Harpswell may put new spin on old cane tradition

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HARPSWELL — Selectmen moved to revive a New England tradition on April 2, creating a committee to decide how to pass on the Boston Post Cane.

The cane has been awarded to Harpswell’s oldest living resident since the early 1900s, but the tradition has drifted away in recent years, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said. It was returned to the town in 2007, and has not been given out since.

The tradition’s roots go back to 1909, when Boston businessman Edwin Atkins Grozier bought the nearly bankrupt Boston Post newspaper. Grozier had an idea for a publicity stunt when he heard about an unclaimed shipment of gold-headed ebony canes. He bid on the box, and prepared a letter to be sent to 700 New England towns and published in his paper.

“Dear Sir,” the letter said. “We take the liberty of requesting of you and other members of the Board of Selectmen of your town a little favor. … The Boston Post desires to present, with its compliments, to the Oldest Citizen of your town, a gold-headed cane.”

More than 400 towns responded to Grozier’s posting, and in return received a cane manufactured by the J.F. Fradley Co. of New York, made of gaboon ebony wood from the Congo, topped with a head of 14-karat gold.

Harpswell received one of the canes, and it quickly became a staple of local civic life.

“I thought it was really neat to watch the parade and see someone riding in a car with the cane,” Selectman Richard Daniel recalled.

David Mercier, Harpswell Neck fire chief, also shared memories of the cane at the April 2 meeting.

“My grandfather won the cane,” he said. “At the time it really represented a lot about Harpswell and its ancestors. It said a lot about the founding population and the heartiness of the people.”

Selectman Elinor Multer was skeptical about reinstating the tradition, saying it holds less meaning now than it once did.

“It used to be very few people lived over 90 … it was somewhat of an achievement,” she said. “Now it will come down to a distinction of six months to a year between the front-runner and the runner-up.

“I think I’m old enough that nobody will think I am anti-aging,” she added.

But other people stressed that the cane represents more than just age. David Hackett, of the Harpswell Historical Society, said the cane “is not just an age issue. I see this as something being part of the community.” 

Daniel suggested that a committee could look into a policy that would identify “someone that might represent the heart of Harpswell.”

Multer agreed, saying “if it was not based solely on age, but people who are integral to the history of this town, then I would not be opposed to it.”

Selectmen unanimously decided to create a committee to write guidelines for the awarding of the cane. Town Clerk Rosalind Knight, Eiane and Hackett were appointed to the panel.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Corrected April 9: Harpswell Town Clerk is Rosalind Knight.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.