`Our Town' in our times

ON the whole, things don't change much around here.'' So spoke the ``stage manager'' in Thornton Wilder's play ``Our Town,'' summing up the bucolic serenity of fictitious Grover's Corners. On the surface, the same line could seem a snug fit for Peterborough, the place that served, at least partly, as a model for Wilder's play about small-town America. The first few miles of Route 101 after the ``Welcome to Peterborough -- a good town to live in'' sign are nothing but pristine woods. Just before turning onto Grove Street toward the town center, however, one gets a slight jolt: a rather typical, minor-league shopping plaza on the left, a sign of change if ever there was one.

But downtown Peterborough reverberates to ``Our Town.'' The Grand Army of the Republic Hall with its Civil War batteries and stacks of cannon balls; the red brick town hall (a latter-day replica of Boston's Faneuil Hall); the spired Unitarian Church, based on plans developed by the famous 19th-century architect Charles Bulfinch; the hoary gray stone assemblage of stores and offices known as the ``Granite Block.''

True, the American Guernsey Cattle Club up the hill on Union Street is being refitted as a headquarters for McGraw-Hill's computer magazines, Byte and Popular Computing. To the eye, nonetheless, this remains a downtown to warm any American's heart.

The eye, however, can be a poor judge. As any of the town's leading citizens will tell you, Peterborough has experienced plenty of change, and it continues to feel the pressures for growth and development that beset communities in any economically vital region of the country. And right now, Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire are riding high, with plentiful new industry and low unemployment.

Peterborough, tucked in the hilly Monadnock region of New Hampshire, has long been showcased in the news media as the epitome of small-town life. It could now serve equally well as a microcosmic example of how an American community balances tradition and change amid the swirl of today's so-called information society.

Growth is something the town has both courted, through the now-dormant Peterborough Industrial Development Corporation, and fended off, through town planning.

``I'm very proud of the fact that Peterborough has addressed this question responsibly and firmly for many, many years,'' says Paul Cummings, publisher and until recent years editor of the Transcript, by far the more venerable of the town's two weekly newspapers. Mr. Cummings has been an active observer of, and participant in, the town's planning efforts since the end of World War II. He's been a member of the planning board for over 20 years.

``But I tell you it wasn't easy to get these things on the books -- the rules and regulations,'' Mr. Cummings continues, tracing the evolution of the local planning ordinances that have shaped Peterborough's 30-year expansion from a sleepy village of 2,500 to today's town of 5,000 -- a bubbly mix of ``clean'' industry, pleasing architecture, and cultural amenities. ``We accepted change as inevitable, but took steps to retain what every town wants -- the character of the town, the fresh air.''

As publisher Cummings indicates, the steps were sometimes arduous, Richard Fernald, longtime chairman of the planning board, vividly recalls his first impressions on coming to the town as a young lawyer in the late 1950s. ``I got to know the community and was flabbergasted to find they had no zoning,'' he says. EVEN then some of Peterborough's more alert citizens were aware of the ``Route 128 pressures'' -- a reference to the beltway around Boston and its lush growth of high-tech industry. ``We knew development was heading this way,'' says this small-town lawyer, who clearly has a firm grasp of the larger world encompassing his town.

Development was, and still is, stalking Peterborough. What most concerned Mr. Fernald and others two decades ago has happened just over the mountain in booming Nashua, N.H. -- endless ``strip development'' of fastfood outlets, car dealerships, and miscellaneous retailing. If you want to get people in Peterborough excited, the saying now goes, just say the word ``McDonald's.''

But that kind of sensitivity still lay ahead in 1965, when the community's first zoning proposal was roundly defeated in town meeting. After that, says Fernald, the proponents of zoning got a little more wily. They realized that compromise was the order of the day. Instead of an ordinance mandating single-family dwellings in the town's residential district, they proposed a rule allowing two-family residences anywhere in the town. That eased concern that so-called ``in-law'' suites would be outlawed. In 1970 a zoning measure was proposed again, and it passed, albeit narrowly.

The town is now confronting its toughest decision in years: whether to rezone large holdings from rural to residential so that a local developer can build 200 to 300 new homes. That proposal, sweetened by the developer's offer to foot the bill for extending water and sewerage lines, will bring a storm of controversy to little Peterborough, predicts Cummings. What you have to remember, he says, is that every poll the planning board has ever taken indicates that, above all, people here don't want their town to change.

But that doesn't mean that everyone is satisfied with all aspects of the planning process. Peterborough has more than a few development-minded folk.

A short distance off Route 202 in adjacent Hancock, N.H., sits the new headquarters of Wayne Green Publishing, a seedbed for specialized magazines which is sprouting such journalistic newcomers as Digital Audio (for owners of compact disc sound systems) and Pico (a magazine zeroing in on briefcase-size computers).

The creator of all this, entrepreneur Wayne Green, refers to it matter-of-factly as ``probably the most modern publishing plant in the world.'' Mr. Green brought his ham radio magazine to town 23 years ago. As ham radio declined, he shifted his energies toward computers and founded Byte, a mainstay of high-tech publishing. He eventually lost control of Byte but never lost his entrepreneurial momentum.

By most accounts, Green's relationship with Peterborough has a distinctly bittersweet quality. Sweet, in that Green, like the majority of people hereabouts, is given to unaffected praise of his community. Bitter, in that he has not always been happy with the planning board's dictates. For instance, he would have liked to set up his new publishing plant in Peterborough itself, but says he wasn't able to buy suitable commercial property there. The planning board, he says, is sometimes run ``in a pretty arbitrary way.''

Having said that, Green quickly adds that he can see what happens when there is no control over growth, as in nearby Nashua and Milford, N.H. ``So I can live with it,'' he concludes with a smile.

Businesses like Wayne Green's, Brookstone, the well-known mail-order tool concern, and Eastern Mountain Sports have brought a lot of new and younger residents to Peterborough. In addition, a fair number of younger families live here and commute to Nashua, and a few even brave the hour-plus drive to the Route 128 area near Boston. But according to most observers here, this hasn't meant a ``Yuppie invasion,'' as is sometimes reported. IN fact, some local merchants were ``misled'' by such reports, says Mary Roe, a former Transcript editor. The example everyone mentions is Derby's, the department store that used to be the anchor of the downtown shopping area. As Mrs. Roe tells it, Derby's was bought out by new owners who exchanged its traditional, general-store line of goods for more upscale offerings, gearing for a Yuppie clientele that never materialized. The store went out of business last fall, though the name ``Derby's'' is still affixed to the present furniture business in the building. Essentially, Peterborough remains a ``homogeneous'' mix of young and old, says Cummings. There's diversity, as the dozen or more churches in town attest. But there's also a relatively intact social fabric, according to the Transcript's owner. Crime is hardly unknown in Peterborough, but the ``town has never been a place of great civil discontent,'' Cummings says.

``It's a `WASP-ish' type of community,'' he says, leaning back in his office chair. ``We don't try to hide that, and we don't think upon that as a negative factor. That's the way it is.''

To that degree, perhaps, the observation of the stage manager in ``Our Town'' holds true.

Because of a proofreading lapse in the the July 9 paper, the last line was inadvertently dropped from a Page 18 article on Peterborough, N.H., headlined `` `Our Town' in our times.'' The final paragraph should have read: ``To that degree, perhaps, the observation of the stage manager in `Our Town' holds true.''

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