When Keene residents extol the benefits of life in the Elm City, they’re probably envisioning exactly the type of weekend we just experienced.
Once last week’s rain cleared up on Friday, fine early summer weather settled in on the region, bringing sunshine and warmth, offset by a breeze that kept things from getting too hot and muggy. It was the sort of weekend one would hope for anytime, perfect for a stroll about the city and well-suited to showing off the architecture and landscaping of an iconic New England downtown.
The weather, though, was simply a bonus added to the broader weekend festivities — two one-time events that showed off what truly makes Keene special.
The big draw was the Magical History Tour, featuring dozens of artists — the “Walldogs” — from across the globe memorializing the city’s history in 16 murals throughout the downtown. Buttressed by live music, dance and other performances; exhibits; an art auction; food offerings; and an artisan market, the event brought hundreds, if not thousands, to the city on Saturday.
Several years of planning and execution by a host of local volunteers went into the event. What will come out of it is twofold.
First, there’s the reminder that this is the type of downtown activity Keene ought to be striving toward. Even during Wednesday and Thursday’s rain, the area was bustling with activity, which only increased Friday and Saturday. There was a happy hum, with pockets of conversation throughout the length of Main Street and across Central Square.
Then there is the more-enduring result: the 16 beautiful murals capturing the spirit and history of the city and region. For more than two decades, visitors to downtown Keene have paused to gawk at and remark upon the Parrish Shoes mural that adorns the side of Miranda’s on Main. That artwork, though it depicts a fictional business, is a part of the city’s history, both in that shoe manufacturing was a major industry here once, and, of course, serving as a reminder of the city’s brush with fame as the setting for the film “Jumanji.”
The new murals, we suspect, will also become popular spots to stop and get a photo, while educating onlookers about real-life history-makers of the area — of seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who gave his life protecting a young black girl during the civil rights movement; early animal rights activist Jennie Powers; educator Catharine Fiske, who founded the Young Ladies Seminary in what is now the president’s house at Keene State College; artist Barry Faulkner, a muralist in his own right; Dr. Albert Johnston, a longtime local physician who opened eyes when, in 1941, he revealed he was half black; and Clarence DeMar, winner of seven Boston Marathons.
They’ll serve as reminders of the historical importance to the region of the Ashuelot River, the Abenaki tribe, land conservation, Keene State College, the railroad and baseball. And they’ll note some prominent businesses — the Wyman Tavern, Kingsbury Corp., The Sentinel and Trinity Bicycle — that have made their mark on the city.
Hopefully, the murals will serve as prompts, generating interest in the history of the city and what’s made it the community it is today.
Sunday, as the Walldogs were packing up after a busy few days, another event took place that also both celebrates the community and its history, with an eye toward the future. The Keene Public Library dedicated its new and revamped space.
The project, which we’ve described on this page and elsewhere, drew more than 100 people to the upgraded Heberton Hall performance space and for tours and related events. That building has now been fully incorporated into the main library, connected via a new atrium.
The $8.8 million project, also years in the making, was every bit, perhaps even more so, the result of a widespread community effort. And even if it doesn’t draw tourists, it will continue to be a vital part of the community moving forward and will surely be of importance to businesses and people considering moving to the region.
All in all, even without the weather’s cooperation, it would have been a beautiful weekend in Keene.