A Brief History Of Town Meetings in Deerfield, New Hampshire

Jack Hutchinson

March 26, 2005

Thinking about our adoption of SB2 and the changes we'll be making over the next year, I went to the archives to learn about Deerfield Town Meeting history and how our meetings have changed over the years. This morning, before we begin our 239th Annual Meeting, I would like to take a few minutes to share some of that with you.

The Parish of Deerfield was authorized by the House of Representatives of the Province of New Hampshire on January 7, 1766, "Chargeable with the Duty of Maintaining the poor…repairing all Highways…and Supporting the…Preaching of the Gospel." Three weeks later we held our first Town Meeting at which we formed a committee to "Look out for a Suitable Place to Sett a Meetinghouse."

Since 1766 each meeting has had a warrant, and minutes have been recorded and preserved. The language used then is familiar to us today. The Warrant for our first annual meeting in March 1766 begins "This is to Notify and Warn all the Freeholders & other Inhabitants of the Parish of Deerfield Qualified by Law to Vote in Parish affairs to Meet at the house of Mr. Wadleigh Crams in Said Deerfield Tuesday the 18th of March at ten of the Clock before noon."

But we did not have an easy time learning to work together. The early minutes sometimes reported, "Voted to negative all the articles of the warrant."

And we did not have Robert's Rules. In a 1769 meeting we, "Voted that all the votes that was passed the twelfth of January past and the 24th of February last at the house of Mr. Henry Tucker was Reconsidered and Entirely Disannulled and Revoked and are of no force No More than if it had never been voted." How is that for a reconsideration?

The Congregational Meetinghouse, the first project of our young town, was ready for the September 1771 meeting. It was also the home of the Congregational Society. It stood where we now find Old Center Cemetery.

In 1772 we set a wage rate for the town "a man is to have for a Days work two shillings the same for oxen the same for plough. Eighteen pence a day for Cart wheels."

In 1775 Deerfield volunteers joined in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Among them was John Simpson who fired the first shot. Three years later we "voted to allow each man that went to Cambridge at the time of Lexington battle one dollar per day." and "voted that fifty dollars be allowed to each man that enlisted into the Continental Services … without hire."

In 1776 we voted a "Committee of Safety" responsible for loyalty oaths, identifying and disarming Tories and overseeing the men opposed to the revolution who were sent to New Hampshire under armed guard by the State of New York.

In 1777 we appropriated town funds to pay one of the two companies we raised for General George Washington's army. Eighteen Deerfield soldiers died in service during the Revolution - about 1 in 50 of our population. That would be like losing 80 of our sons and daughters today.

85 years later during the Civil War, President Lincoln called for 300,000 troops for the Army of the United States. Deerfield's quota was 23. We voted $300 each for the conscripts or their substitutes. That year the annual school budget was $1200 and the highway budget $1500.

We were still carving our town out of a wilderness. In 1782 a petitioned article sought to establish a bounty on wolves.

Education was an early concern. In 1783 we considered "the erecting of schoolhouses in the center of each District." There would come to be 16 School Districts in Deerfield, each with its own schoolhouse and a single teacher who taught all grades.

When an epidemic of Spotted Fever struck Deerfield in 1815, we met on one day's notice. We voted "to supply such persons as may be attacked with…the Spotted Fever with such mediums and necessaries as may be prescribed by the Physicians", "that a sum not exceeding three hundred dollars be raised for the benefit of the sick in this town", and to "employ as many physicians as … necessary and pay them by the day."

Article 10 of the 1818 warrant reads "To take into consideration the Poor of this town and make such provisions for the year ensuing as thought most proper." A lengthy debate on this topic dominated the meeting.

The care of the poor, the infirm, the elderly and the mentally unsound was entirely a town responsibility until 1868 when Rockingham County established the County Poor Farm in Brentwood.

