Town Meeting—For Now? For Always?

Phil Knight at Town Meeting in 1975.

North Yarmouth’s legislative authority is Town Meeting. This year, it was held on Saturday, June 17. And it was a fast meeting—only two hours. Used to last almost all day, with a time-honored lunch break!

Town Meeting can be traced to the 1630s. And back then it was a really serious matter: attendance was mandatory and failure to attend was punishable by a fine. In 2023, North Yarmouth had almost 3800 registered voters, BUT our attendance at this year’s meeting was less than 100. Just imagine how much revenue this old-time rule would generate today!

As Town Meeting evolved and colonists became more empowered it was increasingly seen as a threat to Britain. Town Meeting fueled the spark that ultimately led to the American Revolution. Henry David Thoreau called Town Meeting “the true Congress … the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States.”

North Yarmouth’s first Town Meeting was held on August 28, 1849 in the North Yarmouth Congregational Church. On March 27, 1854, it was held for the first time in our brand new town hall (NOW Old Town House). In 1958 Town Meeting moved to the newly completed Wescustogo Grange Hall.

Back in the day, Town Meetings were well-attended. They were usually held in March, at a time when winter weather prevented most outdoor farm work, and gatherings of any sort were especially welcome.

Dick Baston, born in North Yarmouth in 1927, remembered spontaneous “caucuses” on a porch behind the Town House, when one or more attendees strolled outside with a bottle in his pocket during a meeting break.

Men attended, mostly. Ellen Marston Lawrence noted in her journals (kept from 1868 to 1932) that only that her male family members “went to Meeting.” Women gained the right to vote in 1919, so it’s unlikely they were welcome before then, anyway.

Isabel Hayes (1887–1965) served as a Town Meeting ballot clerk for many years. In 1959, she wrote: “Town Meeting day and our first crack at the Australian ballot system, thanks to some crackpot at last year’s Meeting. I don’t remember who but if I have him pointed out today I’ll tell him what I think of him.” (the Australian ballot is a voting method in which a voter’s identity in an election or a referendum is anonymous.)

But despite her comment, Isabel wrote the next day that “Dwight Verrill’s wife Patricia cast the first vote under the new Australian system. A very good meeting all in all, was home just before midnight with 136 ballots cast.” (!!!!!)  NOTE: For a few years, North Yarmouth scheduled Town Meeting in the evening, to try to ratchet up attendance. It didn’t work, and we went back to Saturday meetings.

Dick Baston remembered that “Putting in a culvert would be good for half an hour. And if there was disagreement—well, there’d be a secret ballot.” At that point, everybody would be called to vote, including the three or four women down in Wescustogo’s kitchen who’d be preparing a bean dinner for the meeting’s midday break.

The weather often played a big part in March Town Meeting. Ellen Lawrence, who lived around the corner from the Town House, wrote in 1931: “They had the Town meeting, not so many out as usual. They went over the road with the tractor and down through our dooryard … couldn’t get through the drifts …”

IN 1957, Isabel Hayes wrote: “20 inches of snow in some parts of Maine, and I guess that’s us … the kids were bug-eyed with excitement. Went to bed by kerosene lamplight. Certainly was a humdinger, lots of accidents.”


Many towns around North Yarmouth govern through a council form of government; a determination of spending and programs is put into the hands of elected councilors and financial decisions are ongoing, rather than dependent on a one-day session of decision making—North Yarmouth’s current system.

This makes attendance at Town Meeting pretty critical, wouldn’t you say? Because all of us have “skin in the game”—it’s our tax dollars being spent in the upcoming fiscal year during one critical Saturday morning meeting. We all have to take responsibility for being educated—by paying attention to the Warrant (agenda and supporting information), which is always available in advance online and in person at Town Office, and asking questions of our town manager and Select Board. Imagine buying a house without talking to a realtor or a lawyer … or a car without going online to look at all the details!!

If our town reaches a point where we’re too big, or if citizens stop participating in Town Meeting, we would probably need to turn to another form of local government.

Town Meeting is a time-honored tradition, but 2023 presents far more challenges than 1931. And we don’t just mean weather. Whether it’s figuring out how to encourage educated voters to show up, or going to a town council form of governance, it seems a change is going to come. What’s your opinion?

North Yarmouth Town Meeting in Wescustogo Hall, 2000. Chris Vaniotis was the moderator.