County’s portion of the Airline. Out came the trusty DeLorme Atlas and in a matter of thirty seconds, I had the setting right. I can’t tell you how many times that particular reference tool has been picked up while writing this young adult mystery. It helped create a fictional trail as well as locating a bog I needed for a psychic dream sequence. (more about this tool later).
Maine geography has always intrigued me, probably because of my family history on our father’s side. My grandfather, Arthur Hight Clark was probably the last circuit riding and barter dentist in the state. He had offices in the house in West New Portland, Bingham, Kingfield and Rangeley, spending a day per week in each location as well as stopping along the way to fly fish at every opportunity. Although he died when I was four, I heard endless tales of his travels and adventures from my father and grandmother including the time he was hunting and spotted what looked like a bear scuffling through the leaves in hardwoods below the ridge he was walking. Something didn’t look quite right, so he started sneaking down for a closer look. It turned out to be a very obese man on hands and knees, picking up beech nuts while wearing a fur coat. Gramps was also known to pull teeth and provide dentures in exchange for a cord of wood or some moose steaks.
Stories like that, along with inheriting a collection of postal cancellations from towns long gone (many were from rail stops that had their own special cancellation stamp) as well as exploring places like Dallas Plantation, Chain of Ponds, etc. made Maine geography more than an academic subject for me as a ten year old kid. When I discovered The dictionary of Maine place-names, by Phillip R. Rutherford, published by Bond Wheelright in 1970, it fueled my fascination again as an adult. While many of the names it lists were derived from very common things, there are as many that came from far more interesting sources, especially Native American tribes. Having grown up at Sennebec Hill Farm and having been told that Sennebec was a corruption of the original Sunnybake the original people used to describe cooking fish on rocks when it was really hot was the sort of developmental push that kept me curious. This book is one of a few I really think are useful for writers interested in getting Maine right.
Another one that you can find in every town office as well as in Maine libraries is Tower Publishing’s Maine Register which is published annually. These are an extremely useful reference resource. Granted, much of what’s in it can be found online, but when you have one at hand looking things up is pretty snappy. It was one of my primary resources back when I taught Information Technology at Central Maine Community College. Here’s some of what you’ll find inside. There’s a mileage chart, U.S government data-our delegates, who sits on the federal court in Maine, which federal agencies have a presence in Maine and location/contact information, State government information including a list of notaries in Maine, Chambers of commerce, clubs, associations, societies and organizations grouped in categories like cultural and craft and special interest. Did you know that The American Poolplayers Association of Maine is headquartered in Lisbon Falls, or the Maine Gladiolus Society is located in East Vassalboro? Things like this are handy to know when you have those obscure Maine reference questions.
Perhaps the best part of the book is the data for every town and township in the state. Take Reed Plantation for example, it’s also known as Wytopitloc. The listing has things like who provides electrical service, who the pulpwood dealer is in town, the only listed commercial enterprise is Santa Claus Hill Christmas Trees, which school district serves the population, who the current municipal officers are and where to find the post office. Older editions go back to the 1850s and the 1855 edition is even available in digitized format thanks to the Hathi Trust at http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hb0l4e;view=1up;seq=13 I know much of what it contains IS online, but if you can snag a copy, I think you’ll find it worth your time. One thing the older editions get used for and used a lot is to verify whether a particular business existed at a particular time.
Now let’s talk about Gores. Back in the early days of our state (and apparently Vermont as well), surveyors missed small pieces of land. When these lost bits were later identified, they became known as gores. Maine has seven of them which I have listed here, Hibberts, Blake, Massachusetts, Coburn, Misery, Veazie and Gorham representing four counties. This can be a good trivia question to use at parties.
