‘Mentor to many’ – Pembroke woman, 95, awarded Boston Post Cane

  • Sue Saltmarsh received the Boston Post Cane and a plaque Monday for being the oldest living person in Pembroke. Saltmarsh was awarded the cane at her home by Marie Ayles of the town’s historical society. Ray Duckler / Monitor staff

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Monitor columnist
Published: 7/9/2019 4:35:58 PM

Not everyone wants to receive the Boston Post Cane, given to the oldest citizen in towns all over New England.

To some, it’s a reminder that the end is near. Thanks for thinking about me, these seniors say, but no thanks. Call it a Cane Mutiny.

Susan Saltmarsh of Pembroke is different. She was awarded the cane – an actual cane, made of ebony, more than 100 years old – at her home by Marie Ayles of the Pembroke Historical Society. She was given a plaque by Town Administrator Dave Jodoin.

The winning ticket was 1/3/24.

Sue Saltmarsh is 95 years old.

“I was surprised, but it means a lot to me,” Saltmarsh said this week at her home, where a handful of friends and town officials showed up for the event. “It means that I’m still able to get around.”

True. Saltmarsh stopped driving in January and sold her Chevy right after her 95th birthday, so she leaves the driving to her sister, 86-year-old Abby Cirioni, who traveled from her home in Bellingham, Mass., to Pembroke to watch Saltmarsh receive this honor.

Together, they travel to Charlestown when Saltmarsh runs out of material to sew her children’s books about rabbits and lions and Mother Goose. She cuts the fabric and also makes placemats and bibs for adults. Those items were spread out on a table off the living room.

Saltmarsh stays busy in other ways, leaning hard on Cirioni and her walker to get around. She gardens and plays cards. She was asked the secret to her longevity and how she maintains her sharpness.

“The main thing is to keep moving,” Saltmarsh explained. “I’m not ready for a wheelchair.”

She’s about 5-feet tall, maybe 4-11. Her white hair is short, swept to one side, and she wore a necklace with seashells and shiny stones attached. She locked on to anyone who spoke, and it was obvious from the light in her eyes that the town of Pembroke is now represented by a worthy cane ambassador.

“People say we need heroes today,” said Ayn Whytemare, the chair of the Pembroke Historical Society. “Being able to tell what’s gone on in town through all those years, that is a big deal.”

Saltmarsh agrees. Receiving the cane is viewed as special, at least by those who do the work to figure out the oldest resident of a particular town. It’s a symbol of tradition, of wisdom and perseverance, a path back to another, more innocent time.

“You’ve been a mentor to many,” Whytemare told Saltmarsh.

Whytemare addressed the issue of those in other towns who don’t want the cane because they fear its meaning.

“Some people contacted don’t want anything to do with it,” Whytemare said. “They are uncomfortable with the connotation that it means they have one foot in the grave, but I don’t see it like that at all. I see it as thanking our most experienced townsperson. It’s a way to honor them, and it speaks to me of the continuity through the generations, and it speaks to me of honoring our elders.”

This elder paid her dues, and then some. She grew up in Bow and attended Laconia High School. She was grade-school friends with a man named Chester Saltmarsh. They’d walk to school together and they later got married.

Chester was a paratrooper during World War II, and he looked noble in his uniform in the framed photo on the living room wall.

Chester died 30 years ago. The couple adopted two children, a son and a daughter, and they, too, both died way before their time.

“It wasn’t easy, but you live one day at a time,” Saltmarsh said.

She never remarried, embracing her independence. “If someone wanted to ask me out, fine,” Saltmarsh said, “but I didn’t want anyone living here with me.”

She was the chief clerk for Hood’s in Concord but left after she and Chester adopted their two children. She worked as a receptionist at the Oddfellows Home and in the gifts shop there, sold Avon products and still does her crafts projects, with the kids’ books, made of soft material, not paper, a hot gift idea during the holiday season.

The cane and plaque will be on display at the town hall. That policy evolved through the years, ever since Edwin Grozier, publisher of the now-folded Boston Post newspaper, had 700 canes manufactured in 1909 and sent them to towns all over New England, telling boards of selectmen to present the cane to their oldest resident.

For decades, the recipient kept the three-foot long, gold-headed ebony cane, told it would be passed on to the next one in line once, well, once it was time. That led to canes disappearing, placed in storage in dusty basements or attics. Some were stolen, others accidentally destroyed.

To Whytemare, these mysteries were and continue to be part of the cane’s charm. “I love the New England tradition and this is a great one,” Whytemare told me. “Even the ones that were lost add to it.”

Jim Goff is Pembroke’s town clerk and the individual who knows more about the cane than anyone else there, and even he doesn’t have all the facts.

He said John K. Robinson was the first winner, in 1909, and his name is inscribed on the gold top. Edith Snyder got it in 1990, Mary Merrill in ‘91.

Goff said Florence Gardner was the last recipient who took the cane home, in 1992. Her nephew found it while cleaning out Gardner’s house. Cora Hurd was next in line, with documentation saying she got the cane in 2003, leaving 11 years unaccounted for.

“We’re not sure how many recipients there were between Mr. Robinson and when the town started keeping track of its issuance in 1990,” Goff wrote in an email to me.

Nothing was unclear at Saltmarsh’s home this week. Ayles of the historical society did the research and determined Saltmarsh was the oldest person in town.

Ayles, Whytemare, Cirioni and Jodoin were joined at Saltmarsh’s house by two of her old friends, Janet Pitman Anderson and Cynthia Sullivan.

Sitting in the living room, Ayles spoke before handing the cane to the latest winner.

“I’m proud to present you with the Boston Post Cane as the oldest citizen,” Ayles said. “I hope there are many more.”

“Me too,” Saltmarsh said.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)




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