Sunday, July 01, 2007

Age-old dispute.

From today's Boston Globe, a typical New England story:
Diners at Union Oyster House have probably seen cocktail napkins and placemats advertising the restaurant as America's oldest, "est. 1826." Visitors to Harvard Yard have likely seen a tour guide point to the ivy-covered buildings of America's oldest university. They are icons; their names conjure up images of men in tricornered hats.

But in New England, where families trace their roots to the Mayflower, no place is too minor to stake a claim on history. Basketville in Putney, Vt., proudly proclaims itself America's oldest basket company; Stoddard's in Newton, the oldest cutlery shop; and the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, the oldest plant conservation organization.

Such claims, for all their romantic appeal, can be as shaky as beams in a colonial meetinghouse. Just over two weeks ago, residents saved the Brick School in Franklin from closing, decrying the loss of America's oldest continuously operated one-room brick schoolhouse. They later discovered that the Croydon Village School in Croydon, N.H., is also brick, also one room, and has been open since 1780. 12 years before the Brick School.

Because of the glory and cachet that come with a claim of being first, and because of the difficulty of documenting dates, flare-ups and rivalries are everywhere.
To read about some of these flare-ups and rivalries, click here. Having grown up in a Bay State town that was first settled in the 1630's and officially incorporated in 1686, I can appreciate the reverence for history that underlies many of the "oldest" claims and animates disputes about their veracity.

This sort of mentality may be particularly widespread in New England, but it's certainly not unique to the region. I encountered similar attitudes at Georgetown, which once claimed 1634 as its year of birth, a patently false claim that was premised on the notion that Georgetown was the lineal descendant of an early Jesuit school established in southern Maryland. Georgetown now proclaims its founding date as 1789, which is much more reasonable but still only approximate (at least according to Emmett Curran's official history of the university).

When I was an undergrad, I remember reading that Georgetown's Philodemic Society, founded in 1830, is "the oldest debating society in the New World," which couldn't possibly be true. The Philodemic has apparently wised up, since I couldn't find the "oldest" claim anywhere on their website or in an article in The Hoya on the debating club's 175th anniversary, which more modestly describes the Philodemic as "one of the oldest student organizations on campus." Thus, you don't have to be from New England to claim you have the "oldest" something in the United States. Still, it probably helps. AMDG.

1 Comments:

At 7/03/2007 5:16 PM, Blogger Shawn said...

Still need your support in New Orleans for the Fr. Harry Tompson, SJ, Parish Center. Can you post a not-so-subtle reminder your readers to vote and campaignforyourcause.com? The voting is not over until July 13. People can vote daily and every vote counts. Our competitors are formidable.

 

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