From a Feb. 25, 1972 column by Joseph Chase Allen:
Town meeting season is at hand and it is a good time to recollect that the annual town meeting is an institution that has been in operation for 303 years, according to available records. Originally conducted by farmers, fishermen and sea captains who, in many cases, knew little or no law, their common sense and homespun decisions “kept things on an even keel” all the same, as they voiced the slogan that “We are the people and we shall be heard.” While they were avowing this, they literally pulled and hauled at statutes with which they did not agree until they fitted the local circumstance.
There have been many humorous moments in Vineyard town meetings; tempers have flared and threats have been made. Again and again a moderator with his boots splashed with mud from a spring thaw, but with a cool and calculating brain, has maintained order and conducted the town’s business in a manner that met with general satisfaction.
Those earliest town meetings were recorded by clerks who had little education and whose spelling was strange indeed, yet there is no evidence that town action was ever disputed or questioned after the dust had settled. No brass-bound attorney appeared later to attempt to set aside a moderator’s ruling. However heated the voters might have been at the time of a meeting, any interference by a third party, however well-armed with law books and high court decisions, would have been met with a united front of opposition.
It is better, in reviewing some of the passages in old town meetings of the Island, to refrain from mentioning either persons or towns by name. The stories lose nothing by such omission and the feelings of no one are injured.
There is one story, for example, that describes the voters assembling and then adds, “Some stunk of eels and some of peat —,” but all were very earnestly attempting to perform their civic duties. They would have no nonsense, no dodging of responsibility.
In one of the earliest recorded Island meetings, it was voted to build a meeting house, a building that in those days would have been used for all public assemblies, including worship. Dimensions and certain specifications were available, and a committee was appointed to provide refreshments for the workmen, who, it would appear, were offering their labor gratis, and the refreshment committee was enjoined to provide “good wheaten bread, rum and sugar” and to send in the bill to the town after the building was completed. This was eventually done, at a second meeting, whereupon an irate voter arose to dispute the bill, because, he affirmed, the refreshment committee had watered the rum! It is not known whether or not the bill was ever paid.
Farmers, fishermen and sea captains continued to hold public office and to “carry” town meetings to a considerable extent for generations. The rugged old seafarers were accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed without question. “We are going to have order here if I have to dart a few of you fellers through the windows!” warned one such, and when a long-winded speaker droned on, hesitatingly the moderator finally said, “Set down Bill! You have pumped mud long enough!”
Much of a town’s business was discussed and decided upon long in advance of the town meetings. Groups of voters met casually, in certain familiar loafing places and, as one selectman explained: “We know exactly what we want, it has all been decided, but we have to hold a town meeting to make it legal.”
Yet there were instances in some town meetings when decorum was strained. There was one time, for example, when everyone present knew that the man who had been elected moderator had celebrated somewhat unwisely the night before and when he dashed madly for the great outdoors all knew why. Only one commented however; a white-bearded elder arose to say, “I move that we raise and appropriate twenty-five cents to buy a bucket for the town offices to puke in!”
The tales of town meetings are endless. One of them is of the town building, obscurely located, that was discovered by flickers which pecked huge holes in the outer and inner walls and made nests inside. Though these holes were covered as soon as noticed, there was one still open on town meeting day and in the midst of the meeting a flicker entered through this hole. Terrified by the presence of the voters assembled, it flew about the bare room, trying to escape.
“Somebody catch that bird and heave him outside!” said the moderator. “We can’t carry on a town meeting with the critter creating such a disturbance.”
“Go easy, Franklin,” cautioned one of the voters, “I ain’t certain that we have a right to put that bird out if he is a resident!”
Compiled by Alison Mead