I think this is my absolute favorite reference question so far this year. It took a few days before the final answer emerged, and it all started with a patron sending in this message from our ChelmsfordHistory.org website's contact form:
Does Chelmsford have a Boston Post cane, if we do who is the lucky holder?
I've lived in New England for about twelve years, and have heard of these canes. What I knew about them was just that some towns had them and some didn't, and they were handed out around the turn of the last century by a newspaper or magazine.
I've been in Chelmsford for seven years, and never heard of one of these canes in connection with Chelmsford. I did a bit of research, and then replied to the patron:
I haven't heard of a cane in connection with Chelmsford. I found a list online of the communities that have them, and Chelmsford isn't included:
I think when the canes were passed out by the Boston Post, Chelmsford was a much smaller town than now, and perhaps didn't make the cut of the original 700 towns that received them. I'll check with the Historical Society to be sure, and let you know. Thanks.
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library
From this website, I learned more details about the canes: in 1909, they were given to 700 towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, by Edwin A. Grozier, Publisher of the Boston Post newspaper. The tradition was to give the cane to the oldest living resident in town, and then it was passed on to the next oldest when that person died. The cane itself belonged to the town, administered by the Selectmen, but was always supposed be held by the oldest resident. Of course, as towns grew, this became harder to track, and many canes were lost or retired and put on display somewhere.
Anyway, I emailed the Historical Society to be thorough, and while waiting for a reply, continued to check our vertical file and local history resources. I wasn't able to find anything about a Chelmsford cane, so I was surprised by the message I got the following day from the Historical Society:
We have it at the Historical Society now, but I don't think it is on display yet. It went missing for many years but turned up at the Senior Center a couple of years ago. [One of our members] has more details on the mystery if you are interested.
Holy smokes - do you know what this means? The internet lied to me!
I was certainly happy I checked with them. I emailed the patron the good news, but also followed up with the other Historical Society member to see what else I could learn about the cane. The next day, I heard back:
You can find out all about the cane in Judy Buswick's book Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst. I'm sure the library has a copy. There is a chapter on the cane.
Oops - we do indeed have multiple copies*, and it wasn't one of the books I looked in. The title of the chapter on the cane is "Mystery defines cane's history," which is why this book didn't come up when I searched the catalog for keyword combinations that include Boston or Post (however, a search for "Chelmsford cane" produces this book as the only result).
So, bad on me for not conducting a more thorough search on my own, but I'm glad my reaching out to an expert resource directed me back to the right place.
This chapter, which was originally published as a newspaper article in 1996, detailed the Chelmsford cane's history, from the first few recipients through it being lost, and then suddenly turning up one day at the Senior Center. After that it made its way to the Historical Society for safe keeping, and another Historical Society member said that it is in fact currently in a display case there.
Again, I emailed the patron with what I had learned, including letting him know we have this book in the library. A few days later he came in to pick it up, and we had a nice little talk about the canes, and his interest in them.
Apart from me dropping the ball and not finding the right book when I should have, this was a great reference question. The internet was wrong, local resources were vital, I learned something about local history, and the patron got exactly what he wanted. But best of all, I get to email the people who run that Boston Post cane website to have Chelmsford added, doing my little part to make the internet a better place.
*This book is also available for purchase from the Chelmsford Historical Society.