June 24, 2018

Tales from town meetings past

Resident Bill Skiff poses with 'Gov. Thomas Chittenden.' Skiff is set to appear in historical skits before Town Meeting on March 4.

Resident Bill Skiff poses with ‘Gov. Thomas Chittenden.’ Skiff is set to appear in historical skits before Town Meeting on March 4.

Historical skits and potluck dinner to precede Town Meeting


By Phyl Newbeck

Observer correspondent

Residents who show up for Town Meeting an hour early can feast on a potluck dinner and witness what organizers have labelled “a whimsical and historically semi-accurate look at Town Meetings of the past.”

A cast of 15 in period costumes will portray different characters from Town Meetings in 1786, 1804 and 1850—bringing important issues of those years to life.

Town Clerk Deb Beckett credits Bill Skiff and Jim Heltz with the idea of the skits. The potluck is also a throwback to days gone by. Years ago, the Fire Department’s Ladies Auxiliary used to host a potluck or chili dinner on Town Meeting Day and roughly a decade ago, the town held a dessert social. Ginger Isham has been publishing old recipes in her column in the Observer, so organizers hope some of the food will be historically accurate. The March 4 potluck is set to begin at 6 p.m. at Williston Central School and at 6:30 the skits will commence, finishing in time to get residents to a more modern Town Meeting.

Skiff, Heltz and his daughter, Jackie Heltz, wrote the skits, using names taken from old town records. The names are accurate, but the dialogue spoken by the characters will not be historically exact. Jim Heltz researched Williston records to learn about some of the debates of the past and Skiff recalled discussions that took place in Cambridge, where he grew up and his father served as town moderator.

Skiff recalls one Town Meeting when his high school sociology teacher brought the class to Town Hall. He and his classmates sat in the balcony and watched as people went to the booths to vote on whether the town should be wet or dry. Since Cambridge was a small town, the students were pretty accurate in their assessment of the results. That debate will be recreated as one of the skits.

Skiff was responsible for casting the actors and actresses.

“I cast it with people who would fit the characters and would enjoy doing it,” he said. “It’s been fun because people are really getting into it. The ladies in the temperance skit are probably going to steal the show with their costumes.”

Keith Gaylord, a man with theatrical experience, has been cast as town moderator and Rep. Jim McCullough will play the role of Giles Chittenden. Town Moderator Tony Lamb will narrate the skits.

Jim Heltz described the skits as a form of dinner theater. The 1786 sketch will deal with road issues and the election of Williston’s first town moderator. That meeting was the first to be held in the state—previous Town Meetings were held in Huntington, N.Y. The 1804 skit will center on land surveying, and the 1850 one will pertain to temperance issues and will even include some singing. As narrator, Lamb will provide some historical perspective for each skit. Audience members will be provided with cue cards, prompting them to second motions being presented and to vote “yea” or “nay.”

“Some of the issues are serious,” said Heltz, “but it’s a very lighthearted look at Town Meeting and we try to keep it fun.”

Skiff recalled that Town Meeting used to be one of the biggest events of the year.

“Attendance has gone down from a packed house to just 100-plus people, so we’re hoping that through our promotion we may encourage people to come,” he said. “We’re also hoping to get people in the mood for the anniversary celebrations, which will take place later in the year.”

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