Historical markers across US give travelers a glimpse of America's past

Thomas Morton must have been quite a nuisance to his fellow citizens.

In 1627, the story goes, this ''merry Englishman'' set up a Maypole, named the site Merrymount, and ''dispensed good cheer.'' But the local Puritans, ''scandalized by his revels and endangered by his arms traffic with the Indians, '' deported him and cut down the Maypole.

This brief glimpse of history is related on a historical marker beside a busy street here in Quincy. Thousands of people pass it daily. But only a few ever stop to read it, according to the woman whose house is nearest to the marker.

Indeed, hundreds of thousands of such historical vignettes are commemorated on signs, plaques, and other types of markers in the United States. And, like the Morton marker here, many - if not most - are ignored by passers-by.

The marker industry is currently humming along at what might be called a historic pace. In fact, new developments in the field may be just around the corner.

Some states are looking into the feasibility of erecting bilingual markers. Others are finding that for too long they have ignored a rich source of history - the black community - and are moving to recognize its contributions. Still others are considering moving hidden markers to more accessible sites.

''When you get into the marker business, you have a peculiar problem,'' says John Scafidi of the Florida Department of Archives. ''They're very popular. . . . Our main concern is that by marking a historical site - like an Indian burial ground - it not be destroyed.''

Florida has roughly 280 historical markers, the most recent of which went up in the city of Fort Myers last April. But that number puts the state almost in the minor leagues. Texas claims to have between 8,000 and 9,000 and puts up as many as 300 new ones a year, according to Claire Williams, research director of the state historical commission. And, she says, just wait until the Texas sesquicentennial in 1986.

Pennsylvania is erecting 67 new markers - one in each county seat - to commemorate its 300th birthday. The state now has more than 2,000 in all.

Recently, says George Beyer of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the state has begun to honor nonmilitary and nonpolitical personalities, such as novelist John O'Hara and black folk painter Horace Pippin.

Wisconsin, which has one of the most widely admired marker programs, limits its selection to events, sites, or persons of statewide significance. The markers are set in roadside rest areas, which are advertised well by highway signs. Last year, says marker program coordinator Larry Reed, the state erected four signs, and two more are due soon.

California, which has one of the oldest programs in the country, encourages local groups to sponsor markers at registered historical sites - as a tax write-off. Sandra Elder of the state office of historical preservation says she expects to place at least two new orders in the coming weeks.

West Virginia has indicated it is in the market for as many as 40 new markers in the next few years.

All this is good news to the companies that manufacture historical markers - usually at costs of $700 to $1,000 each. Rose Nardo, sales manager of Lake Shore Markers in Erie, Pa., says business is best in the months leading up to Memorial Day and Independence Day because those are the most popular occasions for historical dedication ceremonies.

Lloyd Thomas, a partner in Sewah Studios of Marietta, Ohio, the industry leader, says almost all markers today are made of cast aluminum because of its ability to resist weathering and low scrap value if stolen. Even though customers want only one copy of each marker, he says ''it's impossible to even estimate'' the number his firm has produced in its 35 years in business - and markers are its only product. Georgia alone features 2,000 Sewah markers, he claims.

That merry Englishman, Thomas Morton, would probably be pleased to think that somebody cared enough to stop and read his story.

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