Another Maine geographic feature are the townships. Anyone who has traveled north of Bangor or up routes 201 or 27 has seen signs that have T.9, R.7 or something similar. Many of them have a two or three letter abbreviation after them. To learn what each of these stands for, the people responsible for a website called Maine-An Encyclopedia have put together a really good page that explains these. http://maineanencyclopedia.com/townships/
Another amazing website for anyone interested in Maine history and/or historic photographs is the Maine Memory Network, created and maintained by the Maine Historical Society in Portland. Hundreds of schools, local historical societies and individuals have spent thousands of hours identifying and uploading photos and documents to enrich the history of Maine. I used some of the knowledge I got while involved in a project with them and three local historical societies via a grant several years ago when I had Skye, the protagonist in my current book, doing research into cults in the early 1800s. Their site is here. https://www.mainememory.net/
Another ongoing and less well known digitization project is happening through the Raymond Fogler Library at the University of Maine in Orono. I became involved while at the Hartland Public Library when they put out a request for Maine libraries to help digitize town reports. Since then, it has expanded to include a lot more and is searchable by year and keyword. It’s another resource that could be extremely useful if you were writing historical mysteries or fiction set in Maine. Check it out here http://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/towndocs/
Here’s one last online guilty pleasure if you will. I used to read the Somerset police log online, but the newspaper that posted it, now limites non subscribers to ten articles a month and considerers this to be one (but not obituaries-go figure), so when Judy at the local post office told me about the new addition for Somerset County, I bookmarked it. Now a I can see who’s going down in flames with a couple clicks. I’m not sure whether any other counties are this advanced in profiling miscreants, but you can check out who is getting three hots and a cot in Skowhegan here http://www.somersetcounty-me.org/341/Media-Page
Finally, back to The DeLorme Atlas. No self-respecting Mainer should go forth without one. I have no interest in a GPS because this works just as well since 95% of my travels are in state. Browsing it is an interesting experience. Did you know there are three Slab Citys in Maine-Care to guess how they got their name? Sure, lots of the stuff in here is online, but when you’re trying to find the remote campground at Third Musquacook Lake and cell phone reception is -4 bars, I’ll take the atlas any day.
I’m curious about your finds and guilty pleasures when it comes to information sources.
Great post, John! I have some of those 19th century Registers — and they’rte great sources, as well as great fun! And, of course, a DeLorme atlas ….
Cool post, John. I love stuff like this. The Maine Atlas is a treasure trove, and the Maine Register, too. County offices have road records that go back a long way, and don’t even get me started on what you can find at the registry of deeds.
BTW, you forgot about Moxie Gore. Somerset County, just above The Forks.
Thanks for a terrific post.
Great stuff, John! I’m writing about New Hampshire, and you’ve inspired me to seek out parallel sources here. Many thanks
“A very obese man on hands and knees, picking up beech nuts while wearing a fur coat.”
Almost an entire scene has just jumped into my mind in my Dallas Plantation, Maine, short story mystery series. Thanks, John. Stay tuned! 🙂
Sandy, feel free to use the fellow in whatever way you like. I suspect he never knew how close he came to an unpleasant end.
I have a DeLorme atlas in my car. Another in my house. And have always loved gores. I think you would have gotten more traffic if you’d called this post The Seven Gores.
What a lot of great information. I am forever looking things up. For example, last week at a dinner party, someone mentioned that Kenneth Roberts talked about food so much in his books that eventually he wrote a cookbook. I believe the person must have been referring to Good Maine Food, but in searching for a copy of that, I found a set of his essays: For Authors Only. Waiting for those books to arrive. I can see blog posts emerging.
Great post, John, but where is my neck of the woods? Aroostook County has more history than a lot of Maine–where else can you find a bloodless (not so) war? Come visit Soldier Pond. We live by DeLormes too. It’s the second most popular book in the County. Of course, we are the gateway to the Allagash and all its mysteries. And if it’s multi-culturals you are looking for, well, I’m a Franco American, but if you get down Mapleton way, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone other than English–and in Ashland there’s the worlds largest pumpkin of David Letterman fame. Don’t leave the County out of Maine historical talk. We could start another civil war, and where would Maine be without her crown?
Thank you, John, for spotlighting the Maine Register. I had the pleasure of introducing a young MLIS candidate with whom I work to MR just this past week. He was amazed at the information found in that one book. And where would we be without DeLormes…one in the care and one in the office!
Thank you Charlene. I keep a recent edition of each within reach myself.