Day 301: Oliver Robbins

Friday October 28, 2011

With the city elections on the horizon, it’s worth it, for a moment, to step off the historical timeline and visit the town prior to its annual "meeting" in 1876. Change, as we know, is slow to come to New England, and no place epitomized that fact more than Pittsfield in 1876, which held fast to its town-style government even though it qualified easily for status as a city. That change was still 15 years away. It’s enough to say that in 1876, Pittsfield was the biggest community in the country -- not county, but country -- to exist under the New England laws of the town form of government.

The strategy may have been ill-conceived at that point in Pittsfield’s life, and at the least begged many questions. For example, there were a total of 2,000 registered voters in the town in 1876, and they were all asked to meet and decide the future of the community at Town Hall, which at best could hold about 500 citizens. That’s 25 percent, a turnout figure that, if recorded in Pittsfield in this year’s mayoral election, would be taken to task by both pundits and the media.

It’s safe to say then that a minority of voters were setting the course for Pittsfield’s future. This in no way is meant to be critical, but well-known Pittsfield resident Oliver Robbins was recorded to have "had the floor" no fewer than 78 times during that 1876 meeting. Obviously, no Boston Celtics game to catch that night on television. Come to think of it, there won’t be this year, either. Still, Robbins represented a select minority that enjoyed the give and take of live debate followed by a roll call or show-of-hands vote.

And the pressure to follow along with the movers and shakers of the community in a show of hands was no doubt great. It would explain why, in light of our political freedom, change in leadership was often slow in coming in those early days. The three selectmen of the time -- John Parker, Alonzo Goodrich and Solomon Russell -- were consistently voted to their political seats with little difficulty. In nearby Peru, one selectman was voted in annually for close to 50 years.

Still, a case could be made for Pittsfield’s town meetings despite its growth. The collective force sometimes emboldened the citizens to suggest and then vote upon some pretty amazing things. There were no buses or cars, but it was still suggested in 1876 that it might be geographically advantageous to transport students from the Sikes section of town to a school in the Tracy section of Pittsfield. That was unheard of. And, citizens also worked up the courage to submit to the state Legislature a petition to allow women to have input in town affairs, and to allow them the right to both seek office and vote.

The change from town to city did finally come in 1891, even though Pittsfield was still pretty much split on the issue. It was a change that was perhaps already past its time. One thing is for sure: Without the transition, Robbins might still be talking.


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