True Tales from Canton’s Past: We Are All Citizens

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The interior of the Canton Historical Society where the author spends quite a bit of his time

The interior of the Canton Historical Society where the author spends quite a bit of his time

The following is an excerpt from “We Are All Citizens,” the latest installment of True Tales from Canton’s Past by local historian George T. Comeau.

There was a message on my voicemail on the second week of August. Sue Gibbs was letting me know that I had been named “Citizen of the Year” and that I should call her back to confirm the details. Truth be known, each year when they announced the honor, I secretly wondered if perhaps someday that my name might be put forward. And when the call came in — and she can vouch for my immediate reaction — I was at a loss for words.

I’m sure that anyone who knows me knows that being lost for words is extremely rare. One uncle remarked in my youth that I was someone that “had the gift of gab.” Suddenly, the gift escaped me. I stumbled awkwardly through the call, and a flood of emotions carried me through the week. Gladly, the announcement was over a month ago and time has provided me with the opportunity of reflection on what it means to be a “citizen.”

Through the course of writing this column, my closeness with the town has been cemented ever closer. And crafting so many stories has allowed a view of time and place that brings an intimacy to the people who were our true citizens through the years. I’ve touched the remains of Canton’s first citizens in the unmarked graves on Chapman Street and Burr Lane. I’ve been inside the Viaduct and flown over much of the town. Almost weekly I hike the trails that the Ponkapoag Indians hunted upon hundreds of years ago. Seeking discovery in our own backyard, it has been wonderful to find caves, stone bridges, and hidden ponds that are long forgotten to history.

There are stories that I have told here that celebrate great heroes that saved lives, and gave their own for this country. The pioneers of early aviation, the scientists who studied the weather from Great Blue Hill, the woman who died in World War I and is the only female hero engraved on our local monument. There are inventors, statesmen, industrialists, patriots, pioneers, and men of literature. These are the citizens who have helped me form a more complete view of who we are and where we hail from.

There are a few untold stories that for various and sundry reasons will take more time to develop or await a suitable time to share. Some of the untold stories are intensely personal and painful, and yet there is an epic quality behind the tale that needs to be carefully written and sensitively told. Some of my work involves sharing in the pain that time has erased, but requires the memory to surface. There is one unwritten story about a feminist born here in the mid 1800s who became a philanthropist and lover of the first lady of the United States. More on that as soon as I am ready to share.

A fellow citizen remarked to a friend that I “make things up.” “How does he know what the weather was like that day, or if three boys went fishing in the nearby pond?” he asked. It’s true, I do not always know such mundane details. But more often than not, this is the poetic license and color that helps the reader understand that boys did once fish, and that ancient citizens lived and died at the mercy of nature.

Robert Rogers, a past curator and president of the Historical Society alongside local historian Frederick Endicott circa 1890 (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)

Robert Rogers, a past curator and president of the Historical Society alongside local historian Frederick Endicott circa 1890 (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)

Spending time in cemeteries, dusty attics, moldy basement, archives and libraries has become part of the norm in my life. Trips abroad never fail to yield closer connections to Canton. Several years ago, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I discovered a coat made here in Canton that was worn by Hank Williams. In a small town in Maine there was a box of Rising Sun Stove Polish. And just this summer I visited a family church in Nova Scotia where the church organ had a second life at the Oriental Theatre on Washington Street. Friends tire of my stories which place Canton at the center of the universe.

As a curator at the Canton Historical Society, my work has given license to read other people’s mail, open wills and trust documents long since lost, and to easily read a newspaper printed in 1879 as if it was printed just last week. It is a remarkable gift to meet the citizens that were giants in their day. I grew up knowing some amazing storytellers, many of whom learned their stories from their predecessors. It is one big continuum, and I am blessed to have an outlet in which to share these discoveries. It is a blessing that you continue to read these stories and share in the marvel of Canton’s history.

When Robert Rodgers, the great-grandson of Paul Revere, passed away in 1941, the town mourned the loss of a great citizen. He too was the curator of the Historical Society, and as a result of his work cataloguing and archiving materials, we have an enormous understanding of our history that began with the actual deeds from the natives to the English in the late 17th century. Rodgers’ work included labeling hundreds of photographs so we would be able to identify the heroes of the Civil War. He was also responsible for assembling a collection of artifacts that prove man was here over 12,000 years ago.

Working within the shadow of Rodgers allows my writing authenticity and color. Rodgers created scrapbooks, wrote extensive monographs, organized the entire collection, and created new maps to help us understand old boundaries. There was a certain devotion in that man, and perhaps that is what all of us as citizens have for Canton.

We are all devoted to improving our world, our life, and our families. Look around, all of us are ‘Citizens of the Year.’ Our fire chief and our police chief — they keep us safe and sound and are our modern-day hero citizens. Our town fathers — they guide us and create the stability of a town facing a bright future with industry, housing, and open space. Our neighbors — they bring us light in a storm, or a meal when someone passes. Our houses of worship, where the hand of God — seen and unseen — and of many beliefs are part of our lives. Growing up in a town of “citizens” meant that the nurse next door would bandage our scrapes. The mechanic down the street would jump the dead car, and the local banker held our mortgage in good times and in bad.

And yet there are so many citizens whose lives are led in quiet desperation. Reading the recent death notices of the men and women fighting addiction has been a heavy blanket that darkens our days and brings nightmares to our sleep. We must find ways to reach out and comfort and help those less fortunate. We must stay true to the values of our community.

So, you see, why it is hard to be named a Citizen of the Year. There are, god willing, many more years ahead of me, all of which will allow me to do the work on my path. I would be remiss if I did not publicly thank Avril Elkort and the entire committee. The true magic is that Dr. Elkort’s memory is always in our hearts and minds through the designation of the Citizen of the Year award and the scholarships that help our young people flourish.

My fervent hope is that we will reflect and act at this time on how we can all do more to make the lives and moments of each other richer and fuller. Find a moment to write me a note and let me know your sense of citizenship. Share your examples directly with me. I will be sure to save each and every letter or email in a file at the Canton Historical Society for the next curator to use for stories that reflect on who we are in Canton and what makes us true citizens. Thank you, citizens of Canton!

Email your thoughts on local citizenship to geo.comeau@gmail.com.

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