2018-04-20 / Front Page

Kennebunkport salutes oldest resident

Frank Handlen, 101, presented with Boston Post cane
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Frank Handlen, 101, receives Kennebunkport’s new Boston Post cane, officially recognizing him as the town’s oldest resident, from selectmen Stuart Barwise, center, and Patrick Briggs, during a ceremony held at his home on Ocean Avenue, Thursday, April 12. A close-up of Kennebunkport’s new Boston Post cane (above), held by Handlen. A replica of the original, believed to have been lost soon after its original presentation in 1909, it reads, “Presented by The Boston Post to the oldest citizen of Kennebunkport, ME. (to be transmitted).” (Duke Harrington photos) Frank Handlen, 101, receives Kennebunkport’s new Boston Post cane, officially recognizing him as the town’s oldest resident, from selectmen Stuart Barwise, center, and Patrick Briggs, during a ceremony held at his home on Ocean Avenue, Thursday, April 12. A close-up of Kennebunkport’s new Boston Post cane (above), held by Handlen. A replica of the original, believed to have been lost soon after its original presentation in 1909, it reads, “Presented by The Boston Post to the oldest citizen of Kennebunkport, ME. (to be transmitted).” (Duke Harrington photos) With age comes a certain amount of respect and, also, reward.

On the occasion of his 100th birthday in September 2016, longtime Kennebunkport resident Frank Handlen staged a showing of his artwork at the Mast Cove Gallery in town. He ended up selling 16 of his paintings that night.

“I think a lot of people thought, ‘I better get one while I still can. He’s getting kind of old now,” he said with a laugh, Thursday, in the living room of his Ocean Avenue home, overlooking the Kennebunk River.

But the show, attended by nearly 200 people, saw Handlen on the receiving end of more transactions than merely the collection of cash for art.

“I kissed more women that night in half an hour than I have in my entire life,” he recalled, adding with a chuckle, “And the older ones were quite aggressive.”

On Thursday came another recognition which Handlen feels he’s done little to deserve, apart from managing to get out of bed and come down to breakfast each morning for more than a century. In a ceremony at his home, the town presented Handlen with its Boston Post Cane, officially recognizing his status as the oldest resident of Kennebunkport.

“It’s not an intellectual accomplishment,” he said. “It’s just because I’ve survived. But I’ll accept it as the honor it is. Still, I could have sworn there was somebody around here who was older than I am.”


Frank Handlen, 101, greets Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith, who visited his home on April 12, bringing a contingent of local dignitaries on tow, in order to bestow upon him the town’s Boston Post Cane. The presentation revives a tradition dating to 1909 of recognizing the town’s oldest resident. (Duke Harrington photo) Frank Handlen, 101, greets Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith, who visited his home on April 12, bringing a contingent of local dignitaries on tow, in order to bestow upon him the town’s Boston Post Cane. The presentation revives a tradition dating to 1909 of recognizing the town’s oldest resident. (Duke Harrington photo) If true, that particular centigenuarian has not come forward. According to Town Clerk Tracy O’Roak, six applications for the cane were submitted following her call for nominations last year.

“But it wasn’t even close, really,” she said. “The oldest of them was younger by five or six years.”

Among those on hand Thursday to present Handlen with a replica of the town’s original Boston Post Cane, in addition to O’Roak, were selectmen Patrick Briggs and Stuart Barwise, Town Manager Laurie Smith, Deputy Town Clerk Audrey Williamson and local historian Barbara Barwise.

“This is historic, it’s traditional, and it’s fitting that we should honor you in this way,” said Briggs, the current chairman of the board. “With this, you are going to have no way of denying you are the oldest person in town. This is proof. It’s indisputable.”

“I should share this honor with my cardiologist,” quipped Handlen.

“Actually, it’s quite a wonderful thing to present a cane to someone who has no use for it,” Stuart Barwise said.

Cane history

The gesture of venerating the town’s oldest resident dates back more than a century — actually outliving the institution 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 jet-black wood said to be one of the most exotic and expensive lumbers in the world. Atop each cane sat an ornate head of 14-carat rolled gold.

The canes were distributed to municipal selectmen throughout the Post’s circulation area, with instructions that they be presented to the oldest living man in their respective communities.

Because they actually belonged to the town, not the men who received it, each cane was to be returned upon death or decampment to other locales, and then 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 records left by 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 such as Portland and Biddeford caneless.

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.

The Pelham, New Hampshire, historical society claims that 469 of the original canes are known to still exist, although many towns discontinued the tradition over the years as their canes were lost or stolen, or identification of an eldest resident became too much bother. But even so, many towns 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 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 Sept. 3, 1909, with the recognition of 86-year-old Lewis Ridlon.

Local historians such as Barbara Barwise and Sharon Lichter Cummins 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. Barwise said there also does not appear to be any surviving documentation of Kennebunkport’s cane after the Butler reference.

“It probably would have been passed on to others from there, I’m sure, but we just could never find (evidence of) it after that,” she said.

“And that was in 1909. So, it was early on that it was lost. It didn’t manage to survive very long,” Stuart Barwise said.

