For Hancock County resident and mapmaker Jane Crosen, maps are not just a tool for people to figure out how to get from point A to point B. They’re a document showing how humans relate to the world around them — from the roads we travel, to the landmarks in every town, to the literal landscape beneath our feet.
Which is why, eight years ago, when she was given a rare copy of an atlas of Hancock County first published by George N. Crosby in 1881, she quickly put it to use, using the historic maps to better understand the landmarks of the towns and landscapes she knew and loved, and what had — and hadn’t — changed.
Last year, when a historian colleague asked where she might be able to find a copy of the atlas for her own research purposes, Crosen realized that the book, which had been out of print for decades, was in the public domain.
“I thought, ‘I could take this and update this. I could make it much more user-friendly, and do it for the [Maine State] Bicentennial,’” said Crosen, who for the past 30 years has lived on a secluded dirt road in the town of Penobscot in a house she built with her husband. “Somebody’s got to keep this thing going. And I guess that somebody is me.”
Over an intense six months of research and design, Crosen took an original copy of the atlas, as well as the digital scans made by the Maine State Archives, and rearranged the pages into an order that makes sense to a 21st-century eye, adding historic photos and an index. The resulting book, “Colby’s Atlas of Hancock County, Maine, 1881: Coastwise Geographic Edition” was published in July.
Clockwise from left: Jane Crosen smiles while talking about her career outside her home in Penobscot on Sept. 1; Crosen holds a copy of her Hancock County atlas; Crosen discusses her long history of mapmaking while sitting in her sunroom. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN
“I’ve just pored over this thing, and now it’s something people can enjoy and understand today,” she said.
Though the physical landscapes have obviously remained the same, the maps are dotted with forgotten landmarks of another era: ferry lines now replaced by bridges, steamboat wharves, proposed rail line extensions, mines and quarries, and long-ago closed markets, farms, brickyards and shipyards. Certain place names also are different — Cadillac Mountain was back then known as Green Mountain, for example, while Green Lake in Ellsworth was known as Reed Pond, and Swan’s Island was known as Burnt Coat Island.
It also showcases how, back then, coastal Maine communities like those in Hancock County did not organize themselves around roads — they existed in large part because of their proximity to the ocean.
“That’s why I called it the coastwise edition,” said Crosen. “Everything tied into the ocean. Everyone traveled by boat. All the shipping was done by boat. It was a totally coastal economy, and this was before the expansion of railroads and the age of the car.”
Unlike the atlases published in the modern era, Crosby’s original atlas included details common to local maps of the 19th century, such as the names of the people who owned various properties in each town and a Yellow Pages-style list of local businesses. Crosen has left those details in, so readers with history in the region can potentially spot an ancestor among the many names.
For the past 38 years, Crosen has worked as a freelance writer and editor for WoodenBoat Publications, based in Brooklin, and as a self-employed mapmaker, selling prints and other merchandise featuring her hand-drawn maps of various Maine regions.
From left: Jane Crosen holds an old copy of a DeLorme Maine atlas at her home in Penobscot; Crosen rolls out one of her many historical maps. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN
Born in southern Maine, Crosen began learning graphic design in her 20s, after leaving Brown University in the early 1970s to live at Findhorn, an intentional community (similar to a commune) in Scotland, where she worked for its publishing venture. In 1979, she came back to Maine and got a job that would change her life: as an editorial assistant for DeLorme Publishing in Yarmouth, which was busy preparing an all-new edition of the legendary Maine Atlas & Gazetteer.
At DeLorme, Crosen said she learned cartography “by osmosis,” gathering information about interesting places in Maine, pinpointing them on the map, and then writing descriptions of them for the Gazetteer index. When she moved to the Blue Hill area in 1982 to work for WoodenBoat, she brought her newfound mapmaking skills with her. The following year, she drew her first map, of the Blue Hill Peninsula, and had it printed as a poster and a postcard.
Nearly 40 years later, that map has never been out of print, and it’s been joined by her maps of all of the regions of Maine’s coast, of lakes including Moosehead and Sebago, and two “parody” charts of fictional Maine environs. Crosen’s maps are available as prints and postcards and on t-shirts, tea towels and aprons, and she still does a handy business with them even today.
She normally keeps a busy schedule giving slideshow talks based on her maps and doing educational programs at local schools — programs that have been on hold since March, when the pandemic struck. With that extra time on her hands, Crosen was able to finish her edition of the Crosby atlas much more quickly than expected.
Crosen says Crosby made atlases of other Maine counties; he also published a full atlas of Maine in 1884. She’s aware of atlases made for Washington, Aroostook and Cumberland counties, and said she hopes she can give the same updated treatment she did for Hancock to one of them again this fall.
“I’d love to do the same thing for Washington County,” she said. “That will be my project for the next year.”
“Colby’s Atlas of Hancock County, Maine, 1881: Coastwise Geographic Edition” is available on Crosen’s website, mainemapmaker.com, and at select retail shops in Maine.