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Oldest living residents in town receive canes

Sunday, June 2, 2002

FAIRLEE, Vt. -- No one knows why Edwin Grozier, publisher of the Boston Post, decided in 1909 to give a gold-headed ebony cane to the oldest man in hundreds of New England towns.

Almost a century later, Grozier's newspaper is long defunct and many of the original canes are lost.

But in dozens of towns in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, Grozier's mission lives on: the awarding of the cane to each town's oldest resident.

"It was a great honor," William Curtis Pierce of Baldwin, Maine, said of the cane -- and the recognition -- he received when he turned 96 in March. Pierce, a former New York City lawyer, had spent summers in Baldwin since 1913. "There's something very nice about the fact that I'm recognized as part of the community."

The tradition of the Boston Post canes began when Grozier sent canes to selectmen in 431 towns in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Grozier instructed them to award the canes to the oldest man in town, to be used by him as long as he lives -- or moves out of town. At his death, the cane was to be handed down to the next oldest citizen of the town.

Hand-crafted prizes

The canes were all made by J.F. Fradley and Co., a New York manufacturer, from ebony shipped in 7-foot lengths from the Congo.

They were cut to cane lengths, seasoned for six months, turned on lathes to the right thickness, coated and polished. They had a 14-carat gold head 2 inches long, decorated by hand, and a ferruled tip. Although no one today can pinpoint their financial worth, their value was priceless.

The board of selectmen were to be the trustees of the cane and keep it always in the hands of the oldest citizen.

Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island were excluded from Grozier's good will, although nobody can explain why. But Vermont has since started its own tradition.

Grozier died in 1924, and the Boston Post went out of business in 1957. But by then, the practice of awarding canes had taken hold in New England, and it continued, over the years taking on a life of its own.

Many canes got lost when caneholders died. Relatives who were cleaning out the house often didn't know of the cane's significance, and either gave it away or threw it away, said David Griffin, head of the Maynard, Mass., historical society.

Maynard's cane disappeared in 1925. In 1981, it surfaced in a closet. Maynard now gives the oldest person -- male or female -- a certificate and keeps the cane in its town hall.

"We want to have control of it," Griffin said. "We lost it for about 60 years."

Other canes, too, disappeared over the years as the holders died. The Vassalboro, Maine, cane turned up in the 1980s in the hands of an antique dealer in California who had found it at a yard sale, said Gary Brown, the town manager.

Today, Vassalboro keeps the cane in its town offices, and doesn't award it to anyone.

"Last time we did that, we lost it," Brown said.

Honoring longevity

Fairlee didn't even get a Boston Post cane when Grozier was handing them out. Instead, a Fairlee resident learned about the tradition going on in nearby Orford, N.H., and decided to start something similar in his own town, said Hester Gardner, the curator of the town's historical society.

That cane has since disappeared; 95-year-old Hazel Flanders was awarded a different cane instead at this year's Fairlee town meeting. But she was thrilled all the same.

Bradford, too, started the tradition of the cane on its own.

"We co-opted the idea because it's such a wonderful idea to honor longtime residents," said Larry Coffin, president of the Bradford historical society. He advertises for potential cane holders in the newspaper and relies on word of mouth when it's time to pass on the cane.

Bradford's current caneholder is 96-year-old Margaret Pratt, who still lives on the farm where she was born.

"I was quite honored to have it given to me," Pratt said. "I want to keep it for a little while."

Coffin, a high school social studies teacher, said the cane helps bring the community together.

"Especially for a small community -- but I would think for a neighborhood in any community -- the elders are a living link to the past," he said. "They have so much to share; their longevity gives you perspective."

Flanders, who was born in White River Junction, lives with her dog in the house she shared for decades with her husband in Fairlee village.

Her friends see the passing of the cane as a way of honoring the town's oldest residents for their years of community service.


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