or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 3/3/13

   March 9th, 2013

Boston Post Cane from Winthrop, MAI 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.

Brian Herzog
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:

Hi Brian,
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.
Take care

Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst coverOops - 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.

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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 3/3/13”

  1. sharon Says:

    That is a GREAT librarian story! You didn’t trust the Internet as the final word, you kept tracking the question until you got a definitive answer and uncovered new information in the process, and you shared the information not only with the patron, but with the larger world. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Leigh Says:

    A note on a typo: Your link to your library catalog refers to the wrong book! I think the number at the end of your url should be “1180801”.

    But what a fascinating story with a satisfying end!

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @sharon: thank you – my thoughts exactly, and you’re welcome.

    @Leigh: great catch, thank you – being my own editor has never paid off for me.

  4. Viccy Kemp Says:

    Hi Brian,
    Love your blog that I have on my RSS feed. As a cataloger, I certainly hope you added those as local subject headings to the catalog record so future librarians can find the book.
    Great story and congratulations on finding the right answer.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Viccy: good idea – the cataloger here agreed and added “Boston Post canes — History”. Thanks.

  6. Stephanie Brown Says:

    LOVE this story!! Did you contact the website that didn’t list Chelmsford as having a cane, so they could update their records?

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Stephanie: Thanks – I did email them, but no response yet. It turns out the place that runs it is just a few towns over from where I live, so if I don’t hear back soon I’ll stop by that town’s library to see what I can learn in person.

  8. Bill McCurdy Says:

    That is my picture you used and thank you for filling in the blanks on the Cane’s history! Even though I held it in my hand and it was presented to my grandmother at my house, I never got a solid story of what it was. Glad this picture was used to educate a few more people. Love the site, thank you!

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Bill: Thanks for publishing your photo under a Creative Commons license – it was perfect for my post. And I’m happy to shed some light on the Cane your grandmother received. I think it’s a neat tradition, and great that it’s still being followed in some towns.

    @Stephanie: I now have exchanged a few emails with the person who runs the Boston Post Cane website I mentioned above, and he said he’ll be adding information on the Chelmsford cane soon!