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Before Benoit's gold medal

LISTING the achievements of certain graduates, Bowdoin College has just mentioned two that are worth our regard. The winning of a gold medal in the initial women's Olympic marathon race by Joan Benoit, Class of 1979, was easily a first, and had all Bowdoin folks yelling at their television sets. The other achievement was more modestly enumerated among the honors that had come to Philip S. Wilder, Class of 1923, late assistant to the college's president - Mr. Wilder had served as a fence viewer in the town of Brunswick. This, too, will be a first, since heretofore the office of fence viewer has not been widely considered that kind of an honor - academic, ecumenical, secular. Mr. Wilder was , indeed, a fence viewer.

In the beginnings of New England town government the fence viewer was one of several ''minor officers'' elected at town meeting - others were the pound keeper, field driver (drover), hog reeve, inspector of hay, and others, including a harbor master in coastal towns. The field driver rounded up stray animals, and the pound keeper held them until owners showed up. The hog reeve specialized in stray swine. The quality of hay was assured by the inspector of hay. The harbor master kept peace along the waterfront and assigned moorings. All these had some constabulary standing, but the board of fence viewers was more like an original court for handling squabbles over line fences. That there were plenty of such squabbles in early days is attested by the volumes of statute and court decisions in the law libraries - Maine has more such than it has on public utilities.

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Later, as things changed and as line fence disputes became resolved and put on record, the duties of the fence viewers declined. Instead of being elected, the fence viewer was appointed by the board of selectmen, and many a town stopped naming him unless a dispute actually arose. Most of the other minor officers passed into limbo, too, although a few carry on - tidal towns still have harbor masters, and since the energy crunch the surveyor of wood and lumber has come into a new importance as the lawful arbiter of how many sticks in a cord of firewood. Long after fence viewing went its way the town of Brunswick sentimentally continued to name three viewers every year, and in the 1930s I, along with Mr. Wilder, served. Being a fence viewer had about the same urgency as belonging to the Guild of Former Pipe Organ Pumpers, being a Kentucky colonel , and holding a commission in the Sudbury Militia. Which is not to say such honors are not wholesome, for I cherish my fence viewing experiences. I am, accordingly, delighted that Bowdoin College has at last recognized fence viewing as a worthy and laudable accomplishment, along with military service, honorary degrees from Harvard, efforts at charity fund raising, social leadership, and many another at which my friend Phil Wilder excelled.

Phil, like me, never really acted as a fence viewer in official capacity. Fence viewers are not surveyors; they care nothing about the location of a line fence. They look the situation over and decide on a fair division between neighbors. When Robert Frost poeticized that good fences make good neighbors, he ignored the corollary - that good neighbors make good fences. If serenity prevails, fence viewers are unnecessary. But if two can't agree, and call in the fence viewers, these worthies will come in a quasi-judicial manner. They may call for a 50-50 share - each man to fence half the line. But if one man has a ''poor chance,'' as through a swamp, and the other has trees handy-by for posts, they may say an even share runs a quarter that way and three-quarters the other. For this service, fence viewers in Maine were allowed a statutory fee of $3 per diem.

And it so happened that a couple of farmers down on the Mere Point road got into a line fence fight, and Police Chief Billy Edwards suggested they stop throwing rocks and call in the fence viewers. Dismayed at the thought of functioning, the fence viewers approached the farmers and suggested they shake hands. Our best argument, I think, was that we might stretch our one golden opportunity out to two-three months, and run up our fees to as much as $500. No telling, we said, how far a fence viewer might trot if given his head. This scared them off, so we served inactively.

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