NEWSPAPER’S WALKING STICK SHTICK STILL HOLDS UP;
Mark Sullivan, GLOBE CORRESPONDENT. Boston Globe. Boston, Mass.: Jun 30, 2002. pg. 1
GLOBE NORTH 1 / LYNN
In 1909, Boston Post publisher Edwin Grozier, whose colorful publicity stunts made his paper the region’s top-selling daily, hatched a unique scheme. He arranged the shipment of gold-tipped ebony walking-sticks to 700 New England towns, with the request the canes be presented thereafter, with the Post’s compliments, to each town’s oldest citizen.
The paper promised items from time to time on the “venerable men” who held the canes, to “present an interesting galaxy of the vigor and longevity of New England Manhood.”
While the Post itself gave up the ghost in 1956, the publicity stunt outlived the paper. The tradition of awarding the Boston Post Cane to the oldest local citizen continues to this day in communities across New England, including several on the North Shore, in what one local historian has described as “the longest running advertisement” of the past century.
Amateur historian Barbara Staples of Lynn has devoted herself to tracking the inscribed canes that were presented 93 years ago to towns in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine.
“Since 1909 canes have been lost, some burned, some stolen,” Staples writes. “It has been said that a few have descended into the sod with their holder. Many have been stored away in town hall closets and vaults, only to resurface years later. Some have been found in dumpsters; others sold at estate auctions. In addition, there are the canes that journeyed thousands of miles, [and were] found and returned to their native towns years later.
“The cane has been highly prized by many; to others it symbolized the `kiss of death.’ It has been honored and coveted, shunned and cursed. Yet no cane in New England has touched so many hands and touched so many hearts.”
By contacting town clerks and poring over Boston Post microfilms at the Boston Public Library, Staples traced the 258 canes distributed in Massachusetts for her 1997 book, “The Bay State’s Boston Post Canes: The History of a New England Tradition.” She came out with a New Hampshire sequel two years later that accounted for more than 170 of the canes in the Granite State.
She said she currently is completing a book on the Maine and Rhode Island canes. The canes were not distributed in Vermont or Connecticut.
A freelance writer whose late father was a newspaperman in Boston and Salem, Staples said she was motivated by discrepancies in news accounts of the Boston Post Canes to attempt an accurate inventory of the relics.
“I enjoy the research [into] the people who have held the canes and the stories they tell,” she said. “It’s just a human-interest story.”
Among her favorite honorees: Nirum Neal, of Hamilton, 98 in 1909, who voted for Andrew Jackson, cut a third set of teeth at age 82, and was known to walk from North Berwick, Maine, to Hamilton. “He didn’t need the cane,” Staples said.
According to Staples, not all towns in New England received a cane. Cities were not on the distribution list, though perhaps by accident, the Campello section of Brockton received one of the gold- headed walking sticks.
Post publisher Grozier originally specified the cane be given to the oldest registered male voter in town, she said, but after women were given the vote, the newspaper in the 1930s endorsed the idea of awarding of the cane to citizens of either sex.
When Staples published her Massachusetts book five years ago, 161 original Boston Post Canes remained of the 258 distributed in the Bay State. Since then, Leominster’s surfaced in an Internet auction, she said. And this month, Leicester’s was returned after having been discovered in an attic; the town had had a replica made, and with the return of the original, now has two.
Most towns that still have the original canes now hold the heirlooms in safekeeping, preferring to award replicas of the cane or certificates. One of the canes of African ebony, with its inscribed 14-karat-gold head, was appraised at upward of $700 three years ago, Staples said, and likely would fetch more today.
But the original cane – or a remnant of the same – is given out in a few towns, including, in Essex County, Groveland, Manchester- by-the-Sea, Middleton and Topsfield.
In Manchester-by-the-Sea, the cane remains a males-only honor. The Manchester Elder Brethren Association, open to town men 49 or older, awards the cane at its annual summer picnic to the oldest man in attendance, who holds the honor for the following year. The cane will be presented at this year’s picnic, July 6 at Tuck’s Point.
Retired Manchester-by-the-Sea postmaster Jeremiah Noonan said the town’s cane was missing until about a dozen years ago, when the gold head was found in a local attic. The 14-karat inscribed top was fitted to a new stick and has been awarded annually ever since.
In Groveland, the cane was presented last month to Bruno Coppola, a great-grandfather who at 92 remains so hale and hearty he at first was unclear as to why he was being given a walking stick. “He was telling us adamantly, `I don’t need a cane,’ ” Louise Boucher, program developer for the Groveland Council on Aging, recalled of the award ceremony.
Coppola, who was president of an Italian-American credit union and operated a funeral home in his native Haverhill, and was married 64 years to his late wife, Dena, credited his longevity to “hard work.”
The cane? “I’ve just got it in the corner in the living room,” he said. “I could hit someone over the head with it if they got fresh.”
In Middleton, Anne Thornton Bishop Swenson, who turns 104 on Aug. 1, has held the Boston Post Cane for nearly six years. Born in Yorkshire, England, in 1898, she moved to Wakefield at 13 when her father, a chimneymaker, went to work helping rebuild Chelsea after a devastating fire.
She jokingly attributes her longevity to “cold showers,” and celebrated her 94th birthday 10 years ago with a ride in a helicopter, though her longstanding wish to go aloft in a blimp will have to be deferred, according to daughter Barbara Bishop.
Marblehead used to give out the original cane but now stores it in a vault in the town house, Abbott Hall, said Town Clerk Thomas McNulty. The last to hold the cane, Helen Doane, a Wellesley College- educated teacher who had been one of the earliest disciples of Maria Montessori, died in 1995 at the age of 107. McNulty said the cane was recovered from her home and is now kept in his office vault. A certificate is now given to the eldest citizen.
In Nahant, too, a decision has been made to retire the cane from circulation. The curator of the Nahant Historical Society, Calantha Sears, said the cane is to be placed on exhibit in the new quarters the society will assume in the renovated Valley Road School in late August. An honoree to be chosen in the next few months will receive a scroll, said Sears.
Sears said the cane had been missing for a time, but was returned in the late 1970s by the family of a longtime resident who had taken the stick with him to New Hampshire. Since 1978, the cane has been awarded six times, once to a couple.
“We don’t want to lose it again,” said Sears, who has lived all 80 of her years in Nahant. “It’s a very interesting and important part of our history, a great record of the residents of our town.”
Barbara Staples’ books on the Boston Post Cane are available from the author, in care of Flemming Press, 725 Lynnfield St., Lynn, Mass., 01904. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org