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Keeping Order

NORTH WOODSTOCK - The annual town meeting here came to order last night when moderator Ken Chapman gave his gavel a good thwack on the podium. The assembled straightened up in rows of folding chairs of varying hues of gunmetal gray in the center of the room. Voters on the sidelines had cushier seats - they once graced the local theater. The woodstove in the back was poised with a few logs ready to warm up the place if the politics didn`t.

Like a lot of things in this gracious town hall, which is used just once a year for town meeting and various elections in odd numbered years, the blonde wood gavel has a history. Chapman, who celebrated his 25th year as town moderator last night, said it arrived one day in the mail about 10 years ago.

``It came from a man named Sawyer, who was a moderator in town back the 1940s,`` he said. ``The letter stated that each of the towns in New Hampshire was given a gavel made from an elm tree planted by Matthew Thornton.``

As any good New Hampshire citizen knows, Dr. Thornton was one of the Granite State signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The story goes, according to the letter Chapman received from Mr. Sawyer, that when the elm succumbed to the Dutch elm disease that decimated the species, which elegantly lined so many a Main Street across the state, pieces of the wood were made into gavels and sent to communities around New Hampshire.

``I don`t know how much of that is fact - this is the story that was in the letter,`` he said. ``I haven`t checked it out.`` The letter that accompanied the gavel also said that the same wood was used to craft the gavel at the New Hampshire Statehouse.

``It`s a bizarre and cryptic story,`` said Ken Leidner, director of the statehouse visitors` center. The story he has heard about the ancient and prodigious elm is that it was planted in 1825 on the statehouse plaza after a visit to Concord by Revolutionary War Gen. Marquis de Lafayette.

``He was greeted by survivors of the New Hampshire regiment,`` Leidner said. ``There was a parade and reception out on the plaza, where he was said to have planted an elm tree, which grew and grew and grew until it died of Dutch elm disease sometime in the 1950s.``

When the elm was taken down, he said, salvageable wood was taken and made into gavels`` and other wooden things`` and sent to people around the state. ``Is there a gavel somewhere made from the Lafayette elm?`` he said. ``Who knows?``

But he does know that there is not one, but two gavels at the statehouse - one for the senate and one for Representatives` Hall - which are made for each of the people who preside over business there. Whatever is the truth about the gavel in Woodstock, Chapman doesn`t care. That it was sent to him by a former moderator is enough history for him.

``To me, it`s priceless,`` he said. ``We`re fortunate to have such artifacts in our community.``

And the community takes care of its pieces of the past. The Boston Post Cane, one of more than 400 that were dispatched in 1909 to communities around New England by the old Boston Post newspaper to honor its oldest male resident , was retired a few years ago and is now on display in a glass case at the town offices.

The town`s original ballot box, considerably smaller than the one used yesterday and described as resembling an outhouse for small people, is also in safekeeping at the town offices. One slice of Woodstock history was not in attendance last night. Longtime selectman J. Stanton Hilliard died on the eve of town meeting after a long battle with cancer.

``It`s like the way Charles Schultz passed away the night before his last comic strip was published,`` Chapman said.