I hate town meeting.
Town meeting is a laboratory sink for psychologists.
Every dreadful facet of human nature reveals itself at these gatherings. One must have the emotions of a sociopath to escape town meeting with one's soul intact.
I remember a town meeting in Temple years ago where the Police Chief, Russ Tyler, was attacked for using his cruiser too much. Poor Chief Tyler used his own car as the cruiser. He saved the town a lot of money using his own car.
But the mob at the meeting was sure he was getting away with something.
I remember thinking, "You people are crazy to be yelling at the Chief like this. He has a gun."
But Chief Tyler also had great heart. He was a straight shooter and a nice guy (although he did look like that sheriff in the old TV ad who says, "Boy, you're in a heap of trouble.")
In the end, the meeting vented itself and the Chief got his budget. But what heroic self-restraint that man showed.
Towns are made up of people who do not trust one another. It is and has always been "us and them."
The "new" people settle here with an idyllic view of living in a small town. They come from places where no one knows each other. Here they expected to find love.
What they find, of course, is resentment. The old Yankees don't trust the newcomers. Usually the newcomers are Democrats.
Some newcomer always stands up at the meeting and says something like, "My name is Ralph Lumpman and Loraine and I moved up here last fall from Darien. We bought the old Cosgrove place on Swamp Road. And I'd like to say that our moderator tonight is doing a bang-up job and I think we should give him a round of applause."
Then all the people, who recently moved to town, clap.
And there is always someone who informs the moderator that the flag is on the wrong side of the stage.
Town meeting gives people license. No one is expected to practice restraint.
Everyone is there to tell it like it is.
For 24 years of my life I was a small-town newspaper reporter and did news on the radio station in Peterborough.
I have attended over three hundred town meetings.
In my 50-plus years of going to town meetings I've seen a lot of changes. Years ago most towns were controlled by the families who owned the mills. In Milford it was Charlie Emerson; in Jaffrey it was D.D. Bean; in Wilton it was the Abbots; in Dublin, Robb Sagendorph.
If you didn't work for these men, someone in your family did. I used to watch D. D. Bean sit in the front of the hall at the Jaffrey Town Meeting.
Mr. Bean owned the match factory, in Jaffrey. When an article important to him came up he would turn and look back over his seat and note who voted "for" and who voted "against" the article.
Robb Sagendorph was the publisher of Yankee magazine and the Old Farmer's Almanac up in Dublin and he had double clout. Robb Sagendorph was also the moderator. If he didn't like an article he would close down discussion.
"We have had enough jawing about this matter," he'd say. "It's time to vote."
Now here are some facts and history about town meetings in New Hampshire:
First of all, town meeting is a New England (or a Northeast) invention. Other states use town councils and the like. Up here the whole town is invited, once a year, to vote on the town's business.
Secondly: town meeting is not an outgrowth of the Revolutionary War. In fact, just the opposite may be true. The colonists had become used to running their town affairs themselves way before the Revolution.
The first recorded town meeting we know of was in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1633. Some semblance of self-government has been with us since the earliest settlers.
Some think town meetings were an outgrowth of Puritanism. The Puritans would not kowtow to the English High Church. They elected their ministers and, not incidentally, used their meetinghouses to do other town business.
Of course, they only treated other Puritans democratically. They had no tolerance for other religions or Native Americans or Blacks. Also, only white, male property owners were allowed a vote at Town Meeting.
Nevertheless this was the start of it all. And by 1650 these meetings were being called town meetings.
The first official town meeting in Dunstable (which originally comprised Nashua and other towns) was held in 1675. Portsmouth also had town meetings and selectmen in the early sixteen hundreds.
These annual meetings were held, usually, the first or second Tuesday in March.
This was because March was the least important month for an agricultural society. Everything was frozen and miserable. But there was still enough snow so that sledges and oxen moved easily through the woods.
Town meeting was a chance for a party and a chance to see your neighbors and hash out the coming year.
At the meeting the citizens would select three men from the community to act in the town's interests in the coming year. This is where the word "selectmen" came from. They were selected.