Our 1845 meeting was the last in the Congregational Meetinghouse. We voted to dismantle it and reuse the material for a new Town House. We went on to "authorize and instruct" the selectmen "to erect such a building for a town house as they may think proper, the cost of which shall not exceed eight hundred dollars." That Town House was ready for the next Annual Meeting in 1846. We met there until 1990 when this school and gymnasium were opened.

From 1766 until 1892, the election procedure was deliberate and lengthy. Taking 1846 as an example: our first order of business was filling 27 offices starting with Moderator and Town Clerk and ending with Cullers of Staves, Measurers of Wood, Hogreeves, Field Drivers, Pound Keepers and the Superintendent of the Town Farm. One office at a time, nominations were taken, ballots cast and counted, the result announced and, if there was a winner, the elected official sworn in. If no candidate received a majority of the ballots cast, then a new ballot was taken. Once a winner was declared and sworn, the process recycled with nominations for the next office.

We worked a day and a half that year to complete elections. Then we took up the other articles. On those, if a division of the house was called for, everyone exited the hall. Then as counters stood at each door, all in favor entered by the East Door and those opposed by the West Door.

In January, 1893, we voted 21 to 11 to "adopt provisions of Chapter 33 of the Public Statutes of New Hampshire for annual elections." That vote, by less than 10% of registered voters in a special meeting, ended the practice of conducting balloting one office at a time in open meeting. Now the polls opened at the start of the meeting and remained open until an agreed time, usually 3:00PM. Meanwhile we deliberated and voted the warrant articles in parallel.

In 1895 we voted to "Make arrangements with the Telephone Co. to put a Telephone in this town."

In 1933 we adopted the Australian ballot for the election of town officials. The following year would see the first use in Deerfield of a printed ballot listing all declared candidates.

Also in 1933 we addressed Depression unemployment by distributing road work among all men wanting it. "It was voted that the selectmen keep a list of the names of men who desire to work on the State Road Construction and employ a staggered crew of men working three days each week until all who wish have had employment."

In 1966 we moved to Saturday town meetings though in the following few years there was debate about Tuesday evening versus Saturday morning and we switched back and forth. And then by 1976 we see Absentee Ballots for local elections.

Deerfield began as a parish of 800 colonists. Travel was difficult, mostly by foot. Interdependence with our neighbors and commitment to community was much higher. We did not lack for candidates for town offices - the leading citizens of the community all served. Most of us rarely left Deerfield.

At first we met in the homes of settlers. The poor, the roads and the church were our concerns. We met about six times a year as we struggled and often failed to make and sustain decisions.

During the period of the Revolutionary War, our meetings became more orderly and productive. In addition to responsibilities for the poor, the roads, the church and the schools, we set a wage rate for laborers, paid soldiers who served in the Army, funded medical care, regulated trade, set a bounty on crows and participated in the formation of state government.

For one hundred and twenty-six years the form of the meetings was stable, though participation varied widely. Some declarations report as few as thirty votes were cast.

We made our first big change in 1893 when we adopted a single prepared ballot for election to all offices. Then in 1933 we moved to an official ballot with declared candidates. In the years following we separated elections from our business meeting and later introduced absentee ballots.

Though many descendents of the early settlers continue to live in Deerfield, today we are largely a bedroom community of people whose work and families are in other places. Federal and State authority have increased and local responsibility and prerogative declined. We no longer have primary responsibility for the poor, pay Deerfield soldiers for their service, hire doctors in an epidemic or elect Scalers of Weights and Measures and others to regulate trade. In fact now we sometimes have elections with no declared candidate.

But for 238 years we've been electing a moderator and selectmen and debating and funding roads and education as a citizen legislature in the Town Meetings Thomas Jefferson described as "the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self government."

The Town Meeting is a New England invention which, though widely admired, has never taken root in any other soil. And it has been in decline in much of New England for some years now. We've been privileged to participate in this pure form of democracy.

It is our challenge to do as well with the next step we've voted to take under SB2. We have a proud history as a community. I hope that we can work together to build an equally proud future.