Hard Telling Not Knowing each week tries to answer your burning questions about why things are the way they are in Maine — specifically about Maine culture and history, both long ago and recent, large and small, important and silly. Send your questions to eburnham@bangordailynews.com.

A famous sign located at the intersection of Routes 5 and 35 in Albany Township directs travels to the various “countries” that can be reached along Maine highways. Credit: Brian Swartz / BDN

One of the most famous images from Maine is not of the majestic Katahdin or the rocky coast of Acadia National Park.

It’s a signpost in the tiny Oxford County township of Lynchville pointing travelers in the direction of locales like Mexico, Peru and Norway — all towns in Maine, of course, named for the real places that are other countries.

There are other states with places named for foreign countries or cities — Athens, Georgia, or Paris, Texas, spring to mind — but Maine seemingly has an overabundance of towns named for countries, cities and locales from all over the world.

We’ve compiled some of the best stories behind those names. For brevity’s sake, we won’t include the many towns in Maine named for British, Scottish or Irish locations. And we won’t include every single Maine foreign town namesake here, either, mostly because there are too few details about their name origins readily available.

Do you have information on the towns we didn’t include here? Email us at eburnham@bangordailynews.com; we’d love to know more.  

Belgrade: Named for the capital of Serbia, this Kennebec County town is one of many in the state that were named in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for countries and cities that were, at that time, in the news. One theory holds that when Belgrade was incorporated in 1796, townsfolk named it for the Serbian city, which a few years earlier had been besieged by Austrian forces that wrested control of the city from the Ottomans.

Bremen and Dresden: These two Lincoln County towns are only a few miles apart, and are both named for famous German cities. That’s because, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, hundreds of German Protestant immigrants settled in the area.

The Calais City Building on Church Street is shown on Nov. 29, 2022. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Calais: This historic Washington County town was incorporated as Calais in 1809, named for the French city in honor of France’s assistance during the American Revolution. It may be that townsfolk chose Calais because that French city can see Dover, England, and its famous white cliffs across the English Channel, with the two towns long interconnected. That’s not unlike the way Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, are interconnected, with only the St. Croix River and an international border separating them.

Carmel, Corinth, Hermon and Levant: When these four Penobscot County towns were founded between 1811 and 1814, townspeople chose names connected to locations in the Bible. There are other towns in Maine named for biblical locales, like Bethel, Canaan and Hebron, but these four municipalities just outside of Bangor are very close together and were founded within just a few years of each other. It’s not known exactly why the founders chose Bible references — were they very religious? Or did it just sound cool?

Carmel was named for Mount Carmel, the real-life place in modern Israel where the prophet Elijah may have lived. Corinth is named for the ancient Greek city where St. Paul the Apostle did many of his works. Hermon is named for Mount Hermon, on the Syrian-Lebanese border, the site of many Old Testament events. And Levant is named for the region along the Mediterranean that includes Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and part of Turkey.

China and Poland: China is not named for the country, or for fancy porcelain, and neither is Poland for the eastern European nation. Both were named, instead, for popular hymns of the day. China was named by founder Japheth Washburn for an 1801 hymn written by New England composer Timothy Swan, while Poland was named by settler Moses Emery for a so-called ancient melody called Poland.

The sun rises over West Quoddy Head Light, the easternmost point in the United States, the morning of Aug. 2, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Lubec: Few people likely know that the picturesque village of Lubec was named for the German city of Lubeck. A somewhat apocryphal story states that the townspeople chose the name because Lubeck was named an independent or “free” city after the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte, a French military commander during the French Revolution and eventually the first emperor of France. When the town was incorporated in 1811, that name was chosen because Lubec — a Maine spelling — was considered its own kind of “free” city, with free trading.

During the town’s 100th anniversary in 1911, the city of Lubeck reportedly sent an 11-foot wooden etching of the city’s landscape to Lubec as a gift. Though the etching was on display in town for several years, it had disappeared by the 1930s without a verifiable trace.

Mexico and Peru: Like so many of the other towns on this list, these two Oxford County towns were named for world news items of the day. In 1818, the country of Mexico was fighting for its independence from Spain, and townsfolk in what would become the Maine town of the same name, sympathized and named themselves after it. A similar thing happened with the town of Peru — the South American country declared its independence from Spain in 1821, the same year the Maine town incorporated.

Dozens gathered around the Midsommar Pole during New Sweden’s June 22 Midsommar Festival, an annual event honoring a myriad of Swedish traditions. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican

New Sweden and Stockholm: These Aroostook County towns were named for the high population of Swedish immigrants living and working there and recruited by Mainer and former Swedish and Norwegian ambassador William Thomas. New Sweden was incorporated in 1870, and Stockholm was founded in 1881. There is also an Oxford County municipality called Sweden, but there’s not much information out there about why that town chose that name.

Norway: Sometimes, a town is named by accident. That’s supposedly what happened with the town of Norway — in 1797 residents decided to name their town Norage, an Anglicization of the Wabanaki word for “falls.” They sent their request off to the Massachusetts government, which reportedly decided that Norage was a misspelling, and was meant to be “Norway.” There’s no definitive proof that that’s what happened, but it’s certainly a fun story.

Smyrna: Another story with a somewhat apocryphal origin, this Aroostook County town is named for the ancient Greek city of Smyrna, which today is known as Izmir and is located in Turkey.

The story goes that town founder and Methodist minister Nehemiah Leavitt wanted to name it after his hometown of Royalton, Vermont. Townsfolk objected to that name for various reasons, which caused Leavitt “great distress,” according to the town of Smyrna’s website.

In an act of what may be construed as pettiness, Leavitt supposedly submitted the name Smyrna instead, for the Greek city that the town says was a “wicked city known worldwide for its sins.” We’re not sure what those sins actually were, though early Christian saint and martyr Polycarp was executed there by the Romans.

Perhaps Leavitt identified with him.

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.