A New England Tradition: The Boston Post Cane

Lea Wait here. You know the stories you grew up with, the things that you thought everyone knew? Well, for me the story of the Boston Post Cane is one of those. I don’t remember when I first heard about The Cane.  

But last week this pictures was in The Boothbay Register and my husband, a New Englander of only ten years, looked at me blankly. “The Boston Post Cane? What’s that?” 

Evelyn Keene being presented with the Boston Post Cane

So I decided to share the tale with all. The picture is of Evelyn Hartung Keene, who recently celebrated her 105th birthday in Boothbay Harbor. (Happy birthday, Evelyn!) But the reason she’s important to this story is that she’s the current Boothbay Harbor holder of the Boston Post Cane, which appears in the picture — both in her hand, and up close and personal, on the side of the picture.

So – what’s the Boston Post Cane, you ask, as my dear husband did? Well, once upon a time, long, long, ago, in fact, to be precise, on August 2, 1909, Mr. Edwin Grozier, publisher of the Boston Post, at one time considered one of the nation’s leading newspapers, forwarded to each of the Boards of Selectman of 700 towns in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire (maybe he just didn’t like Connecticut or Vermont) one gold-headed ebony cane with instructions that the cane be presented (with the compliments of the Boston Post) to the oldest male citizen of the town, to be used by him as long as he lived (or moved from the town,) and at his death handed down to the next oldest citizen of the town. The cane would belong to the town, not the man who received it.

The canes were custom-made by J.F. Fradley, a New York manufacturer, from ebony shipped from the Congo. They had 14-carat gold heads, two inches long, decorated by hand. The head was engraved “Presented by the Boston Post to the oldest citizen of … (name of town)”.

In 1930, after considerable controversy, it was decided that women as well as men would be eligible to receive the cane. The Post declined after Mr. Grozier’s death, and went out of business in 1957. But the canes continued on.

Over the years, some communities have maintained the custom of handing down the cane, as has Boothbay Harbor. Some canes have been lost, or stolen. The Bar Harbor cane was lost in a fire in 1947, but the custom continued with another cane. Some canes are kept under lock and key at historical societies. Some communities have set their residency requirements for qualifying for the cane.

The decision as to who should have the honor of the cane can be difficult. In 2002  Burnham, Maine’s Boston Post cane was awarded to 91-year-old Howard Libby. A controversy arose when 92-year-old Alice Rollins, who owned a house in town but slept in nearby Pittsfield, claimed entitlement as the oldest resident. (I couldn’t find a record as to whether Howard kept the cane, but I suspect so.)

To solve the problem (which occasionally arises) of heirs who do not want to return the cane to the town, some towns keep the cane, but award the official cane-holder a certificate or plaque instead. That seems to have solved the “disappearing cane” problem in a number of towns.

Now – if this blog has made you curious about what YOUR town, or a town near you, has done with their Boston Post Cane – there is a place to find out. I originally posted a link to a website for “everything Boston Post Cane,” where they are trying to track all 700 original canes, and what the towns they were sent to are doing with them. But, as Deanna pointed out, the link no longer works.  It seems those doing the updating are no longer doing so.  But they were until a couple of years ago, and if you put “Boston Post Cane” into a search engine and look for a website with “maynard” in the address,yuou can still find it. Good luck! The site is still out there. I just can’t give you a direct link. But if you, too, do a little research … you, too, will know the story.  Who will you tell first?  (And — thanks to Sandy Emerson who DID figure out the link that works!  It’s listed in the comments section, below!!!  Thank you, Sandy!)

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8 Responses to A New England Tradition: The Boston Post Cane

  1. Deanna says:

    I can remember the cane from my earliest days. Thanks for writing about it. Dee
    The link did not work for me. D

  2. Great post, Lea. I once wrote a short story about a Boston Post cane dispute that led to murder. Not a very good piece of writing, unfortunately, and it was never published,but it was fun doing the research.


  3. MCWriTers says:

    Deanna – Thanks for checking! I’ve spent the past half hour checking again – and although that website is “out there” – no direct address seems to get you there. You have to go via a search engine. So I’ve updated the blog to reflect that. Good catch, and I thank you!

  4. John Clark says:

    Great post. I looked at many nearby towns and it is noteworthy how few are in the Maine list. I know there has been a fair amount of speculation regarding the whereabouts of Hartland’s cane. No one seems to know.

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