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Moved and Seconded
Storyteller Rebecca Rule attends to history of town meeting
A town meeting isn't just an old-fashioned forum for folks to figure out how much to spend on a dump truck or new fire engine; it's a tradition woven deep into Yankee hearts, and one that can make pulses pound with the immediacy of making a difference in the community.
Author, humorist and storyteller Rebecca Rule taps into this uniquely New England vein in her latest book and summer traveling lecture, “Moved and Seconded, Town Meeting in New Hampshire, Present, Past and Future.” Sponsored by The NH Humanities Council, the lecture tour will include stories of the rituals, traditions and history of town meetings, as well as anecdotes about the characters who inevitably show up for the official gatherings.Rule's schedule includes: Tuesday July 9, at 7 p.m. at Gorham Public Library, 35 Railroad St.; Sunday, July 28, at 2 p.m. at Center Meeting House, at the corner of routes 103 and 103A., Newbury; and, Friday, Sept. 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Old Meeting House, 1 New Boston Road, Francestown.
“It's the town meeting; it's the local people coming together, and making decisions about how they are going to conduct the business of their town,” said Charles Kennedy, chairman of the Center Meeting House Committee in Newbury, of the appeal of the traditional gatherings. “They have an immediate stake in what goes on.”
To get the feel of that collective process, Rule, during a three-year time period, interviewed selectmen and moderators. She also went to myriad towns and poured through stacks of town reports. As she did, she got a sense not only of each town, but its people.
“... I can really see New Hampshire culture in a nutshell,” Rule said. “As I travel the state telling stories or collecting stories, I'm trying to preserve” that sense of culture and history.
For instance, she happened upon Marion Knox, an administrative assistant and former selectman in Northwood who is transcribing the minutes of every town meeting, back to the very first handwritten set of minutes, and inputting them into a database. Incidentally, Rule said, Knox is doing the same for all the minutes of every selectmen and committee meeting as well.
“She allowed me to borrow some of the books she's made of the printouts,” Rule said. “It's absolutely fascinating, because it's not just town history, but state and national history as well.”
Rule said she discovered from the minutes of an 1814 meeting that the people of Northwood spent money on guns and ammunition to protect themselves from the British. She also found that when the Civil War rolled around, the town paid its soldiers $10 more than the federal government did in thanks for their service.
She also found some of the not-so-altruistic traditions of town meeting.
“In olden times, they decided things like whether a certain person was allowed to live in town — usually, a woman.”
A town, for example, voted whether or not to allow Maray Wilson back to town to collect her belongings. Rule chalks the reason she was cast out to “man trouble.”
“I think small; I think if I were an artist, I'd be a miniaturist,” she said. “So national history has always been too big for me to get my head around. But I can look at what was happening in Northwood and understand that this is what was happening all over the country.”
Rule admits the book and lecture are a sort of valentine to the concept of town meetings, and as for the crowd that inevitably shows up at her lecture, well, “they are kind of a self-selecting group of town meeting groupies.”
She said many who attend her program are active in town governments themselves and enjoy sharing their town traditions and stories with the group. And there's a fair bit of lamenting the decline of the community forum. In so-called “SB2” towns, people can gather in deliberative sessions to discuss warrant articles, but can't vote on them or change them in a substantial way at that point. In town meeting towns, people can both deliberate and vote on issues.
“Sadly, I think we're losing our town meetings. I mean I know we are,” Rule said. “Every year one or two more towns goes, (in favor of) what I think of as the easier route; they just go to the polls and vote.
“Let's have a deliberative session that nobody goes to, and then we'll go and we'll vote, but it's not town meeting. ... And that's why people don't go; because you don't get to vote. And I think that's really sad,” Rule said.
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