Twenty years ago, I learned to love the New England-style annual town report.
(It might be that towns in other parts of the country also issue these reports. But I came to know them in the context of New England small-town democracy, and they live there in my mind to this day.)
An annual town report is a snapshot of ongoing operations — the municipal equivalent of a public company’s annual report. It lists all the town’s relevant financial info at numbing length, as well as other operating data and the results of Town Meeting votes.
Department reports provide splashes of narrative amid all the numbers. The police chief might decry an increase in breaking and entering, while the Parks Commission might plump for money for a new dock at the town pond.
A typical annual report cover. This report is recent, but comes from one of the towns I used to cover back in the day. The full report can be seen here.
These reports were a staple at the chain of Boston-area weekly newspapers where I worked in 1996.
A year or two earlier, a reporter with a freshly issued annual report had had a genius idea. He’d written a snapshot-of-local-life cover story, based entirely on interesting info culled from the report — five births; six deaths; three marriages; 13 underage drinking arrests; 22 miles of town-owned road resurfaced; $4,020 in library overdue fines collected; and like that.
Combined with creative graphics, “Sherborn By The Numbers” or “Natick By The Numbers” made for addictive reading. (Basically, they were Internet listicles before such a thing existed.)
The only people who disliked these stories were town employees, who hated seeing their salaries in print. The supervisor of the local sewage plant once got salty with me after I included his salary; listed the amount of waste his plant processed that year; and did the math to find out what he got paid per gallon.
But, town employees’ salaries are public info. They’re in every town’s annual report. And the reports were available free to residents — in some places, every household got a copy in the mail. So we weren’t telling anybody anything they couldn’t have looked up themselves.
These by-the-numbers stories were so popular, and so easy, that every paper in the chain took to running them at annual report time.
Perhaps they still do.
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Twenty years later, I’ll still thumb through a town report whenever I find one. They’re like postcards from a place and time. You can see moments of real people’s lives if you squint at the numbers the right way.
I’ve been lost to the outside world lately, since I discovered that the University of New Hampshire Library has almost 15,800 annual reports from New Hampshire towns and cities available online.
Even though I’ve never lived in the Granite State, I’ve dived into the struggles and triumphs of its communities, from the Holderness Floods of 1973 to Derry’s celebration of hometown hero Alan Shepard a dozen years before. A few paragraphs after praising Shepard, the Derry report adds: “We hope to have our main street paved in 1962.”
(Charlie Baker, if you’re reading: You need to put some resources into closing the online annual-report gap. New Hampshire is housing you. Are you going to stand for that?)
I became doubly interested in UNH’s online treasure trove when I realized that I might find my paternal grandmother there.
She was born in Keene, in the southwest part of the state. And most town or city reports include what’s called Vital Statistics — a list of births, marriages and deaths recorded over the course of the year.
A few minutes with UNH’s marvelous archive and there she was, swaddled and screaming:
You have to squint a little bit, but she’s the second line from the bottom — “Corrine,” born female and living on June 24, 1914, the second child of 30-year-old teamster Wm. L. Wamboldt and 33-year-old Maud LaBatt.
As far as I know, the two R’s in her first name are a typo. In my acquaintance with her, she was always Corine. Her mother’s hometown is also listed incorrectly: Maud LaBatt came from North Easton, N.Y., not “No. Eastern.”
(Regular readers have met and recently said goodbye to Corine’s older sibling, who was born two years earlier in Vermont. William and Maud had no other children before William’s death in 1920. Or after it, for that matter.)
Reading the list of births — nothing else in the report, just the births — is enough to paint a picture of Keene as a place torn between 20th-century cityhood and the roots of its rural surroundings. (Remember what I said about seeing real people’s lives if you squint the right way?)
For instance, there are 26 living births listed on “Corrine’s” page and only one stillbirth. The ratio is similar on other pages, and some list no stillbirths at all.
I’m no expert on public health, and just because all these children were born alive doesn’t guarantee they lived long.
But on the whole, it’s a better report than I would have expected from a small city in a rural region 100 years ago. It suggests that prenatal care was available in the area, and was making a difference.
On the other hand, there are birth reports from as far back as 1869 wedged in among the 1914 new arrivals. You can see 1894 and 1898 listed on “Corrine’s” page. The notion of promptly reporting a child’s birth, something we take for granted today, was clearly not yet standard.
I don’t know the full story, but I’m guessing these people were born on farms or in rural homes outlying Keene — maybe even without a doctor present — and no one bothered to file the notifications until years later, when they needed a birth record to accomplish some goal or other.
I’ve prattled on a while at this point, but there’s a lot more to discuss in the Keene annual report.
I think I’ll do a little more squinting for my next post, and see what more I can deduce about the time and place in which my grandma was born.
(For those who can’t bear the suspense, the 1914 Keene annual report can be downloaded here.)