When the Town of Westmoreland, N.H., gave its Boston Post Cane to 113-year-old Mary Ray in 2008, she was believed to be the third oldest person in the world. Born in 1895 on Prince Edward Island, she was the second oldest when she died two months short of her 115th birthday. She was a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan who often ate cake and ice cream after a game.
Year after year in town after New England town, the board of selectmen presents the gold-knobbed cane to a very old person, often in the presence of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. The cane is accompanied by gifts or pins or plaques, a newspaper photographer snaps a photo and a reporter records a witty or poignant comment.
Usually it’s about how that person got to be that old. The answers range from luck to clean living to daily exercise – and an awful lot of Boston Post Cane holders seem to love the Boston Red Sox.
On May 5, 2011, 100-year-old Ruth Green threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. She was the Lunenberg, Mass., holder of the cane, having been alive for six Red Sox titles.
Boston Post Cane
The tradition of awarding the Boston Post Cane to a town’s oldest resident began in 1909, when Boston Post owner Edwin Grozier dreamed up the publicity stunt. The Post was the most popular newspaper in New England for a century until it folded in 1956. It was founded in 1831 by William Beals and Charles G. Greene, younger brother of the Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene.
The cane was distributed to 700 towns in the Post’s circulation area in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. They were made by J.F. Fradley and Co., a New York manufacturer, from ebony shipped in 7-foot lengths from the Congo. They were topped by a 14-karat engraved gold knob.
The canes were only loaned. Upon the recipient’s death, they were to be returned to the town. Sometimes they weren’t. In two Massachusetts towns, Dover and Watertown, the canes were lost for a century before they were found and the tradition revived. The cane belonging to Lee, Mass., was found in the rubbish in Charlton, Mass., after 50 years. Farmingdale, Maine, recently got its cane back in two pieces, so now the recipient gets a plaque, as do many. Leominster, Mass., cane was stolen from the town during a renovation project and later turned up on eBay. The town contacted the seller and ‘reacquired’ it.
The Boston Post Cane Information Center has tracked down the canes from 494 towns of the original 700. The site reports several town, such as Florida, Mass., never got canes but made up their own.
According to the site, the Town of Barre, Mass., in October 2015 presented canes to Bess E. Difley and Warner F. “Bill” Smith, the only two recipients known to be born on the very same day — July 29. 1914.
In Hudson, Mass., two people born the same year got into a fight over who should have the cane. The selectmen wrote to the Boston Post, asking what they should do. The newspaper told them to do what they wanted, so they retired the cane. Then Hudson brought it back in 2004 and gave it to Col. Adelbert M. Mossman, 96.
In the early 1970s, Hampton, N.H., retired the cane. Selectman Ashton Norton said it was too much of a pain. “We were having problems with people in nursing homes, and there was no way to find out who was the oldest or who was a native,” Norton said. “Then we’d give the cane out, and we’d get complaints that we didn’t give it to the right person. It got to be so much trouble the board decided to leave it in the town office building.
“People started to fear getting the cane,” said Town Clerk Jane Kelley. “The cane would be given out, and within a week, that person would be dead. It was awful.”
Nantucket put a stop to the tradition around 1998, when it became clear the cane was not a good omen for its residents.
In April 2006 the Bow, N.H., Board of Selectmen extended the time between the death of a Boston Post Cane holder and awarding the honor to a new citizen from 45 days to 60 days, ‘for respect and grievance purposes.’
In Unity, Maine, several people declined the cane because they didn’t want their neighbors knowing their ages.
Patten, Mass., gave the Boston Post Cane in 2006 to Lillian Perry Wheaton, age 96, at their Pioneer Days celebration. Lillian refused to take it home with her because she considered it bad luck.
Others are pleased to receive the cane, especially when a party is thrown in their honor. Massachusetts resident Alice Tompkins, 105, received Marblehead’s cane in December 2015. “I’ve had a good life and good family,” she said. “And I think that leads to a long life.”
As her 108th birthday approached in September 2016, Mary Cousins of Deer Isle, Maine, said she didn’t know the secret. “All I know is that I’m here, and I’m very thankful and happy for that.”
Longevity was often attributed to work, genetics, God’s will, friends, family and exercise. In March 2011, George Barner received the cane from Kennebunk, Maine, at the age of 102. He attributed his long life to playing tennis and not smoking. Gordon Maddix of Berwick, Maine, forced himself to walk every day.
When Virginia Day Zimmerman of Monson, Maine, received the cane, she still swam every morning from Memorial Day to her birthday at the beginning of October.
Maude Thomas of Falmouth, Mass., was given the cane at age 108 in 2010. She worked as an office manager at an architectural firm in Boston into her 80’s, enrolled in Harvard University and received her degree at age 75.
Florence Brayson in Exeter, Maine, said the secret to a long and happy life is to keep your mouth shut and mind your business. Anne-Marie Veilleux, 99, of Jay, Maine, said she never let anything bother her. Myrtle Mileage, of Mexico, Maine, said when she was awarded the cane: “I just do as I please. I hear only what I want to hear.”
In 2009, Foxborough, Mass., passed its cane to Harry Cederlund, age 100. He said he lived long because he ate well, didn’t smoke or drink and left the window open at night to let in fresh air.
Doris “Granny D.” Haddock was awarded the cane by Dublin, N.H., at age 95. She became famous when she walked across the continental United States between the ages of 88 and 90. She lived another five years.
Goffstown, N.H., gave the cane to May Gruber on her 100th birthday in 2012; she had run the Pandora knitwear company, run a 10K at age 65 and held a sign during the Occupy Wall Street protest at 99.
Take heart, smokers and drinkers: Lillie Young Weissenberger received the cane in 2011 in Washington, Maine, at the age of 94. She was asked if she drank or smoke or caroused. She smiled and said, “Oh, yes. We hung around with racing people, remember. We did all of that!”
Becket, Mass., gave its cane to Margaret Peg Lynch, a sitcom pioneer who created the Ethel and Albert comedy series. When she got the cane, she thought about doing a show on Ethel and Albert getting older. She couldn’t think of anything funny.