Thursday, July 16, 2015

Chapter 19-Tiemann Memoirs Town Meeting

 Following Chapter 19 is information about how town meeting operates today. For the prelude and links to all of the chapters go to Coming to Vermont (Cavendish): Memoirs of Philip Tiemann.

For the most part, that second winter must have passed without incident, or else I was too busy to write about it, Lacking a record, I can only think that I was able to work in the woods a good part of the time, as the weather was less rugged than the previous year. I had no desire to do this kind of work again in the summer. Our day-to-day living had settled pretty much into routine, but with too much to do for it to become monotonous. A trip to the village or a visit with friends gave us an occasional break.

Then on the first Tuesday of March we had, our initiation into that good old New England custom, the annual, town meeting. This was hold for many years in Cavendish village in the town hall, 'a converted church with a stage, a balcony, and high arched windows; lighting a not very large room in which sixty or so deacon-style benches provided for the early comers, Most of the ladies were there in time to find seats, but always the rear of the hall was crowded with standing men', mostly in working clothes and boots as they had come from the shops and woods. Thing were run by the moderator from his place behind a lectern on the stage, with the town clerk keeping record of proceedings at a table beside him. For some reason the selectmen preferred to sit on the first bench against the left-hand windows, facing the room but below the stage.

In a rear corner some of the women representing one of the clubs had a table with coffee and sandwiches for sale. A ballot box on the edge of the stage, for use only if someone called for a vote by ballot, completed the furnishing. That was before the days of the "Australian Ballot" requiring more for­mal voting in booths set up along the right-held wall: to be eligible, people's names now have to appear on the "check list" which is presided over by clerks at tables on the way to the booths. This doubtless is more practical but it isn't as much fun.

The meeting was announced well in advance by the "Warning," which gave time and place and listed the Articles, which were to be acted upon. "To see if the town will vote...." was the phrase used. This document was posted in prominent places and was published in the town report. The latter supposedly gave a resume of the towns business, vital statistics etc. for the past year; gotten up by the auditors, it sometimes was comprehensible to no one else.

Punctually at ten o'clock the moderator hammered on .his lectern and called the mooting to order, and from then on almost anything could happen. People took their town politics very seriously, and, while I never knew of an actual fight, there were some pretty bitter exchanges ­generally forgotten when it was all over. Town officers had to be nomi­nated and elected (usually there was good competition) and then money voted to pay for the various town expenses, Those always included approp­riations for Memorial Day and for the town libraries (one in each village naturally.) The progress and orderliness of proceedings depended upon the moderator, who perforce must he a man acquainted with the people, knowledgeable in parliamentary procedure, and of the best standing. I believe there have been only two in our time.

Doing all the voting from the floor, often with one article requiring several votes, not to mention the explanations and arguments, town bus­iness generally took until noon and sometimes longer. Then there was a recess, during which the lunch table did big business. After the town was thru, the town school district (as distinct from an Independent School District in Cavendish village,- the Duttonsville district) held its meeting. Altogether it resulted in a long-drawn-out affair. A great deal of what went on was next to incomprehensible to the novice, and Isabel and I left with the feeling that much could be done differently! In years to come we had our chance to try.

With that out of the way of the way, sugaring came on the •scene, There were years when the sap ran earlier, 'but not often. It depended to a large extent upon the location of the sugar bush, which varied from farm to farm, , Those' balmy days following 'frosty nights4 required to make the sap run,
never could be determined in advance, and sometimes boiling continued into April. Always there were interruptions, either by a freeze or snow or rain; buckets might be out for six weeks or longer but with gathering possible perhaps only half of the time. The operation commenced with the tapping of the desired number of trees,- boring a hole with brace and bit for the spout, which was equipped with a hook, and hanging anywhere from our twenty buckets or so up to perhaps a thousand. Two or three hundred was quite a lot to handle. They had to be visited at least daily while the sap was running, collecting in a larger bush being generally done with a horse-=drawn sled on which a sizable tank was mounted. It took a good team t o break a path thru the deep snow. Of course we collected ours by hand in oversize buckets, generally requiring snowshoes. Sometimes when sap did not run for a while the process of tapping and hanging the buckets had to be done all over again, the original tap-holes apparently having begun to heal. In any event, the buckets had to be kept clean.

