WEST GARDINER (NEWS CENTER Maine) — It is a uniquely New England tradition more than a century old that many Mainers have never even heard of before: the passing of the Boston Post Canes.
Towns across the state have been honoring their eldest residents with a cane courtesy of the late Boston Post newspaper since 1909. Topped with 14-carat gold handles, the ebony canes are steeped in tradition themselves.
The publisher of the once widely circulated Boston Post newspaper, Edwin Grozier, sent 700 canes to town selectmen in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, where the paper was delivered. Grozier wanted them to be presented to the oldest man of each town and used until his death. They were then to be handed to the next oldest citizen, continuing the tradition. The Boston Post folded in the 1950s but the canes live on.
Arlene Grace Brann Brown is almost as old as the tradition itself. Born in 1920, Arlene was awarded the Boston Post Cane at a ceremony at the end of October, much to her surprise.
"I knew I was right up there. I knew I was neck and neck with two people for the cane," Arlene recalls.
The 98-year-old thought she was going to vote at the town office, that is what her children told her. But when she arrived, the town's selectmen presented Arlene with the cane, surrounded by friends and family.
"I was flabbergasted...The place was full of people, Big gathering, refreshments, the works."
Over the years, several of the Boston Post Canes have been lost or damaged. Some towns in Maine have made replicas they now hand out to the eldest resident, while others safeguard them in town offices and historical societies. But in West Gardiner, the original tradition lives on with one exception: women, as of 1930, can now receive the canes.
Arlene grew up in Farmingdale, but after marrying her husband at 18, they moved six miles to West Gardiner where she has lived ever since. Arlene had five children, two delivered right in her home with the help of her midwife grandmother. She worked for the state as a secretary for Sea and Shore Fisheries, which would later become the Maine Department of Marine Resources, until she retired at 60. And up until two years ago, she cared for a disabled and blind grandson who lived with her.
"I don’t feel old." Arlene says she only feels about 60.
The matriarch of her family that now extends to 15 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great-grandchildren, still lives alone, though someone comes to her home at night while she sleeps in case she needs anything. Arlene still cooks all her own food, though she doesn't much care for cooking, and according to at least one family member, lacks the talent for it. But she mops and vacuums the floors of her impeccable home every day.
Arlene Grace Brann Brown and her Boston Post Cane
The key to her healthy aging, she says, "I don't drink. I don’t smoke. I have no desire for those things. I don’t mind if other people do it. That is their business. I just don’t care for anything about it."
When she got married, she said she did not have much of a honeymoon.
"We got married October 1. The first thing my husband did was, he wanted to go hunting. He bought me a 30-30, and we went hunting."
Playing the piano at church, caring for others and long walks in the woods hunting have also kept the 98-year-old spry. Arlene made headlines in 1962 when she qualified to be a member of the Big Bucks Club after she bagged a 303-pound buck in her backwoods with her 30-30.
"She wasn’t overly strict but very kind and compassionate, and she still is. And you can always talk to her and always go to her and she is just great,” Arlene's daughter, Julie Maschino says.
Julie says her mom taught all her siblings honesty and that church attendance was a must.
"It wasn't a choice. You got up and you went to Sunday school," Julie recalls.
And if Arlene could bestow any words of wisdom to the younger generations she says it would be the same thing she taught her children and grandchildren: go to church!
"It won't do you any harm, you know. You can have a lot of good times. There are so many people that are grieving, and they'll go to church. They need help. They need someone just to give them a smile and talk to them even. And that is what we need to do, " says Arlene.
As for the Boston Post Cane now in her possession, Arlene hopes to hold on to it for many more years to come.
"I guess there are some advantages to getting old," Arlene says.