DENNYSVILLE, Maine — Long before Maine was a state, surveyors hired by George Washington walked Washington County’s fields, forests and coastlines to create maps — maps hand drawn with ink and illustrated with watercolors that were then used to entice settlers to locate in what was then called “Passamaquoddy Country.”
A collection of six such original maps that survived for more than 200 years — one for 216 years — are now on display at the Dennysville Academy-Vestry Museum. The centerpiece of the collection is a 1796 map created by surveyor Solomon Cushing for Gen. Benjamin Lincoln.
Lincoln and two other Boston investors had purchased Township 1 — now the town of Perry — and Township Two — now Pembroke and Dennysville — from the state of Massachusetts for a total of $14,461.82. But they needed settlers to help develop the lands.
What is now being called “The Big Map,” the 1796 piece was created using pen and ink and watercolors on paper with a linen back. It was intended to be used as a real estate sales tool.
“It is a miracle it survived,” local historian Colin Windhorst said Tuesday.
When Lincoln’s family sold his Dennysville home decades ago, several maps were found rolled up and stuck inside a wooden barrel.
“The antique dealers that had shown up for the sale deemed them worthless,” Windhorst said. The maps were nearly burned in a bonfire of scrap items but were saved by Dennysville resident Robert Wilder. The maps later were loaned by Wilder’s son, David, to local historian and author, Rebecca Hobart of the Dennys River Historical Society for safe keeping.
A chance visit by map expert and collector Bill Welsh of Massachusetts brought the maps to light.
“They are absolutely remarkable,” Welsh said this week. “You would not find a map collection like this in the most prestigious of historical societies. I can’t believe the quality.”
Welsh said that placing a value on the maps is a judgment call but he and the map restorer have deemed them priceless. Pointing to the largest map, Welsh said, “Given the choice between owning this map and a Michelangelo, I’d take the map.”
Welsh took The Big Map to Skip Carpenter of Shrewsbury, Mass., who operates a restoration enterprise. “He stabilized it,” Welsh said. “What he did is remarkable.”
The map is large — 73½ inches by 104 inches — and has been on display since Memorial Day in a secure case at the museum. Tiny, hand-drawn houses, mills, bridges and barns are still clearly visible. The coastline is incredibly accurate by today’s standards and most of the geography has retained its original names. Even the names of the property owners — Wilson, Leighton, Clark, Sprague, Dammon, Hersey, Kilby, Cushing, Wilder — are names of families still living in Dennysville.
“How many places still have the same families from its settlement, sometimes living in the very same houses?” Windhorst said. The entire village of Dennysville is of such importance that all of it is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
“History is wherever people are,” Windhorst said. “But here, it is so on the surface.”
The entire collection of maps is a reflection of that history, he said.
“This historical society is not a musty, dusty collection. History is living.”
The maps show what was important to the settlers of two centuries ago, he said — the water, the roads, the marshes.
“This was the frontier then,” Windhorst said. “No one was thinking of going West. This was the pioneer front and this map is our legacy.”
The Dennysville Academy-Vestry Museum overlooks the Dennys River off U.S. Route 1. It is open 1-4 p.m. every Saturday until Labor Day, or by appointment by calling 726-3905 or 726-5258.
Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly described the thread of possession. The maps, which are owned by David Wilder, were given by him to the Dennys River Historical Society for display and revert to his family if the society should become defunct.