Housing

No More Give and Take

Dozens of New England towns still hold to a tradition of honoring their oldest residents by presenting them with elegant ebony canes. And some localities are starting to let those citizens--and their descendants--keep the walking sticks for good.
by | December 2002

Dozens of New England towns still hold to a tradition of honoring their oldest residents by presenting them with elegant ebony canes. And some localities are starting to let those citizens--and their descendants--keep the walking sticks for good.

It all started back in 1909, when the Boston Post newspaper sent canes to 431 towns as a publicity stunt. (Originally, the canes went only to men, but that changed by the 1930s.) Over the years, many of the original canes were lost or forgotten in the family attic. Other places cringed at the awkwardness of insisting that the town's most senior citizen return the cane after ceremonial pictures were taken.

So now a number of towns are ordering replacements. While they're at it, they're having extras made so that everyone honored with a cane gets to keep it. Peterborough, New Hampshire, had 50 canes made--the minimum order--and sold the excess to 15 neighboring towns. Nearby Allenstown turned to a local craftsman to dowel a half-dozen replicas.

Some towns, though, have retired the tradition because residents felt that receiving a cane was a jinx. "A lot of people say they don't want that because it means, 'I'm going to die,'" says Paul Boothroyd, head of the historical commission in Maynard, Massachusetts. In fact, three New Hampshire cane holders passed away on the same day last year, and a Stephen King character died in the novel "Needful Things" after receiving her cane. (The same character died of other causes in "Cujo.")

But Armand Verveille, who crafted Allenstown's new canes, isn't worried. "If they live long enough to get a Boston Post cane, it's quite an honor," he says. "Only the good die young, so I'll probably live forever. I just may get one, who knows."

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