The most celebrated `six myles' of US history

YOU might well wonder what was left to celebrate. Less than 10 years ago Concord had borne the brunt of the nation's bicentennial celebrations -- playing host to more than 100,000 visitors, the three national networks, a hillful of student protesters, and President Gerald R. Ford, who was rather ignominiously heckled during his commemorative stroll across Old North Bridge.

Just a hundred years earlier, Concord had served as the nation's celebratory epicenter for the 1875 centennial. During more solemn moments President Grant was sent tumbling to the turf when the ceremonial platform collapsed. Twice.

Hadn't this town had enough? Apparently not.

To break up the century-long lulls between celebrations of the nation's history, Concord throws itself a party. Every 50 years, on Sept. 12, the nation's oldest inland settlement commemorates the purchase in 1635 of ``six myles of land square'' from the local Indian population.

That initial real estate transaction makes Concord a good five years older than its historic rival, Lexington -- although nobody really makes much of that old hatchet, since Judge Ebenezer Hoar declared in 1875 that ``there was glory enough to go around.''

And it makes this year Concord's 350th anniversary.

``It's our birthday -- for us, the town of Concord,'' says David Little, author, amateur town historian, and lifelong Concord resident.

``Concord has a very long history before [the American Revolution] and a very long history after. That deserves to be recognized,'' says Annabelle Shepherd, chairman of the board of selectmen.

``Concord is the oldest community in America beyond the tidewater,'' says Richard Frese, chairman of the 350 celebration. ``We very much wanted to keep this a local celebration.''

And so it was.

After two years of planning and $28,000 in local fund raising (bolstered by about $22,000 in tax appropriations), Concord's celebration culminated in enough red-white-and-blue bunting to dress up Main Street like a bandbox -- and in a week's worth of festivities that were purposely not news-media events: a citizens' lunch, a bean supper, an interfaith church service, a couple of dedications. Not much to interest out-of-towners. Even the TV cameras were rented.

Predictably, the biggest crowd (about 50,000, according to local police estimates -- the largest since the bicentennial) showed up for the pancake breakfast and anniversary parade Saturday morning, a full 50 floats gliding down Main Street under a sun-licked September sky. But even these spectators were mostly local folks from neighboring towns: Acton, Lexington, and the like.

Charlie Manion, a longtime local resident (``I shouldn't say this, but I was born in Acton''), is happy to set the record straight. ``Let's be honest. Concord is America. It did start the thing here.''

Indeed, to talk to Concord residents is to tap wellsprings of civic pride that one might normally expect to find only during Fourth of July celebrations.

``I'm still so happy my grandparents came here [from Ireland],'' says Charles Byron, one of six generations of Concord residents. ``I live in the same house my grandfather built in 1895.''

The reasons for such grass-roots enthusiasm run the gamut from escalating property values to pride in local history to simple enjoyments of small-town life.

``Concord is unique,'' says Mr. Frese, an associate professor of government at Bentley College, in nearby Waltham. ``It doesn't have any one point of history, but really 31/2 centuries of it -- Colonial, Revolutionary War, and 19th-century.''

``Concord isn't just a bedroom community, its a viable working town,'' says Renee Garrelick, a local writer and author of the recent ``Concord in the Days of Strawberries and Streetcars.''

``There is a tangible sense of the past within this town,'' she says, standing in the afternoon twilight on the Old North Bridge, the sight of the ``shot heard round the world'' -- which was fired on April 19, 1775, and launched the entire nation on its new course of history. Nearly a century after that seminal skirmish, Concord again made history when a covey of local citizens, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, ushered in a stirring era of American philosophical an d literary enlightenment.

It is the kind of past that bumps cheek by jowl into the present. Besides the Old North Bridge, Concord's environs are dotted with the kind of historic buildings -- Emerson's home, Alcott's estate, Nathaniel Hawthorne's house, among others -- that make civics teachers' eyes light up.

But in town, on the old Milldam (the site of the original Indian fishing weir, now known as Main Street), there is a brand-new Benetton knitwear shop, a computer consulting firm, and more than a few clothing boutiques and storefront real estate offices. Most of the original shops, tailors, shoe repairers, and the like have migrated to the less-upscale village of West Concord. And in the outlying areas, Concord's original farmland (famous for asparagus, strawberries, and dairy cattle) is rapidly being sn apped up by local developers. Some of Concord's municipal requirements have been called ``snob zoning.'' While these kinds of changes do not go unnoticed, local historians like Mrs. Garrelick and Mr. Little put them in perspective.

``Concord has traditionally been the kind of town that the people who worked in town could [afford to] live in the town. Now the term gentrification is being used in some residential areas,'' Garrelick says. ``But historically, Concord has always had a base of professional people.''

``The biggest change in town came at the end of the first war, when the number of commuters increased when they put the train in,'' says Little. ``But the saving grace has been that these people have always worked for the town, too. The people here are not spectators.

``The characteristic of Concord that has always impressed me is that the people made up their minds to do something, and they did it. There was none of this wringing of hands. After the Civil War, when the country was full of sculptors, here in Concord we said, `Who in town can we get to do [our statue]?' And Louisa May Alcott suggested Dan French, whose largest statue at that point had been a squirrel. But he said, `Sure,' and now his work is at the Old North Bridge and down in Washington [at the Linco ln Memorial].

``It's the way we are being responsible citizens, pulling our own weight, treating each other with respect. We're not a community of saints, but the idea is there, and it's enough to live up to it.''

Later that evening, Little would walk the five blocks from his house into town to give the keynote speech during that evening's anniversary ceremony. Quite possibly it was the most quietly stirring moment of the week. Hundreds of residents, swaddled in winter coats against the autumn evening's chill, gathered on the town green to hear him, in the glare of the (rented) TV lights, quote their fellow citizen, Mr. Emerson: ``God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.'' The applause is muted only b y the necessary mittens and gloves.

This is followed by the piping sound of the local fife-and-drum corps, as the crowd turns and watches the tricorn-hatted Concord Minutemen silently raise the American flag. At the appropriate moment, George Simmons, the oldest member of the Minutemen corps, throws the switch on the town's gift to itself -- four brand-new floodlights illuminating the flag ``around the clock.'' This time there is no applause. Just the upturned faces of the citizens of Concord singing the national anthem on their own town green.

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