RYE, N.H. >> For more than a century, when selectmen here honored the town’s oldest resident, the title came with a distinctive trophy: a gold-topped, ebony walking cane, engraved with the town’s name, that was theirs to keep for as long as they might live.
But when the town feted its latest honorees in November — Marion Cronin and Barbara Long, born on the same day in 1921 — that cane was nowhere in sight. Instead, town officials presented a less fancy replica; the original was safely locked up in the town museum. There was good reason for that.
Across New England, 700 towns once handed out canes just like the one in Rye’s museum, a practice that began in 1909 when a Boston newspaper publisher, Edwin Grozier, started a brilliant regional marketing scheme. Determined to revive his failing Boston Post, he gave the sleek canes to towns across Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island — puzzlingly, Connecticut and Vermont were overlooked — and requested that they “be presented with the compliments of the Boston Post to the Oldest Citizen.”
The ritual has endured, if not as robustly as it first began. Dozens of the now-antique canes have been lost or stolen. Some have been recovered after years-long searches. And those that remain are much more closely guarded.
In truth, the canes have been both treasures and headaches from the start. Enticed by the offer of a ready-made tradition, the towns accepted the gifts — and the not-insignificant administrative burdens that came with them. In passing their Post canes from one elder to the next, they would have to navigate a thicket of sometimes delicate tasks: Protecting the canes from theft and loss. Gracefully reclaiming them from grieving families after a recipient’s death. Finding the rightful honoree — which, even barring missing birth certificates and faulty memories, is often a tall order.
David Griffin, a semiretired software engineer in Massachusetts who has long tracked missing and recovered Post canes, calls it “a remarkable stroke of benign exploitation that the Post managed to get the 700 towns to do all of the footwork for them.”
By 1997, when a writer named Barbara Staples published a history of the canes, she found that 97 of the 258 originally distributed in Massachusetts — more than one-third — were missing. Canes disappeared into attics, vaults and closets; they resurfaced in junk shops and online auctions. Once interrupted, the ritual slowed and halted in many a town; sometimes, it faded from memory and was forgotten.
In Bridgton, Maine, a thief broke the lock on a display case in the town hall and stole the cane in 1995. The crime has remained unsolved for nearly three decades.
“It’s your classic cold case,” said Mike Davis, assistant director of the historical society in Bridgton, a town of 5,400 set among the state’s scenic western lakes.
Davis, 26, was not yet born when Bridgton’s cane vanished. But like other hard-core history buffs in New England towns that have lost their canes, he is fixated on finding it and reviving the long-stalled tradition.
In Watertown, Mass., Charlie Morash spent 20 years searching for the city’s missing cane, which may have been the first to vanish, after the death of its first recipient in 1910. Morash, a local banker for 35 years, routinely combed through antiques stores looking for it until finally, in 2009, it surfaced in the hands of a Delaware antiques dealer — who wanted $1,600 for it.
Undeterred, Morash persuaded three dozen Watertown families to pitch in to purchase it and bring it home. To prevent another disappearance, the group also bought two replica canes to bestow on the city’s oldest men and women while the original was kept locked up.
Fifteen years later, to Morash’s disappointment, the replicas are no longer handed out. Joyce Kelly, a member of the local historical society, said it had become too hard to find willing takers instead of “no answers, hang-ups and ‘No thank you’s.”
In Rye, the two centenarians celebrated in November were, in fact, runners-up: The true town elder, age 105, declined the cane because “she was too tired from her birthday party,” said Jane Sweeney, activities assistant at the senior living complex where all three women live.
The two honorees were not even allowed to keep the less impressive replica cane. It emerged long enough for a photo shoot at their residence, then was whisked back to Rye’s white clapboard town hall and securely stashed in a filing cabinet.
That was OK by Cronin, one of the 102-year-olds, who had been unnerved by the prospect of guardianship. “I was worried about losing it,” she said.
Morash, in Watertown, is quite possibly a future cane recipient himself. He turns 90 this year, smokes cigars daily and still works part time in real estate. “I tell everyone it’s the Heinekens!” he offered gleefully when asked the secret of his longevity.
The tradition that sounded so simple back when Grozier first conceived it — as a tribute to “the vigor and longevity of New England manhood” — has instead revealed the endless vagaries of human nature.
To Davis, in Maine, the longing to recover his town’s missing cane is tied up with a bigger mission — holding onto local history in the face of rapid, transformative change. Bridgton’s population has grown in recent years, he said, and real estate prices have soared, while social ties binding the community have loosened.
“On paper, it looks promising, but then you go to the store and you don’t recognize anyone, and the old-timers say it doesn’t feel like the town they grew up in,” Davis said. “It feels more and more essential to try and restore and maintain these traditions, because we want new residents to learn about and be a part of them.”