I had fun with Wikipedia’s List of Oldest Companies after I bounced onto it randomly, and of course it included a geographic component. I decided to examine claims for various nations using the list as a starting point.
I think it’s important to stress that these are only claims. References and websites for individual companies often hedge their assertion with qualifiers such as "reputed to be" or "probably" so I wouldn’t insist that any of these are the absolute oldest even though they would certainly qualify as ancient within their particular realms.
Japan – Oldest in the World
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The oldest continuously-operated company in the world today is likely (notice the qualifier) Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan hotel which is located at a hot spring in Hayakawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan. Actually the first several companies on the list are all located in Japan. Japanese firms dominate the entire category. There’s something about Japanese culture that nurtures and protects these mostly modest endeavors for a millennium or more. Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan has been around since the year 705 according to Guinness World Records.
Oddly, Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan captured the longevity title only recently. Kongo Gumi, a Japanese temple builder, ruled the roost until 2006. Kongo Gumi was established and remained under the control of a single family starting in 578 before succumbing to 21st Century economic pressures. Imagine poor Masakazu Kongo, the 40th and final company leader, who failed to pass down what the previous 39 generations of his family had preserved.
Speaking of temple building, I noticed a rather startling swastika symbol south of the Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan hotel. I clicked the tag and dropped the Japanese characters into translation software that identified it as a Buddhist temple. Some basic research confirmed that "on Japanese maps, a swastika (left-facing and horizontal) is used to mark the location of a Buddhist temple." It’s perfectly proper in this context albeit it came as a jolt to me because of my westernized point of reference.
Flickr by marketing deluxe via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License
An example from continental Europe followed next after a parade of Japanese occurrences. It was the Stiftskeller St. Peter in Salzburg, Austria, a restaurant that dated back at least to the year 803 (map). The restaurant claimed that it was "mentioned for the first time by the scholar Alcuin, a follower of Emperor Charlemagne, thus regarded as the oldest restaurant in Europe."
It also interested me because Stiftskeller St. Peter is contained within the confines of St. Peter’s Archabbey (Stiftskeller translates to Abbey Basement). I learned a new word today too: an archabbey is a principal abbey of the Order of Saint Benedict. One can dine within a Benedictine monastery like people have done since the 9th Century.
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Several people from the UK subscribe to the Twelve Mile Circle so I wanted to feature something from the British Islands. The oldest company is believed to be a pub called The Bingley Arms in Bardsey, West Yorkshire. As the pub described it, "The Bingley Arms, or The Priests Inn as it was called hundreds of years ago, has a known history that dates back as far as 953AD when Samson Ellis brewed in the central part of the building. However, evidence suggests that it might even date back to 905AD and was standing before All Hallows Church, just a few yards away, was built in 950AD."
Then it talks about the usual ghost stories and stuff which is typical of just about every website describing ancient places.
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No company in the so-called "New World" will compare favorably to Asian or European business longevity. The Native Americans had completely different cultural norms so notions of family businesses passed down through multiple generations had to wait until European settlement. The oldest example was a farm along the James River in Charles City County Virginia — Shirley Plantation — established in 1613. Bear in mind that the first permanent English colony at Jamestown (my visit) didn’t happen until 1607 so Shirley Plantation followed the original landing by a mere six years. That makes the date quite remarkable within its context.
The top tier of ancient establishments in the US were all farms. The oldest non-farm was The Seaside Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine that’s been operated continuously since 1667. They say that, "9th Generation Family Innkeepers make us America’s oldest running family run business." Well, except for the farms, I guess.
Canada and Australia
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Canada’s oldest business may be the most well-known of the lot, the Hudson’s Bay company founded in 1670. I decided to show Hudson Bay rather than the company’s headquarters in some generic office tower in Toronto (street view).
Ditto for Australia. I can’t add much visual impact by showing the Brisbane headquarters of the Australian Agricultural Company, founded in 1824. Today they "operate 19 cattle stations, two feedlots and three farms across more than 7.2 million hectares of land across Queensland and the Northern Territory."
The capital of a nation is often its most important city, or certainly one that citizens would recognize by name if not. Place that exact name into another nation and its significance would almost always drop. I wondered if I could find the name of every other capital city within the physical boundaries of the United States as a recognized geographic feature. The short answer was that I could identify many of them but not all. The longer answer took some interesting turns.
View International Capitals in the USA in a larger map
First I had to find a source. I decided that Wikipedia’s List of national capitals in alphabetical order would suit my purposes with the several caveats already there (e.g., "including territories and dependencies, non-sovereign states including associated states and entities whose sovereignty is disputed"). Some of the selections come with strong emotional strings and I’m sure the Wikipedians who compiled that list would love to discuss selection criteria on their talk page. I’ll take a neutral stance, the classic easy way out, and simply start from there.
Next I had to find an example of each city within the United States. I selected only one appearance per city. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) listed 42 populated places for Athens, for instance. I selected the one in Georgia. Any of the other 41 would have been fine too. Finally I placed my source data and lat/long coordinates in a shared Google Docs spreadsheet that you are absolutely free to review.
