As Boylston prepares for the traditional “perambulating of the bounds,” as required under state laws dating back to the 1600s, it is one of very few towns regularly undertaking the process.
It was last done in 2010, so the town is about six years behind.
But most communities have not done the process, which involves walking the borders of the town and updating border markers, for many years, often decades.
Traditionally, the process often includes selectmen from neighboring towns walking their joint border together. That part is even more of a rarity these days, given schedules.
Boylston Town Clerk Dawn Porter recently alerted selectmen that the state is looking for the certification that is supposed to be filed with the town clerk after the once-every-five-years perambulation. The State Secretary of State’s office is often copied on the completed process.
But area towns have a varied history in that department, with a perambulation often driven as much by historians as town officials.
Selectmen, or their designees, are supposed to walk the border, through paths, brush, forest and underbrush. Selectmen may not see it as their most cherished duty.
Boylston Highway Department Superintendent Steve Mero said he would do it, but did not seem overly eager at first. But the idea later grew on him.
“I want to do it anyways just for my own sake of saying I know where the town borders are, and I want to take pictures of them,” he said, adding that he would note GPS coordinates as well.
“They need to be painted and dated on the Boylston side,” Mero explained. “I think it will be pretty cool to do that. Growing up in the town and knowing all that stuff is pretty cool.”
Town Administrator April Steward, also appointed a designee, agreed.
“I think it’s pretty cool, and (it) would be neat to see where all the markers are and see them,” Steward said.
“We don’t know fully what the time commitment is,” Selectman Seth Ridinger said.
But Chairman Matt Mecum noted, “It cannot take more than five years, because it has to happen every five years.”
Or so, since Boylston’s was last done in 2010.
A 1908 publication by the state’s Harbor and Land Commission actually lists all the markers and includes map coordinates, although that was before the age of GPS.
“It’s got to be coordinated with other communities as well,” Mero said, referring to the past practice of meeting on the shared borders.
“Some of it’s not going to be easy,” Mero said. “It’s extensive walking through the woods.”
Many towns that have actually done it in the past, however, usually just go to the markers.
“You’ve got to paint the marker and date the marker,” Mero said, but the GPS information would help in the future.
Selectmen Jamie Underwood asked if any of the markers were underwater.
“You don’t have to do those,” Mero said, so no selectmen will have to don scuba gear.
Berlin markers well known
In Berlin, the marker locations are fairly well known, except for one on the Clinton border that has disappeared over the last decade or so, town historian and Town Moderator Barry Eager said.
He recalled the perambulation had been done in the 1960s.
“It was more common in past decades,” Eager said as he made his way through Berlin woods to locate granite markers. Some indicated borders between towns that broke off from Lancaster centuries ago, he said. Some show where the original Lancaster border was.
In Berlin, the markers showed signs of paint, often faded, left by perambulations from those in Berlin, Boylston and Northborough.
Some of the markers are short stubs, often near the road where they are subject to damage. Eager pointed out the originals, standing more than 3 feet high, that have weathered well deep in the woods. Of course, they were not always deep in the woods, as evidenced by nearby stone walls that once marked cleared fields.
Eager noted that the 1908 book included a full accounting of bounds and details the locations as well as conditions; sketches show some of the meets where multiple towns connect.
“I remember doing it while I was a selectman,” current Town Clerk Eloise Salls said.
Former selectmen’s secretary Peggy Sardell provided Town Administrator Margaret Nartowicz with some historical details.
“I know that it was done in 1990 with Boylston, Clinton, Northborough, Hudson and Marlborough,” Sardell said. “It was done in 1991 (my first year) with Bolton. After that, I believe it became difficult for the members of the board to find the time to do it, because the membership was mostly comprised of individuals who also held full-time jobs, mostly out of town, or members who were not interested in running through the woods looking for the markers.
“I would guess that the last time it was done was when Val Bradley and Phil Bartlett were on the board, and they probably brought Dennis Bartlett, highway superintendent at the time, along with them,” Sardell said.
Records in the selectmen’s office show previous reports of perambulations by neighboring towns and Berlin’s efforts, including in 2003 when selectmen performed the task, according to records found by Administrative Assistant Mary Arata.
“We used to do it occasionally with Harvard, mostly at their initiative because they had a guy in town who was a history buff and coordinated everything,” former selectman Ken Troup said.
“One thing I learned early on was that ‘perambulating the bounds’ did not mean walking the boundaries. All it meant was meeting with the other town at stone markers on various inter-town roads. So with Harvard, that meant 110, Harvard Road, East End Road and Bare Hill Road.
“Each of those roads has a stone marker or something similar that are a couple of feet off the road. Some of them have the first letter of the town’s name carved on them. What we did with Harvard was have a small can of black paint and a brush and someone from each town would paint their town’s initial. Some of the markers were not carved, but just had letters painted on them, so we would repaint the likely faded letter,” Troup said.
“Sometimes, after painting the respective letters, someone would take a picture of the assembled group, I suspect for the historical societies or one of the newspapers,” he said.
“I think you’d have to say that one of the biggest disappointments of the tradition, at least when I participated in it, was that it was just on the inter-town roads. On the other hand, it would probably take quite a lot of time to walk the boundaries and, in places like Bolton Flats, it must be pretty difficult to walk the boundary even if you could find it,” Troup said.
Town Clerk Pam Powell said a member of the town’s Historical Commission did an extensive project reporting on the town bounds in 2010. That project, by J. Howard P. Black, was sufficient for the state.
“At the culmination of the 2020 Federal Census, we were contacted about remaining a one-precinct town. Part of the request to do so required a report of the town bounds, and this report from 2010 was sufficient,” Powell said.
Although the town has not recently done the perambulation, it was considered in 2013 during planning for the town’s 275th anniversary. The celebration included a parade and other events, but there was no perambulating.
Town Clerk Holly Sargent said she could find no records in her files, but Town Administrator Michael Ward indicated the task had been done in the past.
“I can’t recall the last year we did it, but I definitely remember walking the bounds as town administrator,” Ward said.
Lancaster selectmen would have been doing some perambulating since the law was new, with the town formed in 1653. The surrounding towns consist of or have bits of Lancaster within their borders.
Thayer Memorial Library Director Joe Mulé said, “I’ve been here a while and I cannot recall if it’s been done over that time. Very few towns do it, and although it’s big in New England, codified into law, New Hampshire has since removed it from code.”
“It would be a big job in Lancaster,” he said, noting an early reference to the practice in a town history, “Marvin’s History of the Town of Lancaster, Mass.: From the First Settlement to the Present Time, 1643-1879.” It noted one of the times perambulation was crucial — establishing the border of a new town when it broke off from Lancaster:
“The setting up of Sterling having been effected, a few points remained to be adjusted between the mother and daughter. May 19, 1781, the town clerk and selectmen were appointed a committee to recover the town of Lancaster’s books from Sterling. Committees were chosen to perambulate the line of division, and also to divide the town stock and arrange about the division of the poor who received town support,” according to the history.
Town Clerk Kathy Farrell said she found some records including a request from Princeton to coordinate with that town’s planned perambulation, but with no noted response from Sterling.
“I suspect a perambulation has not been done in a long time in Sterling,” Farrell said.
In West Boylston, among the duties of selectmen listed in that board’s handbook is the perambulation of bounds.
“I have been here for over 30 years, and I don’t ever recall this being brought up at a board meeting,” Town Administrator Nancy Lucier said.
Lucier said when she recently talked to former longtime town administrator Leon Gaumond, “I asked if that was anything he did in any of the towns he was in, and he indicated that it wasn’t.”