From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

When CNN advertises a town hall event, we all know that the Presidential election cycle is gearing up. However, the moderated question-and-answer sessions are a far cry from what has actually gone on in New England town halls for over two centuries. While many Massachusetts towns have gone through the stages of transitioning first to a representative town meeting and then to government with a mayor, Rochester still has a Town Meeting that mirrors those of the past.

            As we have seen this week, residents attended Town Meeting to listen to and vote on 32 articles. Two days later, they headed to the polls to vote for a variety of positions, including a seat on the Select Board.

            Rochester’s first Town Meetings began after incorporation as “Rochester-town in New England” in 1686. Laws for the town were made and voted on by “freemen” at these meetings. By 1690, selectmen were elected. The earliest recorded names were those of Aaron Barlow, Samuel White and Samuel Hammond. The records of earlier selectmen have been lost to time.

            In her history of Rochester, Mary Hall Leonard credits Town Meetings for stabilizing state and national affairs after the colonies had severed ties with England. When no longer ruled by England, a new government needed to be formed and new constitutions written, but that took time. Town governments accustomed to making decisions at Town Meetings filled that breach and proceeded with the business of day-to-day governance. As Leonard writes, “Each little town by its decisions made known through its representative will help to direct the trend of State and national affairs,” and so the ” town government holds on its way but all else is in a transitional and chaotic state.”

            Those who chose this week to participate in Town Meeting walked in the footsteps of our community’s ancestors.

By Connie Eshbach

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