Saturday, July 23, 2011

Marlow (#122) 5K: Happy 250th Birthday!

It was the biggest birthday cake I've seen all year. Unfortunately, it was made of plywood. But there it was, as big as a hot tub turned inside out, sitting on a wagon and waiting to be pulled by a tractor in the parade honoring the 250th birthday of Marlow, N.H., population about 750.

But first there was a 5K road race to run -- a rare one-time-only event, presumably, in a town I never expected to get. So I hauled myself the 90 minutes up to Marlow to bag it.

Marlow is another one of those towns I used to write about while working as a local news reporter in this part of the state. My big hurrah, I remember, was reporting the 50th anniversary of the Great Marlow Forest Fire of 1941, which started in Marlow and burned most of three towns, but miraculously missed Marlow's historic village area. (It's pictured above.)

Speaking of pictures, dopey me forgot to bring the camera today, which was too bad. Not only was there an over-sized plywood cake to photograph, but all sorts of other interesting things, too. How many chances will I have to get so close to an antique hand-operated road-grader?

Marlow is a classic New Hampshire upland rural town in that its history follows a common pattern: established just prior to the Revolution, most of it soon cleared as farmland or pastures, then steady population growth until the Civil War; after that, a slow decline as farms were gradually abandoned for better land beyond New England. Bypassed by the railroad, Marlow developed little real industry, so the population continued to shrink right through the Great Depression. Things finally started perking up after World War II, when better roads put the town within commuting distance of the bustling county seat -- in this case, Keene, N.H.

Marlow's history has one really unusual twist. In 1982, it was the birthplace of PC Connection, Inc., a mail-order computer supply business. The company grew like a weed -- so much so that new phone lines had to be run to the town to handle all the calls coming in.

Soon PC Connection moved into a dilapidated mansion, which the company renovated, restored, and eventually rechristened the Christmas Trees Inn, giving the community a highly visible showpiece (instead of an eyesore) right on Route 10, the main road into town.

PC Connection did right by Marlow, even building homes so employees could there, but it eventually had to move to larger (and less remote) facilities, on its way to becoming a $2 billion company. The inn is still used as a conference center, though it sports a prominent 'Christmas Tree Inn' sign. To prevent confusion, a permanent NO VACANCY sign has been added, which lends a strange aura to it. Not as blatant as KEEP AWAY!, but carries the same feeling.

It's not the only building in Marlow that sports an unusual sign. Jones Hall, where we registered for the road race, carries this placard: BUILT 1792, MOVED 1845, ALTERED 1892, GIVEN 1908.

While waiting for the start, I explored Marlow's impressive war monument, which anchors a triangle-shaped park in front of Jones Hall. Dating from the 'World War' of 1914-18 (no one expected a second one at the time), it features a lifesize doughboy atop a large pedestal, on which are carved names of all Marlow residents who answered their nation's call.

The monument's roll call actually provides a rough snapshot of the town's declining fortunes. A total of 50 names are listed as Revolutionary War veterans (including my favorite, Zebidee Whittemore); then 19 in the War of 1812. This is followed by 44 for the Civil War, then just eight for World War I. (No mention is made of the Spanish-American War.) A plaque added later lists 39 residents as World War II veterans.

What about the road race? A nice and mostly level 5K, including a loop right through a historic cemetery, which if nothing else serves as a good reminder of where we're all headed -- the ultimate finish line. Entrance fee: just $10, yay! Small field, about two dozen runners, plus about same number of walkers. Warm and humid, though not nearly as bad as what we've had recently (temps of 100+) in this part of the world.

Felt tired during warm-up run, and draggy for first half of the race. Not sure why, but the weather is a factor for sure. Sun and humidity slow me down. Even so, surprised to finish in my best 5K time so far this season, breaking the 30-minute barrier. Completed in 29:27. No idea about placement but at least I know I wasn't last.

Had to leave before other town birthday activities took place, including the parade with the birthday cake. My favorite on the schedule: the "town picture" scheduled for 1:15 p.m. at Jones Hall. Say cheese, Marlow!

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