Small town signs of the times


There was a story in a newspaper back home the other day about how difficult it is for “folks from away” to figure out where they’re supposed to go because there are so few street signs in towns throughout Maine.

The article specifically mentioned how the lack of street signs was a problem in small towns.

The fact is, we don’t like street signs here in Maine and therefore we seldom use them.

I once asked a selectman why there were so few street signs in our town to help people tell one street from another.

“Why waste time and money on street signs?” he said. “Everyone in town knows what the different streets are called, and those from away who don’t know can stop and ask directions like they’re supposed to.”

According to the article, a number of intersections in towns are unmarked or poorly marked, causing confusion for drivers who aren’t familiar with the area’s roads and turning local businesses into information booths.

What the article failed to mention was that in many Maine towns, giving directions is a cottage industry, a finely honed skill, passed down from one generation to another. What would happen to this traditional Maine industry if towns started putting up clearly visible and mostly accurate street signs all over and confused tourists finally had a clue as to where they were?

Several years ago when they introduced the enhanced 911, it was required that every street in our town be named and clearly marked with a street sign. Hollis Beal, the veteran town manager, agreed to head up the street-naming committee.

Well, almost immediately the street-naming project became contentious and some members almost came to blows over one street name or another.

Among other things, the committee was supposed to make the town’s street names less confusing. For example, our town had a Beal Street, Beal Road and Beal Alley. And right next to Beal Alley was an Alley Street, just to add to the confusion.

But every time Hollis made a motion to change a name, the meeting would erupt into a heated argument.

On a road where two old town families lived – the Strouts and Alleys, for example – each family insisted that the road bear their family name.

The whole experience was so stressful on Hollis that he finally resigned in disgust. He also resigned as town manager and took to his house, seldom going out. A few months later, he died, and many of those who caused him so much stress over street names rightly felt guilty. Selectmen eventually decided to name the new town hall after him and everyone in town agreed.

All this news was recently emailed to me by a friend back home. He went on to say I wouldn’t recognize the old town with its new street names, new town hall and new town manager.

He said the new town manager, Fred Fielding, is one of those people who thinks he’s a lot more important than he really is. His first day on the job he came into the new town hall and got right to work, looking awfully busy.

A man came into the town hall and Fred just had to impress him with how important he was. So, as the fella waited patiently, Fred picked up his fancy new telephone and pretended he was talking important town business to someone. Of course, Fred was just talking to himself because the phone hadn’t been hooked up yet.

When he thought the poor fella had been duly impressed, Fred said “goodbye,” and, with a great flourish, hung up. Then, turning to the fella, he said, “Yes, sir, I think I have a minute or two to spare between phone calls. Can I help you with something?”

The fella grinned and said, “Yes, I’m here to hook up your new phone.”

John McDonald writes books about Maine, and his latest is “Moose Memoirs and Lobster Tales.” Contact him at or 899-1868.