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And you thought Town Meeting is hectic now

Burlington Town House

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, January 15, 1980

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 030)

And you thought Town Meeting is hectic now

BURLINGTON – Except for the past few years, Burlington has always had an open town meeting to elect its officers and to vote on all matters to come before the meeting. It is the only form of government in today’s United States that lets the individual voter directly oppose or support, in person, the policies that vitally concern him, often including roads, taxes and schools.

The New England town meeting began as a church organization, or a “congregation,” and only became known as a town meeting when people outside the church became involved. Here, all might come and speak, but on most matters, voting was confined to the free men who, in general, had to be church members. The early town meeting determined common land and its distribution, elected representatives to the legislature and chose local officials.

When Burlington was a small town, the open town meeting worked very well, because every voter was familiar with town affairs. But starting in 1972, as the town grew, a smaller and smaller percent-age of voters turned out for meetings, unless some emotional issue arose and then the hall became too small to hold all who showed. Now the town is divided into four precincts, each of which sends its quota of 108 representatives known as town meeting representatives, to represent them at town meeting.

Burlington’s first town meeting was held March 11, 1799. It was called by Justice of the Peace John Walker on a warrant instructing one John Caldwell to notify those inhabitants qualified to vote in town affairs (this did not include women) to meet in the church to elect the necessary officers to run the new town. The first town officer chosen was Captain John Wood, who became the first moderator. As soon as the rest of the town positions were filled, the meeting adjourned.

It seems that in those early days, pigs roamed everywhere, to the constant irritation of the good people of Burlington, whose gardens were rooted by their neighbors’ swine. Therefore, it isn’t surprising to see an article in the first spring warrant “to what was to be done about swine going at large.” It was not voted upon, but the meeting did approve four so-called “hog reeves” to supervise roaming swine and build a pound for stray cattle on Center Street, where Sears Street joins it now. And that meeting elected a pound-keeper just as we appoint a dog officer.

Since the early church was the center of all social activities, the first town meetings were held there as well. In 1844, the town built a “Town House” to separately handle local government, so town meetings moved there. That building stood on Simonds Park approximately where the Little League field is today, and was erected on the foundation of the old Center School, which had been moved down to Pasho’s Corner to become the West School in 1839.

At the turn of this century, it was customary to hold dances and other entertainments in the Town House. Just after one such dance on a Saturday night in 1902, the building caught fire and burned to the ground. Meetings were then held in the new consolidated Union School until a second Town Hall was built in 1915. In 1939, town meetings moved to the auditorium of Burlington’s first high school. As soon as the Memorial School was completed in 1954, meetings were held in that gym and then moved across the street to the auditorium of the town’s second high school in 1962 and moved once again to Burlington’s present high school in 1973.

When the town found a particularly good moderator who enjoyed the position, it tended to keep him in office for many years. Three moderators served for 22 years each: William Winn, who was first elected in 1821; William Winn Jr., elected in 1852; David E. Barnum, first elected in 1896. Other moderators have had quicker runs, but still long: John Walker, 13 years; Chester E. MacDonald, 11 years; Edward D. Bennett, eight years.

Some town meetings were quite volatile. The electorate became so bitter over the consolidation of schools in 1897, and were divided so evenly pro and con, that a two-thirds majority could not be mustered to approve the big Union School. But more than 50% did approve, so the cost of the building was placed on the tax rate and paid in one year by just doubling the tax rate that year.

During one of the depression years, a town meeting got so unruly that the selectmen called in the state police. They came prepared to stop a riot, but by the time they got there, Tom Murray, then acting chief of police, had broken up the fistfights.

On another occasion, Arthur Nichols and Joe McDowell got into such a heated argument that the moderator had Joe evicted. He waited for Arthur outside and when he came out, Joe simply walked over and punched him in the eye. Arthur had him arrested for assault and battery. The  judge in Woburn District Court fined him $25.  According to a tall tale, Joe told the judge, “Your Honor, I shall pay this court another $25 if you let me blacken his other eye.” Not quite, but he did say it was the best $25 he’d ever spent.

And Joe Galipeau remembers the time Charlie Bennett was moderator. That was in 1940. Now Charlie was a farmer and a real Yankee whose ancestors on his father’s side fought in the Revolution and whose ancestors on his mother’s side included the illustrious Sewalls, the Rev. Mr. Marrett, and Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College. At the time, Charlie was working for pig farmer Walter Murphy. Working very late one town meeting night, Charlie decided to go directly from the piggery to the meeting rather than make people wait while he went home and showered. Charlie arrived at the meeting on time, but when he arrived, the town clerk moved to the far end of the stage and no one sat in the front seats. That meeting was one of the shortest on record.

At one of the meetings presided over by Jerry Seminatore, he banged his gavel so hard trying to restore some semblance of order that the gavel’s head flew off and landed in the lap of a matronly lady sitting in the front row. She was more surprised than hurt. Jerry was without words for one of the few times in his life.

Tragedy has hit during town meeting. Carl D. Hall had a heart attack and died on the floor of Burlington’s second Town Hall; and in 1975, Charles L. Shea, one of Burlington’s most popular citizens, had a similar attack in the auditorium of the town’s new high school shortly after addressing town meeting members.

During open town meeting days, attendance varied from 12 to 2000, depending upon interest. Today, not many residents attend town meetings, since only elected town meeting members can vote, and on occasion, not enough of them have shown up to start the meeting on time – or at all.