Town Meeting and Other Relevant NH Government Relics
Like programs on the History Channel, some civic traditions are profound while others are ridiculous, and just like the folks who preserve them, they all have stories to tell.
There’s definitely a benefit to living in a state that dates back to Colonial America. In the words of Tevye, the Fiddler on the Roof, “Traditionnnnn …. Tradition.”
Many of our most beloved as well as obscure traditions in terms of local government pre-date the birth of the nation. Some are still alive and well. Others serve a more ceremonial function, while others, some argue, have long passed their expiration dates.
One enduring government ritual is the traditional or open town meeting — not to be confused with the New Age phrase “town-hall-style meeting” used by stumping politicians who want to appear folksy on national television.
These roots go deep — the first recorded town meeting was in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1633.
Town meetings are traditionally held on the second Tuesday in March, a tradition that has its roots in agrarian society when the end of winter was a suspended animation time for farmers who could neither reap nor sow.
It’s at these town meetings that all the year’s town business and elections are voted on by citizens in town halls and community centers around the state. And while cities with municipal forms of government and the passage of Senate Bill 2 (SB2) in 1995 have meant fewer traditional town meetings, there are still 161 communities — way more than half of the 224 towns in the state — that still have traditional town meeting.
The SB 2 form of government was instituted by the state Legislature because of concerns that modern times make it difficult for people to attend traditional town meetings. SB 2 town meeting is a deliberative session (held about a month before elections) at which citizens decide the wording of each warrant article. The binding decision is taken by secret ballot on the day town officials are elected, usually the traditional second Tuesday in March. There are 63 SB2 communities in the state, most of which are in the southern, most-populated towns in the state.
For the 375 years New Hampshire has had town meeting, the residents and their warrant articles have come and gone. But the cast of characters in attendance has essentially stayed the same ( see “Cast and Crew”) — at least since reporters started covering them for the papers.
“Town meeting. It’s the purest form of democracy,” says Secretary of State William Gardner. “Every year there was a period of time that people did their civic duty. They did it when it wasn’t easy to get logs out of the woods and it was too soon to till the soil.” And people must have been looking for something to do. “At one time town meetings lasted up to seven days in some communities,” says Gardner.
And while things have certainly changed, the town meeting still serves its purpose as a socio/political gathering. Gardner says he always liked what an LA Times reporter once called a New Hampshire town meeting — “the Wal-Mart of elections.”
“Think about it,” says Gardner. There’s this big hall where people are standing up and talking about warrant articles, while in the back of the room someone is selling cupcakes, and there’s a booth where you can sign up to be a bone marrow donor, and one where you can donate blood. There’s a Gold Star Mothers table, the local historical society is selling T-shirts and you can sign your kids up for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. That’s still going on right now.”
But town meeting isn’t the only long-lasting and, some might say, quaint civic tradition.
Fred Mullen has been official Dunbarton town perambulator since 1995 (and they just swore him in for seven more years). He’s found some missing monuments along the way and even made the Army Corps of Engineers replace a few that were lost during the building of the Everett Dam, but when asked if he ever saw anything unusual while walking the town borders he replies, “Not really.”
Mysterious Town Functions
Not the least of which is Perambulation of Town Lines — which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the law in New Hampshire that “the lines between the towns in this state shall be perambulated, and the marks and bounds renewed, once in every seven years forever, by the selectmen of the towns, or by such persons as they shall in writing appoint for that purpose.”
And while it might sound like an anachronism, Gardner says it still serves a purpose and is still done.
“A lot of towns have natural boundaries like rivers and forests and nature isn’t static. Things grow, river banks can change.”
The awarding of the Boston Post Cane to the oldest resident of a town is a custom whose time has come and gone and come again. It began as a newspaper publicity stunt. It endures in some towns, and has been forgotten in others. In 1909 Boston Post newspaper owner Edwin A. Grozier, who knew a photo op when he saw one, had several hundred ornate gold-tipped canes manufactured. He contacted selectmen in many New England towns and asked them to present it to the burg’s oldest living voter. It was awarded only to men, until 1930, when women were deemed cane-worthy.
The walking sticks were made of Gaboon ebony from the Congo, Africa, by the J. F. Fradley and Company of New York City. Many of the canes have outlived the Boston Post, which folded in 1956.
It is unclear how many of the canes made their way to New Hampshire. The Boston Post Cane Project, a volunteer effort that is an offshoot of the Medfield, (Mass.) Historical Society, has been able to keep track of about 102 in the state. Many are now retired and kept in town halls, such as those in Bedford and Hooksett.
In the town of Barrington the original cane was lost in the early 1940s when the town’s oldest citizen refused the honor, believing it was a bad omen. In 1999 the town historical society replaced it with another walking stick they named the “Barrington Cane.” In 2004 the original Boston Post cane was rediscovered and is now on display at the historical society.
Last year, with appropriate ceremony covered by the local press, the Derry cane was presented to 105-year-old Dorothy Greene, the Lebanon cane was awarded to 103-year-old Jane Hammond and a replica of the Exeter cane, which has been retired, was presented to 101-year-old Daniel Lynch.
