Monday, May 21, 2012

Hog-Wild (Animals and Politics): More Rural New England Fun

A story about the town of Goshen in today's Gazette reminds me of some lesser-known facts and lighter moments of Amherst and rural New England history.

According to the paper,
After a history of complaints about wandering livestock causing damage to property and posing potential dangers on roadways, a tenant farmer is being ordered to get his cows and pigs out of town.
 . . .
According to the order, complaints were received by the police, the Board of Health and the Select Board on numerous occasions in November and December of 2011, as well as April and May of this year.
The complaints state that cows and pigs have been entering the public way on Spruce Corner Road and Route 9 and have also entered private property, causing damage to lawns and posing a threat to septic systems and wells.
The order says that on April 30, 15 to 20 pigs caused damage at a property at 116 Spruce Corner Road. In addition, there were five days in March, five days in April, and thus far, five days in May when cows have been reported on public roads. Most recently, employees of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation reported cows on Route 9 on the morning of May 11. 
The story is no laughing matter because Town governments are required to ensure public safety.

But such stories are news in part because incidents of runaway livestock are so rare nowadays. A century and a half ago, they were common. This is one reason that so many Amherst properties had fences, most of which have, regrettably disappeared.

Amherst, still a town of fences in the 1873 Beers map
Fences not only helped to keep the animals on their own property, but also protected the property of others from animals that strayed. And when they strayed, they had to be rounded up and kept someplace: hence, the Town Pound, an institution that in Massachusetts dates back to 1635, and survived in many locales until the late nineteenth century. The early ones, as well as many others, used wooden fences or palings, but still others were of stone. One of the latter survives in nearby Leverett. In Amherst, the Pound was located on what is now the southwestern portion of Triangle Street near Main. A sliver of it—about an eighth of an acre—apparently extended down past the northern boundary of the Dickinson property. The Town conveyed that portion to Dickinson in 1857 for $ 5. (In the deed, today's Triangle Street was then described only as "the road leading to J.P. Gray's dwellinghouse." in the 1836 plan below: "Sunderland Road.")

from the historic structure report on the Dickinson Homestead
Of course, someone had to get the miscreants from the streets and yards to the pound, so there was even a special officer in charge of tracking down the miscreants.  In hopes of coping with its problem last summer, Goshen took a page from the past:
After months of responding to complaints of loose cattle ruining lawns, milling about parking lots and roaming down Route 9, the Goshen Select Board has decided to resurrect the traditional position of "field driver," one of the oldest traditional jobs in many rural towns. 
Except for residents of rural New England, most people have never heard of a field driver. Once a common job throughout the Northeastern states, a field driver is an appointed official charged with rounding up any stray livestock and impounding the animals until their owners can recover them. 
Ironically, Goshen removed the post from the books at a Town Meeting in 2010, as the town hadn't needed a field driver in several decades.
Another variant for dealing with what we would nowadays call "Hogs Gone Wild" was: the "Hog-reeve." He and his office became something of a running joke: one more of the funny (in the sense of both peculiar and humorous) aspects of our quaint town meeting form of government. Histories of New England sometimes allude to the humor without explaining it. One volume, for example, refers to "the annually-recurring joke about the hog-reeves."

Wondering what was so funny about that?

Find out by reading last year's post, "New England Elections: Town Meeting, Select Board. . . Hog Reeve?!"

At least Town Meeting doesn't have to deal with that nowadays. Then again, it might just lighten things up a bit.


• A judge will now decide the fate of the offending cows and pigs: Bob Dunn, "Judge eyes wandering livestock," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 1 June 2012

• And decide he did: Bob Dunn, "Judge rules Goshen cows must find another pasture," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 2 June 2012

• Saga at last concluded? Fran Ryan, "Goshen's errant cows relocate to Ashfield," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 19 July 2012

1 comment:

SnoopyTheGoon said...

If you are looking for a new hog-reeve, here is a retiree, can't run very fast but shoots pretty good, not found being cruel to animals, but not a vegetarian.

Yeah, and re your implying warning that the post is not funny: well, it works, up to a point ;-)