COVID Can’t Stop a 277-Year-Old Town Hall Tradition

Pelham, Mass., has been making democracy work continuously in the same building for nearly three centuries. On a cool day in October, town citizens were determined not to let the pandemic break that record.

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A small but dedicated group of Pelham residents arrive for the annual town meeting, just as they have every year since 1743. (All photos: David Kidd)
The citizens of Pelham, Mass., filed into their new meeting house for the first time on April 19, 1743. They have continued to do so, at least once annually, uninterrupted, for the next 277 years. Still the site of the town’s annual meeting, the Pelham Town Hall has the distinction of being the oldest meeting house in continuous use in the United States.

Other than the addition of an entryway and stairs in 1818, the exterior of the wooden building remains much the same as it did nearly three centuries ago. Originally designed to accommodate both worship services as well as government functions, upper galleries were removed in 1845 and replaced with a second floor, effectively doubling the useable space. The building was moved a bit further back from the road twice, in 1839 when a church was built next door, and again in 1845 where it sits today. 

The old town hall has hosted meetings and events through the American Revolution, two world wars and the Great Depression. This year, some wondered if COVID would break the building’s centuries-old record of continuous use, with confirmed cases of the disease having nearly tripled in Massachusetts since Labor Day. But a small group of Pelham citizens were determined not to let that happen, conducting an abbreviated annual meeting on a Saturday morning in late October before decamping to a safer site nearby.

The Tradition Continues

November is just a week away, and painters are nearly done with an exterior refresh of Pelham’s old town hall. The building’s clapboards are a gleaming white against the cool gray morning sky. A worker brushes high overhead, putting the finishing touches on one end of the gabled roof while his partner is busy down below. A few minutes before nine, a dozen people file past the painters and take their seats inside the unheated, dimly lit hall. The pale-yellow walls look untouched for decades. The plank floor and timber ceiling as still bare as the day they were built. Except for the folding metal chairs and a few rusting light fixtures dangling from the ceiling, the room has looked much like this for hundreds of years.

As a few latecomers find their seats, moderator Dan Robb takes his place behind the podium at the front of the room. Town Clerk Sandra Burgess sits at a long wooden table to his right. Together, they satisfy a Massachusetts law that says only a moderator and town clerk need be present for a town hall meeting to be deemed official. The few interested observers scattered around the room improve the appearance, but their presence is unnecessary to keep the record of successive meetings intact. “I didn’t expect there to be so many people here,” says Robb through his blue mask, looking out over his fogged-up glasses. “Please make sure you socially distance, okay? Six feet away from each other.”

At two minutes past nine, Robb calls the meeting to order and immediately makes a motion to adjourn and move the proceedings to a tent set up a few miles down the road. “All in favor?” “Aye” comes the response. “All opposed?” Silence. “Seeing no opposition,” says Robb. “it passes unanimously. You’re free to go.” With that, he turns and heads out the door.

Less than 30 minutes later, Robb reopens the meeting, this time under a big white tent, with many more people in attendance. “I have a few opening remarks,” he says. “Obviously we’re going to try to make this meeting as brief as possible because of COVID-19. There are a number of complicated articles before us, so I anticipate some healthy discussion. I hope we can strike a balance between efficiency and really getting into the articles as we need to in order to vote on them well.”

Over the next three hours, the citizens of Pelham approve nearly 30 articles including a $4.65 million budget that includes $70,000 for repainting the old town hall.

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Town Clerk Sandra Burgess checks her notes while moderator Dan Robb explains how this year’s abbreviated meeting will proceed.

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 Robb reviews the rules that must be followed in order for the meeting to be considered official. 

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Joe and Wendy Larson are among the few to enter the meeting house in order to preserve Pelham’s unbroken 277-year streak of consecutive annual meetings. Over the years, Joe has at one time held almost every office in town. 

 
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Bruce Klotz, of the Pelham Historical Society, shares a remnant from a long-ago election.

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Until a church was built next door in 1839, the meetinghouse was used both for religious services and town government. In 1845, the second floor was constructed within the structure, replacing galleries that ringed the inside of the building.

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Before heading to the nearby community center to resume the meeting, Wendy Larson shares her concern about rain in the forecast with one of the painters.


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Residents line up outside a large tent to register for the continuation of Pelham’s annual meeting. Each person receives a blue card that they will hold aloft when votes are counted.

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Joe and Wendy Larson take their seats front and center, close to the podium.

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Struggling to be heard in the larger venue, Dan Robb resumes his meeting moderating duties. 

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Energy committee co-chair John Larsen tells the crowd about a new HVAC system for the Community Building, which houses police, fire, library, historical archives and public meeting rooms.

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 Pelham Board of Health chairman, Bill Pula, wipes down the mic stand between speakers.

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Cards are raised and counted whenever the moderator calls for a vote.  

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Town Librarian Jodi Levine describes the difficult working conditions in the library because of the poor heating system. “I just want to say how grateful I am that the energy committee has worked on this.” 

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Children amuse themselves nearby while the meeting goes on for hours. 

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In any other year, residents would be packed into the old meeting house. But today, attendees must spread out in order to maintain social distance. 


 
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.