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Millsfield ready to resume holding first primary vote

Sunday News Correspondent

March 15. 2014 9:28PM

MILLSFIELD - Thanks to a chance conversation this year between residents and Secretary of State Bill Gardner, this community of some two dozen souls may once again be one of the first places in New Hampshire to cast ballots in the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

An unincorporated township located within Coos County, Millsfield is west of Errol, north of Dummer, east of Odell and Erving's Location and south of Dixville, which, thanks to extensive publicity, most of the country already knows as the place where some of the earliest voting in presidential primaries and elections has taken place for years.

But what is less known, however, is that Millsfield electors began voting at the stroke of midnight back in 1952, whereas similar voting didn't occur in Dixville until eight years later.

Also less well-known is that the Town of Hart's Location, population around 40-ish, began voting at midnight in 1948. The practice was suspended in 1964, when the town was overwhelmed by intense media scrutiny, but was reinstated in 1996 and continues today.

The potential reinstatement of Millsfield's early voting had its genesis on Jan. 21, when Gardner, who was not immediately available for comment, traveled to Millsfield with state Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, to observe voting in the primary for the special election to fill the District 1 seat on the Executive Council.

The primary was held at the A Peace of Heaven B & B - which since 2005 has been Millsfield's polling place and the site of its annual town meeting - and during a lull, innkeeper Sonja Sheldon, Millsfield Selectman Wayne Urso, and Gardner and Woodburn compared notes, learning from Gardner that in 2016 the Granite State would observe the centennial of its presidential primary.

Speaking by telephone Saturday morning, Sheldon, who owns and operates Peace of Heaven with her husband, Charles, recalled that she gave Gardner a copy of an article from Time magazine, dated Nov. 10, 1952, which pointed out that Millsfield, not Dixville, voted first.

That fact, she said, took Gardner "back a step or two," and later he suggested that Millsfield consider resuming its past practice, something that the 18 voters at Town Meeting last Tuesday overwhelmingly decided to do, said Urso, who on Friday sent Gardner a letter to that effect.

Urso on Friday night said there's no competition between Millsfield and any other community for the honor of early voting, but there is a historical precedent for Millsfield to be among the first.

"The secretary of the state thought it would be appropriate that we do it once again in Millsfield just to revisit where it all began, so that is really what we're trying to do," said Urso.

According to town lore, Urso said, Millsfield and Dixville used to alternate the early voting, but in time, the latter community eclipsed Millsfield due in large part to the fact that the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, with its numerous amenities and an owner who enjoyed the spotlight, was deemed a better venue by visiting journalists to watch the voting.

Urso, who has been Millsfield's selectman since 2001 - the position, he noted, makes him responsible for overseeing elections while the Coos County Commission is, in legal reality, the township's board of selectmen - credited Sonja Sheldon for "digging up" the Time article and giving it to Gardner, whose response, said Urso, was "I learned something today that I did not know."

Millsfield's request has the support of Woodburn, who, in addition to being a lawmaker, is a writer who as recently as 2010 in a piece in the New Hampshire Business Review, recounted the history of early voting in New Hampshire with a particular focus on Dixville Notch.

Dixville Notch, Woodburn wrote, "stands in the annals of political history because of a mixture of Yankee practicality, dead-pan pageantry, civic vitality and brilliant branding. More than anything, it is a testament to its creator, Neil Tillotson, a famous entrepreneur, industrialist, centenarian and long known as the first-voter."

Tillotson died in 2001 at the age of 101. Since then, the Balsams Grand Hotel Resort has seen a period of decline, and in 2011, the Tillotson family sold the hotel to new owners who hope to revitalize it.

The current situation at the Balsams, which has been closed now for almost three years, makes voting there challenging, Woodburn said in a telephone interview Friday, adding that while he doesn't know a lot about Millsfield's early-voting history, he endorses the township's effort to bring it back in 2016.

Hart's Location is a real town, he said, and Millsfield, though a township, is a community where people work and live, as opposed to the Balsams, whose voting was "all masterminded by Mr. Tillotson and the hotel."

The voting in Millsfield would be "much more of an organic process where there was no marketing involved, just people getting together," said Woodburn, and for that reason, "I think it's a good idea."

Sonja Sheldon looks forward to the prospect of Millsfield and the Peace of Heaven B & B hosting the 2016 presidential primary voting, saying, "I'm 76 and I don't know how many more years the good Lord is going to give me."

Mark Dindorf, who is the chairman of the Hart's Location Board of Selectmen, on Saturday wished Millsfield well and echoed Urso's point that there is no competition for early-voting bragging rights.

"I encourage any community that feels it can muster 100 percent of its voters to go ahead and do the midnight vote. It's a great opportunity to promote full participation in the election process."

Dindorf said Hart's Location will maintain its own special place in New Hampshire's political history, regardless of what may happen in Millsfield.

For the record, in Hart's Location, "midnight voting began in 1948, when the railroad workers in the town were not able to get to the polls during regular election hours, so it made sense to convene the voting at midnight," said Dindorf. The tradition initially lasted 16 years, he said, when it was suspended "because at that time, the eight residents were feeling unduly hounded by the press and the media."

Woodburn's article in the NHBR describes how, in the lead-up to the 1960 presidential primary, the campaign staff of Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy was so obsessed with capturing every vote in Hart's Location that they sent each voter "an autographed photo of Kennedy," as well as canvassing them regularly.

Woodburn wrote that a month before the vote, however, "a minor bill breezed through the (New Hampshire Legislature) giving the unincorporated town of Dixville the rights to organize as a town for the sole purpose of voting."

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