town meeting and the “maine law”

It’s that time of year in New England. Mud season has not yet arrived but town meetings are underway in Maine. These meetings of town citizens have been ongoing since the State of Maine was the District of Maine, politically connected to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (pronounced, very fast, Mass-chusetts).


Taxpayers are expected to attend and give their two cents worth on the questions and budget before them–via verbal inquiry and the vote. Towns also have weekly meetings of carefully chosen selectmen that residents can also attend. I’ve attended both types in very small measure. Our first attendance at town meeting was more out of curiosity than to contribute, but we were able to vote on the budget which felt… strange… helping to decide how to use all that money, a few hundred thousand dollars (in 30 years past currency).

The local weekly keeps readers apprised of plans to be decided upon in area towns served by the regional school district. There are six rural towns covering hundreds of square miles. Looking at this week’s paper I see current issues (among others), questions regarding wind farms, a bill prohibiting a town withdrawal from the school district, road repairs (a perennial, happily occurring around mud season when frost-heaves contribute deterioration), transfer stations, surplus money, a ban on retail marijuana, plow-truck purchase, and building a boat ramp.

At the two selectmen’s meetings attended I brought up safety concerns. Now I’m reminded of the Maine Law, first enacted in wake of disputes relating to roads. The town I’m thinking of is Gilead, on the border with New Hampshire. It began before Maine was categorized a state. (That particular bit of legislation happened as a result of the Missouri compromise.)

From the historic record (a petition to the Massachusetts legislature):

We need a road on both sides of the river because the twenty families are on both sides and scattered from one end of town to the other. We are incapable of alleviating their problems. This road in passing through this plantation will pass a very rapid stream called the Wild River which rushes from the mountains with such impetuosity as to render it impassable . . . .

When the war of 1812 took away townsmen, work on the bridge was put off. Maintaining it was financially burdensome and for years following most town meetings had to look at bridge repair. It bridged the Wild River, a river dangerously like its name. The main problem, according to one local historian, was log piers at the rushing river’s center, surmounted by a wooden bridge. To quote from Hugh Chapman’s book, one of the authors of The Smile of Providence,

” Finally, the river was bridged in 1813 with rough roads on either side, the stage company started to use that route…. [But] in 1834, money was set aside to ‘rebuild the Wild River Bridge again.’… In 1835, Gilead approved of the Wild River Bridge Co. again, and decided to rebuild the bridge ‘again’! Apparently the private bridge was a constant source of irritation to the Gilead townspeople.” [Page 12]

Gilead, Maine


Maybe that’s why the rum: There was an appropriation

“for 32 gallons of New England rum to start a rebuild of the Wild River Bridge and another appropriation for 15 gallons to finish it. . . .In 1858, after 40 years of bridge building and rum drinking, every single Gilead voter (all male) voted in favor of a prohibitory temperance law! The last wooden bridge, the only covered one, and the only one built without rum was completed in 1868.” (TSoP, p. 14)

It might be noted here that Maine was the state codifying prohibition in law about seventy years ahead of the nation. The Town of Gilead ended their initial petition to the legislature with these words:

“We flatter ourselves that after eight years of being exempt from State and County taxes with the smiles of Providence and our own exertions we will be able to discharge our burdens and contribute our share toward the support of our Government.” (p. 10)

Thus the authors of The Smile of Providence reveal where the name of their local history book came from.

But let’s here remember all that labor and sweat behind Thomas Edison’s famous words: “Let there be light!” But we might also remember that all the perspiration in the world won’t get you a light bulb. It takes also a town meeting.

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