BUCKFIELD — During the 1930s, when Elsie Knightly first learned how to drive, one could get five gallons of gas for $1, or spend 20 cents per gallon. But back then, a dollar was worth a lot more.
“I never bought any,” she said about gasoline as her blue eyes twinkled from behind her wire-rimmed glasses. “It was expensive, of course.”
Knightly and some of her loved ones were able to take a trip down memory lane last week while honoring the matriarch. On Thursday, Sept. 10, 10 family members and the Buckfield Selectboard and Town Manager Cindy Dunn gathered at Knightly’s farmstead on Paris Hill Road to present her with the Boston Post Cane.
“Elsie, you being a direct descendent of the founding Buck family and a resident of Buckfield, it gives me great pleasure to present to you the Boston Post Cane in recognition of reaching the age of 96-years-young, making you the oldest resident of Buckfield,” Selectmen Chair Cheryl Coffman said as she handed over a certificate and the gold-tipped and ebony cane.
“I’m glad it’s not a gun,” Knightly said as she took the cane and the room exploded in laughter.
One of her sons, Nathaniel Buck, had brought a large pot of yellow flowers for the occasion, which were set up next to his mother in her chair by the firewood pile in the kitchen. She smiled as numerous photos were snapped with family members and officials to mark the special occasion.
“Those cameras are unbreakable,” she said, receiving more laughter from the room.
In August 1909, Edwin A. Grozier, publisher of the Boston Post, distributed 700 canes to selectboards in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, according to the Manyard, Mass., website. The canes were to be given to the oldest male resident of the towns and passed along to the next oldest after he died. In 1930, after some controversy, the cane tradition was opened up to women — women like Elsie Knightly. Dunn confirmed Buckfield’s cane is the real deal, even though many communities have created replicas after the originals were lost.
“Now this is a handy thing to have,” Knightly said as she admired her cane, which is inscribed with “1909 The Boston Post to the oldest citizen of Buckfield, Me (to be transmitted).”
Her family joked that if two children who live with her, John and Nancy Buck, get out of hand, she could hit them with her new cane.
When asked about when she was born, Knightly referred to the certificate presented to her.
“Well I’m 96, according to this. I was there but I don’t remember,” she said about her birth on Feb. 21, 1919. “If I can’t remember how old I am, I can look at this.”
Dunn went to Google to look up Knightly’s birthday before the ceremony and on her 96th birthday in February, she had been alive for 3,029,529,006 seconds.
“Isn’t that amazing?” Dunn said.
As for the secret to her longevity, Knightly paused for a moment and thoughtfully pondered.
“Staying out of trouble,” she said. “Having my parents teaching me what I can do and what I shouldn’t do.”
She then recalled a story about her father and how he used to meet with other men in town and talk about things. Her father told the group something and a man wondered out loud if he was telling the truth.
“Someone else said, ‘Well if Charlie Buck said it, you can be sure it’s true. He didn’t repeat gossip,’” Knightly said. “And that’s something to live up to.”
She also credited her many years on Earth to living a good Christian life.
“We tried to live according to the instructions in the Bible,” she said.
Knightly grew up in the house beside her current homestead. Before starting her family, she lived in New Jersey with Joe and Elizabeth Young, caring for their daughter, Jean. She recalled what a lovely family they were as she looked over a black and white portrait of the trio. Then she returned to her hometown and married the boy next door, Bertrand Buck, on Christmas Day in 1939. There she raised not only Nancy, John and Nathaniel but Kate, too, who now runs the family farm.
Kate Buck remembered a story of when she was eight or nine years old involving her spunky mother. They were in the kitchen where Knightly was plucking feathers off the dead chickens, when she began gagging. Kate asked her mom what she was doing and Knightly was able to keep it together long enough to reprimand her.
“’You get out of here!’” she recalled her mom yelling at her. “She drove me right out of the kitchen.”
Then there was another incident with the farm’s chickens, when Knightly was pregnant with John in 1942. She went back to the chicken house to feed the birds and the door had a wooden circular handle that turned to open and close it.
“She got in there to feed the chickens and the wind blew the door shut and it locked,” Nathaniel Buck said. “She couldn’t out. Here she was seven months pregnant and had to take the window off to climb out.”
While Knightly has difficulty seeing and reading these days, she’s sharp as a tack and still full of life. Her spunk was even more evident during her younger years, according to her children. Nathaniel Buck also recalled how his mother was extremely proud of her peas and took care of them, growing enough to freeze for the winter.
“She was going down to weed one morning and she saw a woodchuck in the garden eating her peas, and she just screamed and ran at it … and brought the hoe down on it and killed the woodchuck and broke the hoe handle,” he said. “She told me to take the hoe down to the barn to my father to have him fix it. He fixed it and gave it to me and said, ‘Take it back to her and tell her next time, don’t hoe so hard.’”
Nancy Buck asked her mom to tell the story of their Uncle Phillip, who was Knightly’s adopted brother, and was full of good advice.
“He says, ‘When you go to dress your feet, always do your right foot first. If you don’t, it will be left and nobody wants two left feet,’” Knightly said, laughing with the rest of the room.
What sound advice indeed.