I considered actual cities or towns to be the gold standard. The history of the United States provided abundant examples reflecting a Greco-Roman educational heritage and a later wave of European immigration from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. It was easy to find Athens and Paris. The challenge came with Yaoundé, Lilongwe and the like, where I failed.
If not a town, I tried to find a lesser known USGS-recognized feature such as a populated place (often a neighborhood), an historic site (former settlement or ghost town), or a natural landmark such as an island, lake or stream. I turned to street names as a final resort. Readers might be surprised by the number of communities and subdivisions with appropriately-named street grids. There are several South Florida developments, for example, with a variety of Caribbean themes. Airports often featured international street names too, and US military bases commemorated long-ago (and not-so-long-ago) battles that occurred in exotic places.
I suppose I could have gone all the way down to the retail level — maybe I could have found a Kyrgyzstani restaurant named Bishkek somewhere — although I had little faith that they would be useful as permanent landmarks. Restaurants go out of business with striking regularity. Street names at least seemed to have a better chance of sticking around for awhile.
I’ll feature a few of my favorite finds although they barely scratch the surface. I think you’ll have fun discovering your own gems hidden in the map, and of course please let me know if you find any of the missing capitals. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it simply means I couldn’t find them with a cursory search. I got a little cross-eyed after nearly 250 individual investigations.
St. Helier, Jersey
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Jersey, of all the international locations available, might appear to be an odd initial choice. It’s a British Crown Dependency with fewer than a hundred thousands residents so why would I start there? Saint Helier is the Jersey capital and that’s where I noticed the connection.
Saint Helier doesn’t appear often in the US, and in fact the only instance I could find was a single street in Texas… in Jersey Village, Texas. The Handbook of Texas speculated that Jersey Village’s name derived from a nearby dairy farm with Jersey cows, a breed that originated on the Isle of Jersey several centuries earlier. Someone laying out the township must have made a conscious decision to honor Jersey with a Saint Helier Street. Thus it’s possible to live in Saint Helier, Jersey, in Texas, and for that I salute an unknown suburban planner.
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I selected Rome, New York to represent the Italian capital, an easy choice because of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. The New York version of Rome has it’s own interpretation of St. Peter’s Basilica! The only condition that would have made this even better may have been if Rome — the one in New York — had declined to annex the property where where the church had been built. Then it would have completed the analogy by creating a miniature version of Vatican City.
I did find the Vatican, by the way (a USGS populated place), but it was nowhere near Rome, not even the one in Mississippi.
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I thought Vientiane would be a tough find, and that would have been true if I hadn’t stumbled upon a small Laotian community in Broussard, Louisiana. Notice the street names: Vientaine is the capital of Laos; and Savannaket (Savannakhet) and Luangphbang (Louangphrabang) are Laotian provinces. The community in Louisiana is even anchored by a Buddhist temple along its western edge, Wat Thammarattanaram-La.
A little Internet sleuthing led to an explanation in The Advocate, a newspaper in Baton Rouge.
Laotian immigrants first settled in Iberia Parish in the late ’70s and early ’80s after refugees left Laos when communists gained control there. Federally supported training for oil-field work led many of the refugees to the parish. Xanamane said the land for what would become Lanexang Village was purchased in 1985 and divided among the families within the community. Today, the community is home to 65 households — with a total population of 400 — and is one of three residential clusters of Laotian immigrants within Iberia Parish. The village is best known for its celebration of the Laotian New Year, which typically falls during the Easter holiday, Xanamane said.
I never would have imagined a community of Cajun-Laotian oil workers in Louisiana prior to this mapping exercise.
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Mogadishu would seem to be an unusual option although I found a street by that name at Naval Station Norfolk in southeastern Virginia. I’m speculating that it’s a tribute street, a way to commemorate the Battle for Mogadishu which was also portrayed in a 2001 movie, Black Hawk Down. Four Navy SEALs participated in this largely Army operation and their home base was located nearby.
A Few More Tidbits
I could go on-and-one with other examples presented by these data. Is San Marino, California larger than San Marino? (no). Wouldn’t it be better if the Slovenian Society Home faced along adjacent Ljubljana Drive instead of Recher Avenue? (yes). Is there any chance that someone in the US will name a street after Pyongyang (probably not) or Islamabad (perhaps not in states preempting Sharia Law).
Next time I’ll have to build a map with fewer data points.
Marks on trees served as road signs during North America’s colonial times, a period when much of the population was illiterate. Certain patterns of slashes or notches conveyed specific information about the nature of a pike or landmarks a traveler might find farther down down its path. Three notches served as a frequent glyph although its meaning varied depending on geography.
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I first noticed the phenomenon in Maryland when I spied Three Notch Road, and I became curious about its derivation. This is a significant traffic corridor today, primarily Maryland Route 235 running along the spine of what is known as Southern Maryland colloquially, then part of Maryland Route 5 heading deeper into the suburbs outside of Washington, DC. The History of Caroline County, Maryland, From Its Beginning offers an explanation for the name. It referred to a 1704 colonial-era law that applied across early Maryland:
And the roads that lead to any county Court house, shall have two notches on the trees on both sides of the road as aforesaid, and another notch a distance above the other two. And any road that leads to a church, shall be marked at the entrance into the same, and at the leaving any other road, with a slip cut down the race of the tree, near the ground. Any road leading to a ferry, and dividing from other public roads shall be marked with three notches of equal distance at the entrance into the same.