The tankful of sap was hauled to the sugarhouse, which as a rule, was located not far from the farmhouse. Here the sweetish liquid-about the viscosity and color water-was emptied into a much larger storage tank connected with the boiling apparatus. This consisted of a very large-perhaps as much as four by six feet—compartmented pan or evaporator into one end of which the sap was fed thru a pipe (or perhaps dumped from a can). The pan rested on an “arch” (I would have called it a furnace) made usually of brick with large iron doors thru which unbelievable quantities of fuel were fed to produce a roaring blaze. Here is where all the scrap wood, old tires, and other combustibles were accumulated during the preceding year to augment the cordwood supply. The compartments of the pan were designed with openings thru which the sap would flow as it boiled down, from one end to the other, gradually becoming thicker. When it reached the proper consistency it was ladled or drawn off into gallon cans, which were closed and sealed hot. In the old days consistency and color were a matter of judgment on the part of the maker and hence tended to vary considerably, but by our time more accurate grading was beginning to be required both by range of color and by weight, which was determined by a hydrometer and was supposed to be pounds for a legal gallon of syrup. As I have mentioned, the first or fancy grade is quite pale.

To make hard sugar requires considerably longer boiling than does syrup. Local practice has been to make quite a quantity of "soft sugar" which, when packed in small covered pails (lard pails are fine), can be spooned out as wanted, This is easily melted or, if desired, cooked down further to make real sugar. But it is apt to be rather dark.

There always has been a good demand for quality syrup, and so it was that many thrifty farmers made use of what otherwise might have been idle time to increase their income. It also put their teams to use. But it was not all gravy, Equipment is expensive and has to be maintained; a good supply of fuel is essential;, and when the sap is running there is a lot of hard work and long hours, often extending far into the night. Then there is the business of marketing whatever the family does not want to keep for its own use. In this respect Isabel was of help to both neighbors and ourselves; acting as middleman she managed to sell quite a bit.

Town Meeting Today: Did you know that in 1912, women did not participate in town meeting?  That year the Sunshine Society decided to offer a luncheon, “...Some of the old guard among the men grumbled at the intrusion and would have none of it. A compromise was effected wherein the ladies might spread their luncheon in the gallery if they would screen off their view of the men below. But that first meal was enough to make the Sunshine dinner welcome at every Town Meeting since.”

The biggest change from 1912 to 1934, when the Thiemann’s first attended town meeting, was that women could vote. However, significant changes have continued to occur with the most recent being in 2009.

Since its inception, Vermont has had a tradition of secret hand written balloting, and by 1832, Vermont had printed ballots.  At the end of the 19th century, Vermont had adopted the “Australian Ballot” to distinguish voting by a secret ballot as opposed to a face-to-face town meeting

In Tiemann’s era, Town Meeting was held in what is today the Cavendish Historical Society Museum. Today’s Cavendish Town Meeting, held in the multi purpose room at the Cavendish Town Elementary School,  is no longer a day affair but takes place the Monday night before Vermont’s Town Meeting Day, which is the first Tuesday in March. That means in some years, it occurs in February. While the town budget is still discussed and voted on at town meeting, in 2009, the voters elected to have the school budget voted on by Australian Ballot. Starting in 2010, the school portion of the evening still takes place, but it is informational only.

Solzhenitsyn addressing Cavendish Town Meeting 1977
Cavendish Town Meetings have taken on a life of their own. It was here in 1977, that Nobel Laureate and Cavendish resident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained to the community about his need for privacy. He appeared again in 1994, just before his return to Russia, to thank the community for their cooperation in giving him the space, privacy and freedom to write.

In more recent years, town meeting is when awards are given to community members and groups who have made significant contributions to the community. While comments are often made each year about whether town meeting is needed and “shouldn’t the town budget be voted on by Australian Ballot,” it is a unique tradition then is more than just voting up or down on a particular item. It is a forum for discussion, as well as chance to catch up with neighbors and friends.

For another perspective on Vermont's Town Meeting, check out this article in The Economist. 

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