2017-09-15 / Front Page

Town in search of oldest resident

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — One of the oldest towns in Maine is looking to revive an old tradition of honoring its oldest resident.

At its Sept. 7 meeting, the Kennebunkport Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to purchase a replica of its old Boston Post Cane and resume the process of officially recognizing the “eldest citizen” of the town.

It’s a gesture that dates back more than a century — actually outliving the institute that started it — and is one carried on to this day in nearly half of all Maine municipalities.

It all began as part of a publicity stunt launched by the Boston Post newspaper in 1909. That year, the paper distributed 700 hand-crafted walking canes across four New England states. Made by J.F. Fradley & Co. of New York, each cane was made of cured and polished Gaboon ebony from the African congo — a jetblack wood said to be one of the most exotic and expensive lumbers in the world — and topped with an ornate head of 14-carat rolled gold.

The canes were given to town selectmen with instructions that they be presented to the oldest living man in their respective communities.

Because they actually belonged to the town, not the man who received it, each cane was to be returned upon death or decampment and given to the next oldest man in town.

The 2-inch-long ferruled cane head conveyed as much in its inscription, which reads, “Presented by the Boston Post to the oldest citizen of [town name]. To Be Transmitted.” In other words, to be passed on.

The Maynard Historical Society in Maynard, Massachusetts, has documented the fate of 517 of the original 700 Boston Post canes, including 227 shipped to Maine.

That has been an arduous task, taking many years to piece together, given that the records of Boston Post publisher Edwin Grozier did not include a list of which towns in which states got a cane. All anyone knew for sure was that no cities were on the distribution list, leaving places like Portland and South Portland caneless, although some places, like Sanford, have since upgraded their municipal status.

It also appears that no canes went to Connecticut or Vermont, with Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island the only states included in the promotion.

Kennebunk retains its original Boston Post Cane on display in the town office and continues to recognize its oldest resident. Arundel, meanwhile, is not believed to have been one of the 700 towns to receive a cane. Town Clerk Simone Boissonneault said Tuesday that while the local historical society has bandied the idea of starting a similar program, “I don’t think that we ever had one here.”

Some sources claim that only 431 canes were ever distributed to the 700 towns solicited for interest in receiving them. However, the Maynard Historical Society says this number came from a 1985 article later used as a basis for its first webpage on the topic, and the origin of that numbers is, it says, “a bit of a mystery.” However, the society has since “positively identified well over 600 towns that received a cane,” with the ultimate fate of more than 500 now verified.

The Pelham, New Hampshire, historical society, meanwhile, claims that 469 of the original canes are known to still exist, although many towns discontinued the tradition over the years as the originals were lost or stolen. Others have revived the custom in recent decades, using replica canes. Today, most towns no longer present the actual cane. Scarborough, for example, gives a replica but keeps the valuable original one in the town office, on permanent display in its original velvet-lined presentation case.

According to the 2013 book, “Kennebunkport: The Evolution of an American Town,” by Joyce Butler, the inaugural presentation of a Boston Post Cane in Kennebunkport took place on Sep. 3, 1909, with the recognition of 86-year-old Lewis Ridlon.

Local historians like Barbara Barwise and Sharon Lichter Cummings say there does not appear to be a surviving list of subsequent cane holders, and it’s not really known when exactly Kennebunkport lost its Boston Post Cane. However, it was missing by late 1989, at least. That’s the year of a “Yesterdays” column by early cane researcher Barbara Staples, published in a holiday issue of Seacoast Life. Entitled “Staff of Long Life,” the article lists Kennebunkport as one of several towns known to have “lost or misplaced” its cane.

“Unfortunately, we are one of those towns where we lost our cane somewhere along the way,” O’Roak told selectmen, at their Sept. 7 meeting. “So, we just stopped doing the honor.”

The Boston Post, meanwhile, ceased publication in October 1956. But at least it lived long enough to see the tradition it started ushered into the modern era, when, beginning in 1930, towns began handing out their canes to the oldest resident, period — male or female.

That change came with no small amount of controversy, Staples notes, adding that the canes became somewhat harder to award from that point on, as “several woman turned down the cane as they did not want their ages revealed.”

But even before the veneration of female elders, the canes often left recipients “benign, bothered and bewildered” at being so singled out, Staples wrote. But even so, as status symbols and priceless objects d’arte, the canes also were nonetheless subject to “covetousness and controversy,” Staples writes.

Some canes were stolen from the homes of honorees, the heads presumably melted down for cash value. In other cases, recipients refused to return the cane after moving out of town, or else the families insisted on retaining the award after the cane-holder’s death, with descendants sometimes fighting over the purloined heirloom.

In other cases, bad feelings arose from competing claims to the “oldest resident” designation when birth certificates could not be produced to verify claims.

When O’Roak took over as town clerk from the retiring April Defoe last year, one of the first things she did was to ask about the status of Kennebunkport’s Boston Post Cane.

A fifth-generation resident of Scarborough, where her mother serves on the Boston Post Cane committee, O’Roak knew that for all the heartburn the canes have caused over the past century, they also are revered as one of the unifying cornerstones of each community where the tradition has been kept alive.

“I thought it would just be a fun thing for the town to recognize its oldest citizen and bring back a tradition that had been lost over the years,” she said.

O’Roak suggested that the town purchase a replica cane from the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, which has created for itself a kind of cottage industry in producing replica Boston Post Canes for its New England peers.

The imitation canes are not made of gold and ebony, hence the relatively low $150 price tag, but the sentiment behind them remains the same.

At the Sept. 7 meeting, O’Roak presented her idea for purchasing the replica canes and creating a nominating committee for the award, along with draft forms and recognition certificates. She suggested that selectmen solicit public feedback on the idea at their next meeting, Sept. 21. However, the board did not need to be sold on the concept, and immediately authorized the project, appropriating $1,000 from their contingency account to purchase two canes and a permanent plaque (to be made locally) bearing the names of honorees, as well as any costs to advertise and promote the project.

“I don’t see that there’s any need to wait, hesitate, or delay. It’s such a cool idea, let’s just do it,” Selectman Stuart Barwise said.

According to O’Roak, nomination forms will be posted to the town website (www.kennebunkportme.gov) by mid-November.

“I just need to get through Election Day,” she said, with a laugh.

People may use that online form to nominate the oldest member of the community, or may pick up a form at town hall. Nominees must be a year-round resident of Kennebunkport, registered to vote in town (or having some other proof of residency) for at least 20 years.

A three-person committee consisting of O’Roak, a member of the board of selectmen, and a representative of the Kennebunkport Historical Society, will vet the nomination forms and select the person to be recognized as the official “Eldest Citizen” of Kennebunkport.

A ceremony to present the replica cane is expected to take place at a selectmen’s meeting sometime shortly after the start of the new year. One of the two canes will go to the honoree, to be returned upon that person’s death or relocation to another town, while the other will remain on display in town hall alongside the plaque naming the various cane holders.

O’Roak said she is interested in also obtaining from those in the know any documentation of past Boston Post Cane honorees in town.

Meanwhile, selectmen say they would not mind getting the original cane back, if anyone knows what might have become of it. If it still exists, it should not be hard to recognize from any other item like it. After all, the town’s name is carved right in the head.

“It might appropriate to ask if anyone knows where it might be,” board chairman Patrick Briggs said. “If somebody knows, no questions asked, we’d just like to have the cane back. It’s quite elegant.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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