“It would have been easy to lose — someone (in a family) sees it (after a funeral) and says, ‘What’s this old thing?’ and it’s gone,” Barbara Barwise said.

The Boston Post itself, meanwhile, was lost to time when it 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.

When O’Roak took over as town clerk in 2016, 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 — reports exist of families refusing to return the cane after a death, of canes stolen and the gold heads melted down, of hurt feelings among counter claimants, and even of women who refused the honor for fear of revealing their true age — the canes are also highly revered as one of the unifying cornerstones of each community where the tradition has been kept alive, she says.

“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, last September, when unveiling her initiative to revive the custom.

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 of 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 a Sept. 21 meeting, selectmen 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 to cover any costs to advertise and promote the project.

A three-person committee vetted nominations for the oldest year-round resident of town. But, as O’Roak noted, Handlen — nominated by Kennebunkport Residents Association president David James — was the easy victor.

Living history

Handlen first came to Kennebunkport in 1940 at age 23, finding work at one of the shipyards that existed when Dock Square was still a working waterfront.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1916, on either Sept. 26 or 27, depending on whether one chooses to believe his birth certificate or his mother,.

The family soon moved to Caldwell, New Jersey, where it was the last on its block to obtain a newfangled technology known as electricity. Handlen can still remember lighting gas lamps at night and waiting on the arrival in summer of ice harvested the previous winter and brought to the family door by horse-drawn wagon.

Handlen, meanwhile, showed an early aptitude for art, being both a prodigy by nature and prodigious by output. While still in high school he was selling his work professionally and getting recognized for his talents in the local newspaper.

Out of school, Handlen worked for his father, a general contractor who managed to stay busy all through the Depression fixing up homes repossessed by the local savings and loan.

Later, he found work making plaques for Essex Bronze Guild in Essex Falls, New York. A giant tablet containing the Oath of Apothecaries on raised letters he designed still hangs at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

Handlen continued to paint, meanwhile, drawn increasingly to the sea as his favored subject matter. When his mentor, the artist Frederick Waugh, recommended Cape Elizabeth to him, Handlen journeyed north, making it as far as Biddeford Pool. Then, while reconnoitering the area for work, Handlen happened upon the Bernie Warner shipyard in Kennebunkport.

“I knew, whoa, I didn’t need to go any further,” Handlen said in a 2016 interview, still able to marvel at the memory of the sight, nearly 80 years later.

Handlen learned the shipbuilding trade there, convincing the yard foreman he knew more than he really did, based on his bronze casting experience of working with his hands.

A father to three, Handlen then ended up back in New Jersey during World War II, working at the Walter Kidde company in Bellville, New Jersey, where he made valves for rafts and parts for 50-caliber machine guns.

After the war, he relocated his family to Maine, finding work first painting houses, then settling in at the Marblehead boatyard in Biddeford Pool until it closed.

And still he painted the sea, converting his garage into a gallery studio in 1952 and opening a showroom in Dock Square by the mid-1960s. Before that decade was out, he’d relocated to his current home on Ocean Avenue, and by the mid-1970s was drawing notoriety for the Salt Wind — the 40-foot, 16-ton topsail schooner he built by hand in his yard and launched into the river in 1976.

That vessel has a new owner these days, but remains moored just a few hundred yards from Handlen’s back door. Still, even at age 95, it was not unusual for Handlen to be spotted by residents and tourists alike, when looking downriver from the Mat Lanigan bridge, high atop the mast, tending to the ship’s rigging.

Over the years Handlen has produced thousands of paintings, some selling for as much as $10,000, others going to notables including former President George H. W. Bush. And he’s dabbled on other media.

His heroic bronze statue, “Our Forebearers of the Coast,” remains on display at the Kennebunkport River Green, where it was placed in 1994.

“I still paint every day,” he says. “When you have an affliction like that, you don’t give up. That’s what it’s all about for me. I’m still fascinated by how water looks under different lighting conditions, and why waves break the way they do. It’s a subject I’m imbued with. I can’t get enough, can’t get it out of my system.”

Today, at age 101, Handlen admits that, despite not really needing a cane to get around, he does have some trouble with balance. When standing at his easel for long periods, he’ll have to steady himself on a sturdy object.

“I’ve had to give up tap dancing and pole vaulting,” he says. “But I can still paint and I can still drive. So, it’s all right. So far, so good.”

Handlen’s son Paul, 72, of Gilead, came down for the Boston Post Cane ceremony. Like his father, he admits to being somewhat bemused, if nonetheless touched, by the attention.

“I look at my dad and I see all of the accomplishments he’s had in life and this (his age) is something that just happens to be,” he said. “The reality is that this is only good in that he can still produce and do what he likes to do on a daily basis. Longevity in and of itself is not an accomplishment, but being able to still do what you like to do and be productive, that is what’s so wonderful.”

Unlike some Maine towns which only give out a certificate these days, Handlen does get to hold on to his replica cane for as long as he lives in town. When (or, indeed, in his case, if) Handlen dies, his executor will have to return the cane, so that it can be passed on to the next-oldest year-round resident.

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

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