New England towns, even the smallest, have a distinct quality. They have deep roots in a long past. We share this with communities in Europe, and it makes us different than most of the United States. To live in New England is to live in history.

Every building, every road, every body of water, every landmark has its own story. Even things that are relatively new can have complicated stories. Yet so many of these stories are forgotten, or disregarded. We make substantial investments of money, time and work in things like homes, businesses, institutions and land, and often we know very little about them.

For example, if you're a homeowner, there was probably a title search done on your property before you closed the sale. But do you know everything about everyone who lived in your house before you bought it? Do you know exactly where your property lines are, how your house came to be built in the first place, what was on that land before the house was built?

Odds are very high that you don't. I'm not criticizing, mind: I don't know all that about my house. Most people don't. Something breaks, or gets dug up, or stops working, and that's when you start digging through records and finding things out.

Homes--built, inherited, foreclosed on, purchased, where people live and were born and died within their walls, assets that determine, more than anything else, a family's class and wealth--homes are complicated enough. Winchendon has several thousand of them, each one with its own history.

But Winchendon is also full of commercial and public buildings with even more complicated histories, that are also forgotten until for some reason, the building is brought to our attention--usually because an expensive problem has appeared.

What I've noticed, in several decades of participating in the business of small New England towns, is how hard it can be to get a comprehensive picture of a decision being placed before voters. To give a recent example: in the past few months, an incredible amount of time and money has gone into researching just exactly what happened to Mellen Road that led to three dozen valuable new homes ending up on a road the owners thought was a town way and the town thought was not. People have pored through years of meeting minutes and read the Byzantine legalese in deeds and the Massachusetts General Laws, and the story still isn't complete.

At Annual Town Meeting in three weeks, voters will be asked to approve funds for repairs to the Old Murdock Senior Center. Here, again, is a long, long story that few people in town know very well, and which isn't easy to simply look up. Past decisions to close the building, leave it empty and unused for years, reopen it with a new purpose, renovate it, lock it in to a preservation restriction in exchange for state funding...each decision was considered by the town, brought before Town Meeting, voted on by voters. But how do voters in 2020, who didn't grow up in Winchendon, place this building in perspective? Without this perspective, how can they fairly judge whether investing in the building is important?

Part of my objective in publishing the Courier is to illuminate the past as well as current events. Last fall, for example, shortly after By Light Unseen Media took over this digital newspaper, I ran a piece about the White Freezer building that was being demolished on Lincoln Avenue Extension, talking about its history and the role it once played in town.

But not everyone can read the Courier. I've lived in towns where each Article at Town Meeting was introduced by some person who rose and gave voters a capsule summary of the general history of the situation and why the question is being placed before voters now. The town didn't assume that every voter present had been keeping up with all the town board meetings and previous steps that led to this point, and it didn't wait for someone to ask for an explanation.

Winchendon tends not to do this. The motion is made and the floor is opened for discussion, but in many cases there isn't an explanation unless someone asks. Winchendon voters often think, "the Board of Selectmen and FinCom recommend it, I'm good," and vote yes. But not always. This has led to votes that didn't turn out well for the town.

It would be ideal if all voters kept up with what's happening in town, but many people work long hours, have families to raise, and can't watch town board and committee meetings on Channel 8 or research the back story of every Warrant article. The town needs to meet the voters halfway. Toy Towners will be more likely to come to Town Meeting when they believe that the town really cares about what they think and how they vote.

Inanna Arthen