Peterborough also gives out replica canes while displaying the real deal, and in fact has developed a kind of cottage industry built up around the tradition.
The town has a company that makes the facsimiles and sells them to other towns for $140 — which goes into the town coffers.
The cane is rich in symbolism, but carries little official power. Another piece of ceremonial town wood comes with real clout: the town meeting gavel. All gavels make a resounding whack needed to restore order, but some have deeper roots than others. Moderator D. Kenneth Chapman oversees the Woodstock town meeting every year with good nature, evenhandedness, a quick quip and a gavel reputed to be a remnant of Colonial history.
The blond wood gavel arrived unannounced in the mail 15 years ago, 25 years after Chapman became moderator. “It came from a man named Sawyer, who was moderator back in the ’40s,” Chapman says.
The letter that accompanied the gavel said it was made from an elm tree planted by Matthew Thornton, a New Hampshire founding father and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
The letter claimed that the tree had been planted to celebrate the signing of the declaration and, when it succumbed to Dutch elm disease, it was made into gavels that were sent to towns throughout the state.
“I don’t know if the story is true or not,” says Chapman, “but I take it out every year for town meeting.”
Archaic Town Offices
And while all town meeting towns have moderators, there are some offices still held that sound like they came out of a history book. A prime example is the pound keeper. The office is a vestige of the state’s agricultural past, when wandering cattle presented a problem. Cows, pigs, horses, sheep and oxen sometimes escaped their pens and corrals to root around in gardens and wreak havoc in cornfields. In response, towns financed pounds to temporarily corral farmers’ wayward meal tickets. The pound built in Nelson in 1783 was a square building with stone walls six-feet high, a wide gate and a door with iron hinges sealed with a lock and key. The remains of the Nelson pound and those in many other towns still stand like mini Yankee Stonehenges.
A town pound keeper collected fines from the owners of the cattle when they came to retrieve them.
Most towns also had a hog reeve or two. Unlike horses and cows that were usually kept in an enclosure, hogs were free to roam so they could fatten up on nuts and other treats on the forest floor. To keep them out of trouble they were outfitted with rings and yokes. The rings in their noses were large enough to prevent them from turning over the ground, and the circular or triangular yokes or bows went around their necks to keep them from breaking through fences.
The hog reeves rounded up pigs that strayed into fields or created a nuisance. If the animals were not “rung” or “yoked,” they would perform the task and charge the owner for the service as well as for any damage the animal incurred during its peregrination.
Voters often elected the fussiest man in town or newlyweds as hog reeves. In some towns it became traditional to appoint newcomers to the largely ceremonial post. It’s reported that when J.D. Salinger was named as hog reeve in Cornish, the writer was not amused. In 2007, when former governor John Sununu and his wife, Nancy, moved to Hampton Falls, they were named honorary hog wranglers. Apparently his experience keeping congressmen from the public trough during his stint as chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush made him eminently suited for the post. “It’s one of the great honors,” John Sununu told the Associated Press at the time. “We got a badge and everything. If you need any hogs rounded up, call me.”
Some holders of archaic town offices take the dubious honor more seriously than others. And many towns write their own rules for how the titles are granted. In Dunbarton, for instance, all couples married in the past year are invited to serve as honorary hog reeves.
And let’s not forget fence viewers who have been around 150 years in New England. Fence viewers settle disputes between property owners when livestock stray across property lines, or if fences are improperly maintained or illegally altered. In the days when property lines were delineated by stone walls destroyed by frost heaves, it was a busy job. Today it’s less a job and more a quaint nod to history. The town of Peterborough still elects a committee of three members to the largely ceremonial post.
The post of town crier may have outlived its usefulness, but the call of “Oye, oye, oye!” still echoes over the New Hampshire countryside from time to time. Last year, when the town of Candia recreated its first town meeting as part of a 250th anniversary celebration, a crier called the spectators to assemble. And a crier wanders through Strawbery Banke during the Christmas Stroll. In the days before most citizens could read or write and newspapers were rare, the crier kept residents abreast of proclamations and current events. In Colonial times the crier kept an eye on chimneys to make sure they were spewing smoke and not flames, and was often the first to sound the fire alarm before the fire department was created.
When more people learned to write and read, every Yankee worth his spit grabbed and still grabs a copy of the town (or annual) report when entering town meeting.
The thick volumes contain fountains of information such as the salaries of town employees, budgets reports and other arcana useful in hand-to-hand verbal combat. But the thick tomes’ days may be numbered. Several towns such as Durham and Exeter post their annual reports online.
Town reports are not just amalgams of financial information; the best also tell you something about the culture of the town. You need look no further than the cover of the 2011 New Boston report to know it was an unusual year. It features a photograph of snow-covered scarecrows behind a homemade sign that reads: “Halloween has been rescheduled to Friday evening, 6-8 pm.” The 2011 Milford town report begins with “in memoriam” photographs and of long-time school crossing guard Brenda Lynch and town treasurer Willie Leduc, who died that year. Rye’s 2008 report includes a celebratory photograph of the town’s new ambulance as well as the transcript of a spirited discussion at a town hearing about when town beaches should be closed to dogs. The 2011 Madison town report includes a photograph of a proposed war memorial and a report on Old Home Week, when “Nancy Martin organized the town-wide scavenger hunt that featured a tour of some of Madison’s historic spots and included a little history lesson for us all.”