Maryland’s Three Notch Road road led to a ferry three hundred years ago. The ferry disappeared, lost to history long ago, while the name of the road carried the legacy forward. It’s difficult to picture that idyllic scene today. Suburbia continues to nibble away at an historically rural landscape.
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Three Notch’d or Three Chopt Road in Central Virginia has been studied extensively. It ran originally from Richmond across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the valley (the true "almost heaven"). I’ve marked the portion that continues to retain its basic path and identity into the present. U.S. Route 250 and to a lesser degree Interstate 64 follow the old Three Notch’d road fairly faithfully. A marker in Charlottesville commemorates its historical significance:
Three Notch’d Road – Also called Three Chopt Road, this colonial route ran from Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. It likely took its name from three notches cut into trees to blaze the trail. A major east-west route across central Virginia from the 1730s, it was superseded by Route 250 in the 1930s. Part of Jack Jouett’s famous ride and the Marquis de Lafayette’s efforts to prevent Gen. Charles Cornwallis from obtaining munitions took place along this road. Today West Main Street and part of University Avenue approximate the Three Notch’d Road’s original course through present-day Charlottesville.
Jack Jouett, as every kid who went to elementary school in Virginia knows, was the Commonwealth’s version of Paul Revere. He alerted Thomas Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia, that British troops were on the way to capture him in 1781. Just as Plymouth overshadows Jamestown, Revere overshadows Jouett. Nonetheless, Virginia’s Three Notch’d Road had its brief moments of fame.
I searched the VDOT article for the significance of the road’s three notches. I found references to the name being applied for the first time in the spring of 1743. The notches were an intentional name for a primary route applied in a manner similar to numbers on major roads today. Three Notch’d Road was the colonial equivalent of an Interstate highway with a numerical designation.
The source dispelled other theories:
Since the word ‘notch’ is a synonym for ‘gap,’ it is possible that the ‘three notches’ may have referred to the three gaps accessible from this road, but this is purely conjectural as the main road down the Valley was originally marked with ‘two Knotches and a cross.’ The occurrence of the name Three Notch’d Road as early as 1743 would seem to effectually squelch the tradition that the three notches referred to George III since he did not become king until 1760.
I’ve actually been on Three Notch’d Road more times than I can count. Oddly, the name never registered on my mind until I began my investigation for this article.
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The Andalusia Star News discussed a Three Notch Road that "ran from Pensacola to Fort Mitchell in Russell County, Alabama." I’ve marked an approximate segment of the route as it exists today, extending from East Three Notch Street in Andalusia, AL to North Three Notch Street in Troy, AL to the tiny hamlet of Three Notch.
The road connected Pensacola, Florida with a fortification set far inland on the eastern edge of Alabama in 1824 — Fort Mitchell (map). The Creek War with Alabama’s native American population had taken place only a decade earlier. Hostilities still simmered and the United States Army established garrisons in the wilderness to protect settlers. In turn, those fortifications had to be supplied. That was the purpose of Three Notch Road.
As the article explained, "Since there were no steamboats on the Chattahoochee River at the time, the army had to transport troops and supplies from Pensacola to Ft. Mitchell by land through Indian Territory." It further noted that, "Capt. Daniel E. Burch marked the route using three notches on trees for a crew under Lt. Elias Phillips to follow" during construction.
The name of the road led to speculation about its origin. One legend said that General Andrew Jackson, who came through the area at various points during his expeditions and battles with native Americans, may have left three notches as he beat a path through the bush. The road was named at a later date, as the story goes, for Jackson’s notches. However, several of the sources I consulted viewed this as both speculative and insupportable. The evidence simply doesn’t exist.
The notches were left behind to guide a road construction crew according to the most probable explanation.
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Three Notch Road was the first route blazed into Missouri by settlers of European descent. A great resource discussing this situation already exists on the Intertubes, the Southeast Missourian’s Drive on the Oldest Road in Missouri complete with a well-done Google map. I can’t add much to it. Feel free to skip my summary and jump directly to that source if you like.
The origin traced back to 1735 when France controlled much of the vast North American interior. They’d discovered lead a few miles north of present-day Fredericktown, Missouri and began digging at Mine La Motte in 1717. Three Notch Road connected Mine La Motte, in the middle of nowhere at the time, with the settlement of Ste-Geneviève on the Mississippi River. No road would have been constructed through this incredibly isolated wilderness had it not been for the mine. "La Motte" translates "root ball" if online tools can be relied upon, so this may have been the Root Ball Mine. Maybe one of the French 12MC readers can provide a better translation.
As for the triple notches, the article explained, "it was common to mark minor roads with one notch, secondary roads with two notches, and major roads with three notches." Thus, this would have been a major road of great significance according to the definition.
I found references to other Three Notch Roads (as an example). I didn’t have time to research this topic any further although I know they are out there.