The Good People of Ipswich look forward the Annual Town Meeting, the hallowed New England tradition in which we debate transfers of even the smallest sums from one bookkeeping account to another, while being mercifully spared the details of an annual budget of some Fifty Million Dollars which we will unanimously approve without questioning. Except for Phil. Phil will ask questions.
The Big Event, however, comes two weeks later when we gather at the polls to vote on who gets to spend the money we appropriated. This cherished ritual reached its climax in 1797 when the list of officers to be chosen included Selectmen, Overseers, Town Clerk, Treasurer, Tithing-men, Road Surveyors, Fish Committee, Clerk of the Market, Fence Viewers, Haywards, Surveyors of Lumber, Cullers of Fish, Sealers of Leather, Hog-reeves, Gangers of Cask, Sealers of Weights, Measurers of Grain, Corders of Wood, Firewards, Packer of Pork, and Cullers of Brick.
Every year people ask me if I’m going to run. Having insufficient skills and even less experience that would qualify me for any of the above, I considered running for President of the United States, a position for which there is apparently no requirement for previous experience in government. I lack, however, some of the qualifying credentials for candidacy to the Presidency:
- I have never used bankruptcy laws to my own benefit, or for any other reason.
- I pay my taxes.
- To my recollection I have never run a secret child sex ring from a pizza restaurant.
- I’ve never Tweeted.
A candidacy for the office of Selectman, or the Select Board as we now call it, is tempting. For one thing, I would get to see a lot more of Phil, and I could restore a long and proud tradition: Harold Bowen wrote that elections these days can’t hold a candle to the elections of a century ago:
“Back in the Old days, whenever you heard a band marching down the street followed with a line of torch lights, you knew it was election night in Ipswich. The town elections of today are a far cry from those of yesteryear. For the most part, they were riotous and anything but dignified. The air was full of broken promises, and rum whiskey and hard cider flowed like water. Each candidate felt that to win an election he had to rip his opponent apart. Of course, that part hasn’t changed much.”
Every year, Aaron Wells would run for selectman on the single promise that if he won he would build a tunnel under Town Hill so you wouldn’t have to climb it. He never won, but I think I could. In my years as Town Historian, I’ve learned that almost half of the owners of houses on Town Hill believe there is a hidden tunnel that connects their house to the River, left over from the days of the Underground Railroad. It’s a little known fact that Town Hill is made out of Swiss cheese rather than solid granite. And anyway, facts no longer matter.
One thing I could probably do well is make promises I can’t keep and tell you what you want to hear. Harold Bowen explained the winning strategy:
“Nute Brown would go into Billy Chaplin’s barroom the week before election, and voters would come around to say to Nute, “You’re the best man for the job.” Every time anyone would praise him a little, Nute would say to the bartender, “Give him a drink.” Most of them would say anything for a drink. The night before the election, Nute figured with all the promises and free drinks he had handed out, he would beat Eben Moulton by 500 votes. On election night after the votes had been counted, Eben Moulton had beaten Nute two to one. Joe Greenache asked, “Well, Nute, have you learned anything from the election?” Nute answered, “Yes, Joe, I did. I learned there are about 500 damn liars in Ipswich.”
If by some bizarre accident I was voted into office, I would immediately restore the old Ipswich tradition of a victory parade led by both of my friends with torch lights, me in an open wagon pulled by a couple of horses, accompanied by pretty ladies and other members of the Historical Commission in silly costumes. Billy Barton’s grandfather wrote down the route:
“The parades were longer in those days. The parade would form on Hammatt and side streets, and would proceed up Central Street to Lord Square, then up High to the junction of Locust Street, then counter march down to East Street to Willcomb’s Square, and sometimes to the Lower Wharf, back up East to Willcomb’s Square, then to the corner of Summer and County Street, down Summer Street to Water Street, then cross the Green Street Bridge, down Turkey Shore Road to Poplar, then up Payne Street onto Argilla Road, then up Linden to Ward Street, then down County Street to S. Main Street to Market Square, and from there disband.
Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that on July 4, 1805, the Town of Ipswich ended its parade at the South Green for a celebration of the nation’s anniversary. The newly-arrived Baptist minister “Citizen Pottle,” addressed the Supreme Being, followed by a toast: “The Venerable Town of Ipswich. May it be purged of all old Toryism and mock Federalism.” As the other ministers in town were strong Federalists, his toasts aroused the suspicion of Baptist enthusiasm availing itself of the opportunity.
The Selectmen answered with the final toast of the day: “May more Piety and less Politics adorn the American Clergy.” Good order and decency were observed for the rest of the day.