Massachusetts’ city and town governments are filled with antiques.
Not furniture. And certainly not people. We’re talking about jobs – titles and duties that have existed since Colonial times and are reminders of the way things used to be, even if they are not very useful in a modern government.
Take the Town of Brookline’s Measurer of Wood and Bark. The job existed for more than two centuries until last year, when selectmen dropped “Appointment of Measurers of Wood and Bark” from its traditional place as Article 1 on the Town Meeting warrant.
Measuring wood and bark is hardly a cutting-edge occupation. But throwing the position into the administrative wood chipper created a cord-sized brouhaha.
In the first place, some traditionalists took the move as a slap to Brookline’s history.
“It was part of the traditions of the town,” said Stanley Spiegel, one of two Town Meeting Members who, at a special Town Meeting in November, petitioned selectmen to revive the job.
Also, the state actually mandates that some offical person measure wood and bark in every city and town. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 94, Section 296 state that “a town and the city council of a city shall annually choose one or more measurers of wood and bark.”
Last Tuesday, Brookline selectmen replanted the position, rolling the title into the duties of the town’s Sealer of Weights and Measures, Dick Bargfrede.
“It actually has a useful purpose,” Bargfrede said. “Wood is not inexpensive. If anything isn’t watched and you have room for fraud, fraud will exist. So, if you stack it, I’ll come and measure it.”
A cord is all the wood that you can cram into a 4-by-4-by-8-foot space. No matter where you live in the Bay State, if you buy a cord of wood and think you have been shorted, you can call your local Measurer of Wood and Bark.
“It does have enforcement procedures,” Bargfrede said. “We have police powers. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
He has had to flash his badge only once, 10 years ago, when he discovered a disgruntled wood-buyer had been cheated.
“So I told the seller he had to make amends,” he said. “He picked up all the wood and gave the man his money back.”
Nor do cities take lightly Chapter 129 of the state’s laws, which requires every municipality to appoint an Animal Inspector to conduct an annual livestock census – even if the count is zero.
The mayor of Newton also appoints an official Fence Viewer.
“This position actually saves people money in litigation costs,” said Maria Plati, Newton‘s Chief of Policy and Communications. “It’s a volunteer mediator who arbitrates property line disputes. It is vacant at the moment.”
In Boston, jobs such as Weigher of Vessels, Overseer of the Poor, Measurer of Grain and City Orator have gone the way of lamplighters and town criers. But the Boston Police Department still employs 15 hostlers.
“People say, ‘You’re a what? You do what?”‘ said Foreman Hostler Helen Henderson. “I didn’t know myself when I applied for the job 21 years ago. I always called myself a groom.”
Hostlers are stablehands. The word is still in the dictionary, although it is listed as “archaic.” But somebody has to clean the stalls and drive the trailers for Boston’s police horses.
Hostlers also hustle behind the horses in parades to scoop manure, and don’t think that’s not a necessary service. They also keep the inventory of horseshoes delivered by a freelance farrier, the official designation for a blacksmith.
In Brookline, Dr. Herbert Carlin, a veterinarian, is the official Inspector of Animals and the Local Moth Superintendent of Insect Pest Control.
The persistence of outmoded titles is not limited to jobs. The “Antiques Roadshow” of licenses required by Boston include Common Victualer for restaurants and Hackney for taxi cabs.
And the measurement of wood and bark will live on in Brookline. The very first item on the agenda for the May 22 Town Meeting is the annual “Appointment of Measurers of Wood and Bark.”
“It is a charming tradition that reminds us of our Colonial roots and long history,” Spiegel said. “Admittedly the post had no practical importance, but it is good for a community to recall its history.”