CONCORD, N.H. — Keeping track of New England’s Boston Post Canes is like mapping shells on a beach: A ceaseless and inevitable tide keeps sweeping in to redistribute them.
In 1909, the Boston Post newspaper distributed between 400 and 600 ebony, gold-capped canes among towns in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island that asked for one. Town officials were to confer a cane on a town’s oldest resident, passing the cane again and again after its holder’s death.
Nobody knows what became of all the canes. By 1960, only 15 were accounted for. In 1983, after two years of exhaustive research — there was never a list of which towns got canes in the first place — a Dorchester retiree named Eleanor Burns reported that she had accounted for 400 canes.
Since then, many of those holders have died and her research has been erased by another tide.
But they are still out there, gripped proudly by many holders and the subject of lore, fascination and detective work. Although the Post limited distribution of the canes to men until the 1930s, calling them a symbol of the “longevity of New England manhood,” nearly two-thirds of the holders since then have been women.
The secret to getting a Boston Post Cane, of course, is growing old. The secrets to that, today’s cane holders say, range from genetics to serendipity.
Up in China, Maine, Marion Jones, who is 97, is testimony to genetics. Her father, Linwood, held the cane into his 90s, and so did her older sister, Lena Jones Austin.
On the other hand there is Norine Emerson, 93, of Fremont, N.H., who took time out last week from packing for her seventh annual trip to Florida, where she will visit her daughter.
“Nobody in my family ever lived this long,” she said. “I told my daughter I’ve hung on just to bother her.”
Like many towns, Fremont keeps its cane in storage. Some towns keep them in safes or display cases in town halls or historical societies and give the current “holders” plaques.
In Bedford, Mass., for instance, the cane is kept in a case at the Town Center, according to Joanne Balkovich, director of the town’s council on aging.
“We’re concerned we might lose track of it,” she said. “It’s a valuable historical item we didn’t want to lose.”
In some towns, like China, however, the holder gets to take the cane home.
“We’ve lost some of the history of it, but we’ve never really lost track of the cane itself,” said Debra Fischer, a town official.
Not all towns have been so fortunate.
One Boston Post cane was sold at auction in September by Tradewinds Auctions of Manchester-by-the-Sea. Whatever town originally held it is not known because the gold head was never inscribed with the town’s name.
“If it had been, we could have notified the town that the cane was available,” said Henry Taron, who with his wife Nancy runs the auction firm.
That cane was sold for $660 to a buyer from the South, Taron said.
Vassalboro, Maine’s, cane came back a few years ago from California. Word reached town in 1988 that a man in Monterey had it and would sell it for what he had paid — $500.
Betty Taylor, curator of the town’s historical society, put up the money herself. Today, the cane is in her home, but she vows it will be left to the historical society as part of her estate.
“The town just didn’t have $500,” she said, “and I didn’t want to see it disappear again. This fella — he wouldn’t even dicker on the price — said he was going to melt down the head for gold.”
Out in Lee, Mass., Olga Foote, who is 99, holds a cane that is the envy of several others nearly her age and one that has a colorful history. It seems that Lee’s cane disappeared in 1931 after its last known holder, Theodore H. Fenn, moved away. Fifty years later it turned up in a trash barrel at the Masonic Home for the Elderly in Charlton, the town Fenn had moved to.
“Lee’s lucky to have it back,” Foote said. “Lots of places have lost theirs for good.”
“Mine’s got a dent in it, so you know it’s got a history — like somebody walloped somebody,” Foote said, chuckling.
In Fairfield, Maine, Gloria Blanchet, the deputy tax collector, is trying to revive the Boston Post tradition. The town’s cane was found after years and is being held at a nursing home.
“Nobody has it right now, but we want to get it going again,” Blanchet said.
Some canes, however, are gone for good. Burns reported in 1983 that six had burned in fires. Officials from 27 towns told her they once had a cane but had lost it.
Sometimes the canes went into attics when heirs did not realize the meaning of an old cane found among their ancestors’ possessions. Some holders left town, took the canes with them, and died in far-flung locales.
But somehow, many keep washing back up.
Philip Bergin, librarian at the Bostonian Society, said his organization receives a call every year or so from someone who has found a cane and wonders about its significance. “They stumble on one in someone’s attic or antique shop, or maybe someone’s grandfather dies and it’s part of his estate,” he said. And while those calls sometimes complete a circle started 85 years ago, there are many circles still broken.
When Boston Post publisher E.A. Grozier introduced the canes as a promotional gimmick in 1909, he asked that as towns handed them out, they provide his paper with stories about and photos of the recipients. The first to do so was Sharon, Mass., which reported that Solomon Talbot, 95, held its cane.
Today, says Shirley Davenport, the town clerk, “I don’t know where it ended up, but I do remember it.”
Some towns that have lost their canes have kept the tradition alive by substituting others. In Sandwich, N.H., for instance, they hand out old Caleb Marston’s cane because that is what was available when their Boston Post disappeared.
“We had one and lost it,” said Robin Dustin, director and curator of the Sandwich historical society. “We don’t even know exactly when.”
They do know, however, that it was still around in the 1930s. A letter arrived then at town offices that illustrates how keen and longing an eye some folks keep on the canes. It was from a woman, Dustin recounted, who wanted to remind the town that her father was next in line for the cane — after its current holder died.
“This was before the body was even dead, let alone cold,” Dustin said.
Cummington, Mass., which had a cane and lost it, has switched to the gold-headed A.L. Jones Cane. And Stoddard, N.H., which probably never had a Boston Post, designed its own and started handing it out in 1987.
But it is the Boston Post Cane that is held with most pride.
Out in Northwood, N.H., Howard Dewey, who turns 97 this week, shares ownership of that town’s Boston Post with Dorothy Milligan, who is within weeks of being the same age and lives 3 miles up the road from him. Ask Dewey how long he plans on being a holder and he says proudly, “Right up till I die.”
The canes, valuable to their holders and their towns, are not worth a great deal at auction. Dealers put their value at between $400 and $700 — a far cry from the $48,400 paid at a recent Nantucket Island auction for a nautical cane with a carved whale’s tooth ivory handle, in the form of a hand with a snake.
But there is financial value and then there is pride and history.