A Mexico in Maine?
On a drive through the back roads of Maine, you could pass through China, Lisbon and Moscow, all in a matter of hours. Vienna is conveniently located next to Rome, and Mexico is curiously situated north of Denmark.
Maine’s tradition of naming its towns after foreign cities and countries can make road tripping through the state a rather confusing experience, as motorists must wonder whether they took a wrong turn when greeted with a sign reading “Welcome to Mexico” in a land replete with pine trees and snow. So what inspired the state’s seemingly unfitting town names?
Many of Maine’s towns were officially incorporated in the late 1700s and early 1800s, at a time when communities across the world were fighting for independence from colonial rule. Back then, the United States was a newly-established independent country, and a fierce Yankee pride inspired the people of Maine to name towns after their (distant) neighbors who were also struggling for self-rule—as a display of solidarity.
Mexico, Maine was incorporated in 1818 during the Mexican War of Independence. According to Ava Harriet Chadbourne’s 1955 book titled Maine Place Names and the Peopling of its Towns, “The inhabitants of the little plantation of Holmanstown in Maine complimented the efforts of the Mexicans in their struggle for liberty by naming their town for Mexico.” Peru, Maine was also established during this time, when many South American colonies were breaking away from Spanish rule. The country of Peru was liberated from Spain in 1821, and the Maine town honored the South American nation by adopting its name in the same year.
While the reason for naming towns like Mexico and Peru implies a condemnation of colonial—and more specifically, Spanish—rule, how does one explain the fact that there is a Madrid, Maine, and that it was named after Spain’s capital?
Some Maine towns were named due to admiration of the rich history and culture of several great European cities. Vienna, Maine was named in tribute to a city that was “noted for its palaces, churches, charitable and literary institutions, as well as the gaiety of society,” Chadbourne states. “It was a happy choice for a Maine town seeking to honor a foreign city.”
In attributing this honor, however, Maine residents also demonstrate pride for their state. Rome, Maine, was named in admiration of the ancient capital of the Roman Empire, but Chadbourne’s book includes a boastful quote from the Maine town’s historian, who states Rome, Maine “has seven times as many hills as the eternal city whose name it bears, and granite enough to build the old Roman capital.”
Of course, towns named after foreign cities and countries cannot help but invite comparison—boastful or not—with their namesakes. A 1988 New York Times article, “On Maine’s Grand Tour, Mexico is North of Paris,” commented on this idea, saying “It’s not always easy living in a little town named for a much larger place.”
Also in the article, Betty Skogland of Denmark, Maine, says that people often wonder why she would want to live in a rural town of only 700 people named after a much more impressive European country. Referring to a time when she told a group of New Jersey residents that she was from Denmark, she explained, “They said ‘wow’ and I said, ‘No, Denmark, Maine,’ and they said, ‘Oh,’ and their faces dropped.”
But Ben Conant of Paris, Maine speaks highly of his home state when he describes a signpost that honors nine foreign-named towns at the junction of Routes 35 and 5 in Lynchville, Maine. Conant says the signpost was erected in 1930 to “attract attention to a little two-by-four place that doesn’t get any attention.” It has indeed attracted a lot of attention, as many people travel to take pictures beneath the famous road sign that says that Paris is only 15 miles away.