Also at these meetings the town elected other officers of the town. A tax collector was needed as well as a constable. No one wanted these jobs. At town meeting in 1780, fifteen people in Hampton Falls were elected constable and, one-by-one, the electees refused the job. Each then paid a five-shilling fine for not serving.
People hated these enforcers of the laws. Being constable was dangerous and depressing.
Other town offices included: Tithing Men, Fence Viewer, Hog Reeve, Deer Reeve, Pound Keeper, Liquor Agent, Sealer of Lime and Brick, Corder of Wood, Cemetery Commissioner and, of course, Road Agent (see sidebar).
Also at town meeting they would auction off indigent and old people, widows and children; people who needed to be cared for. These poor souls would be placed with the family whose bid was the lowest.
In the Hampton Falls Town Meeting of 1761 the town voted a cow to be given to the widow Abigail Longfellow.
In the early 18th century the town of Hancock voted to purchase a town coffin to show off the dearly departed at the funeral and then to transport him or her to the graveyard. There the body alone went in the ground. The coffin was returned to the meetinghouse.
New Hampshire town histories tell us in no uncertain terms that human nature today is the same as it has always been.
People hate it when their neighbor gets more than they do.
What's changed is size and demographics. Many towns today still hold on to the town meeting form of government even though the population has grown so that sometimes it takes three of four days to complete all the business.
Nowadays there are 171 towns in the Granite State that still hold town meetings. The rest are either cities with mayors-and-aldermen or have streamlined the town meeting process.
What hasn't changed is the "us" and the "them." The old families in towns are just making it by. But those who have come here from "away" tend to be professionals or retirees and they have more money than the locals. The new people buy up the old grand homes and the locals provide services to them.
This makes for resentment. And at town meeting that resentment is palpable. It's a wonder these towns don't explode.
Of course, it could be that this "letting off of steam" is a good thing. I can't figure if it's tragedy or a farce.
So if you see me at the General Store in my hometown of Acworth, let me know what happens at town meeting this year.
'Cause I ain't going. NH
A List of Town Offices (Mostly) No Longer With Us:
Towns that allowed the sale of spirits taxed the publican who served the booze. People back then lied a lot and the Liquor Agent spied on the drinkers to make sure the town got their fair share of the proceeds.
The word "reeve" means a "minor town office." Its etymology is not known but it comes from the Olde English. The Deer Reeve was the game warden.
In the old days people used to let their hogs run wild. Later, when people lived in bigger towns, they didn't allow hogs to run everywhere. Pigs were dirty and ate all the vegetables out of your garden. The Hog Reeve rounded up all stray pigs and fined their owners fifty cents. Later the office became a joke. The voters would often elect the prissiest man in town Hog Reeve. In the 1850s Charlestown elected their minister, Dr. Whittaker, to this office. In some towns the most recently wed young man was elected Hog Reeve. People knew a good time back then.
Like the Hog Reeve only with a broader view. This man was in charge of animals other than deer and pigs. Stray animals were brought to the town pound. Here the Pound Keeper collected fines from their owners when they came to get them. Big animals cost more to get out of the slammer than did small animals.
Officers who spied on their neighbors to make sure they were moral. They saw to it that people attended church and that they did not take the Lord's name in vain. They were everywhere and acted like a little brother who tells Mommy that "Jessica said a swares!"
SEALER OF LIME AND BRICK
This guy inspected the brick to see that it was properly fired and to see that the preparation of mortar was up to standards.
SEALER OF LEATHER
Again, an inspector. This guy made sure that the tanner and currier did their jobs correctly. Also, a shoemaker could not make his own leather and a tanner could not make shoes; something about cutting corners.
SEALER OF WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
This officer inspected the local scales. Everyone back then was trying to get away with something.
In the old days anyone on the public thoroughfare was required to maintain a wall or fence on his property. This was to keep animals from straying into the fields. Also, building a certain amount of wall on a road was a way a person could pay their taxes. The Fence Viewer decided what this labor was worth and also saw to it that people maintained their fences. He also refereed in property disputes. In Peterborough they still elect Fence Viewers. This is considered fun in Peterborough.
This article appears in the March 2008 issue of New Hampshire Magazine