SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ You could say Ernest Hibbard comes from venerable New England stock. You could say he's as dependable as the Connecticut River. You could say he likes community affairs.

But it all falls short of explaining why the 97-year-old retired tobacco farmer has made his annual pilgrimage to Hadley's town meetings for 86 years.

Nothing - not even the annual drone of police and fire chiefs - has deterred Hibbard from his self-appointed rounds.

''My father said I would get more out of that than I would to go to school. I'm sure he was right,'' Hibbard said Friday, the day after he attended this year's meeting.

Hibbard's passion for participation started when his father let him play hooky from school and took him to his first town meeting.

''Johnson of Johnson's bookstore said the town was indebted $2,000 a year ... and he'd like to see the town get out of debt,'' Hibbard said.

He said the town eventually solved its problem, but he kept on going to the annual meetings, putting in his two cents.

''He always spoke at every town meeting. He always added something,'' said William E. Dwyer, a 90-year-old lifelong friend who attended many of those sessions himself.

''I suppose it's that old Yankee feeling of commitment to a community,'' Dwyer said. ''His father was interested in the community, and I know his grandfather before him was, too. So he's part of the community, and he feels it's very important to maintain that heritage.''

Hadley is a rural town of about 900 people 25 miles north of Springfield in the Connecticut River Valley. In this region, it's known as the Pioneer Valley.

As times changed, Hibbard watched the advent of a new local fixture: the town administrator. Dwyer said the meetings are now ''more businesslike.''

''I think the old town meetings used to be a chance to some people to unburden themselves, and I don't think they do as much of that now,'' he said.

On Thursday night, Hibbard took along his own youngster, his 69-year-old son Wallace.

''I guess I've gone with him to most of the town meetings, since - oh, gee - let me see . ... I'm trying to think. I guess I went since I got to be voting age, anyway,'' said his son.

His son said the family's ancestors came to New England in 1620 with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. The elder Hibbard came to the family farm when he was a year old, attended college at Ohio State, and returned to lend a hand when his father went blind.

Hibbard farmed tobacco and vegetables. He founded a trucking company and sold it several years back. He raised two sons and a daughter, and served as a school trustee.

Always, always, he made his appearance at the annual town meeting.

''He was just interested in town affairs, and I guess that's the best way to learn about what's going on,'' suggested his son.

How many more town meetings does Hibbard intend to go to?

''I'm 97,'' he said with a laugh. ''I don't plan on anything.''