At one point New Hampshire was famous for its town meeting suppers — usually hardy midday meals like ham and beans — that would sustain residents through what could be days of long oratories and heated discussions. There was even something called a Town Meeting cake (also known as Election Day cake, a hefty confection related to fruitcake, with brandy-and-wine-fortified raisins. Now that the meetings are shorter and town meetings are less well-attended, bake sales by local non-profits are usually the only food to be found in town halls.
Food blogger Linda Stradley has an updated recipe for Town Meeting cake (also called Election Day cake) you can find on her website. The version that appears in Rebecca Rule's "Moved and Seconded" appears at the end of the story.
It’s now a yearly event marked by bake sales and cow flop bingo, but Old Home Day was once an appeal for the youth of the state, gone West to seek fortune (or less rocky farmland), to return to native soil. In 1897 Gov. Frank Rollins wrote: “I wish that in the ear of every son and daughter of New Hampshire, in the summer days, might be heard whispered the persuasive words: Come back, come back. Do you not hear the call? What has become of the old home where you were born? Do you not remember it — the old farm back among the hills, with its rambling buildings, its well sweep* casting its long shadows, the row of stiff poplar trees, the lilacs and the willows?” *A well sweep was the long pole used to help draw a bucket of water from the depths of an old dug well.
But not all long-held town traditions are political in New Hampshire. There’s also Old Home Days. The unusual fete was instituted by Governor Frank Rollins in 1899. “The new holiday was an admission of economic failure dressed in the can-do optimism of a booster,” and a “plea to return to a poor state,” according to a report published by the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University.
By the turn of the 20th century, rural New Hampshire was fading fast. The state government was in debt, as were three-quarters of the towns. Farms had been abandoned by residents seeking work in cities and mill towns leaving the old-timers behind to fend for themselves.
Rollins hoped former residents would return to their hometowns and buy rundown farms for summer homes and contribute to reawakening the struggling towns. “Come back, come back,” he wrote. “Do you not hear the call. What has become of the old home where you were born?”
The early holidays consisted of parades, public meetings and banquets that sometimes lasted for a week. Many towns still hold Old Home Days events, Sandwich recently celebrated its 115th and prides itself on authenticity, but most have morphed into clouds of cotton candy and carnival rides.
Still, if you listen closely to the contemrary hoopla of community gatherings and the dry intonations of town political events, you might still hear the spectral voice of Gov. Rollins beckoning: “Come back, come back.”
Town Meeting Cake
In "Moved and Seconded," author Rebecca Rule shares the recipe from "American Cookery," a cookbook by Amelia Simmons published in 1796. Rule found the recipe, and other versions, on Linda Stradley's website What's Cooking America.
Warning – this recipe makes enough for the entire town.
30 quarts flour
10 pounds butter
14 pounds sugar
12 pounds raisins
3 dozen eggs
One pint wine
One quart brandy
4 ounces cinnamon
4 ounces fine coriander seed
3 ounces ground allspice
Wet flour with milk to the consistency of bread over night, adding one quart yeast. Next morning work the butter and sugar together for half an hour, which will render the cake much lighter and whiter. When it has risen…work in every other ingredient except plums,* which work in when going into the oven.
*The amount of plums is not specified, nor is the temperature for the oven or length of cooking time. With these details, you're on your own.
As Rule says in her book, "bake at your own risk."
Archaic Town Offices
List from "Moved and Seconded" by Rebecca Rule.
- Deerkeeper: Like a game warden; made sure the local herd was not overhunted.
- Field Driver: Rounded up domesticated animals wandering about in down. For a fee, the animals would be returned to their owners.
- Fence Viewer: Not to be confused with a surveyor. His job was to look at the property line between neighbors, and decide who should take care of which parts of the fence. This is trickier than it sounds, since fencing a field is easier than granite ledges, and since the fences must meet the standard of "horse high and hog tight."
- Hog Reeve or Honard: Charged with keeping swine under control and rounding up strays. A rooting 300 pound pig could do a lot of damage to crops. The hog reeve turned the errant hogs over to the Pund Kepper, who fed them until their owners turned up an paid a fine to reclaim them.
- Orator: Auditor
- Pound Keeper: Watched over the granite enclosure where the wandering animals were deposited by the field driver or hog reeve.
- Saxton: Bell ringer
- Sealer of Hemp and Flax: Charged with ensuring that all hemp and flax sales involved quality material at a fair price. The sealer was empowered to put his seal, or stamp, on all items he inspected and approved.
- Sealer of Leather: Regulated the sale and quality of leather.
- Surveyor: Marked where the roads would go.
- Tythingman, Tithingman or Tidingman: Ensures that people went to church and eschewed debauchery, profanity, night walking, idelness or uncivil or rude practices. At church the tythingman collected "donations" and carried a rode with a knob on one end and a feather on the other. The feather gently tickled the women into paying attention. The knob was for the men. Tythingmen were also allowed to seize unlicensed liquors.