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Local group aims to enhance Acworth veterans memorial

Keene Sentinel - 7/8/2018

July 08--ACWORTH -- A local group of veterans and their spouses is spearheading an effort to create a new veterans memorial in town.

The Acworth Memorial Park Committee formed shortly after the town's sestercentennial celebration in August 2017, when a number of residents started talking with one another about the state of the veterans memorial near town hall.

Jennifer Bland, the committee's vice chairwoman, said she and others were struck not only by its spareness but by the poor condition in which they found it.

"It was kind of overgrown," Bland said. "No one was taking care of it."

The memorial consists of four distinct parts: a large rock with a plaque dedicated to Acworth residents who served in World War I, as well as three smaller pieces that pay tribute to veterans of the first Gulf War; the victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001; and Acworth service members in general.

These pieces are loosely arranged around a flag pole, which stands between two granite benches on a patch of grass near Charlestown Road.

Bland's husband, David, served in both the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army. She said she feels a strong motivation to properly honor that commitment, as well as the sacrifices made by other Acworth veterans over the past two centuries.

"We've had prisoners of war, and we've had people who were killed in battle," Bland said. "I just feel like if you served this country and fought for our freedoms, then there should be something that pays tribute to you."

Among those leading the charge for a new memorial is Gregg Thibodeau.

Thibodeau served in the Army National Guard for 25 years. A Maine native, he moved to Acworth from South Windsor, Conn., in 2011, eager to get back to the sort of rural surroundings in which he was raised.

Thibodeau has served as chairman of the Acworth Memorial Park Committee since its inception.

"What really caught me was the rich, rich history that Acworth has, coupled with my love for the people who go beyond what's asked of them to support this country," he said. "If you can marry those two things -- bring out the history of the town, as well as commemorate our vets -- I think that's just a big win for the town."

Before this past Memorial Day, committee members and other volunteers got started on a beautification project, planting flowers and putting down mulch around the granite benches. They also rearranged some of the memorial's smaller pieces.

Their efforts helped transform those disparate parts into a more cohesive unit, Thibodeau said. But he and other committee members still feel the memorial is insufficient and oddly detached from Acworth's wartime history.

Committee members have been working closely with a town historian, Helen Frink, to uncover some of that history, poring over collections at the Acworth Silsby Library, according to Thibodeau.

One of the great surprises, he said, was that 115 Acworth residents fought in the American Revolution.

"The town had just over 300 people living in it at that time, so it was pretty much every able-bodied male who fought in the Revolutionary War," he said.

Thibodeau estimated that somewhere between 350 and 500 people have served in the military while listing Acworth as their place of residence. He said the new memorial will include as many of their names as he and other committee members can uncover.

Ironically, Thibodeau noted, some of the most detailed information he's come across derives from the earliest American conflicts.

"They did a tremendous job in documenting the payroll of the soldiers in those days," he explained. "You can even tell whether they were injured, killed in action or died afterwards."

In the months ahead, Thibodeau plans to reach out to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as contacts he made during his years in the military, for more information.

The committee has set a fundraising target of $80,000 for the project and created a PayPal account to collect online donations.

So far, Thibodeau said, committee members have raised about $5,000 through grants and individual donations. They're planning an antiques sale on the town green in September, as well as a veterans lunch in November.

Meanwhile, the group has been working on designs with Dean Gowen, a New York-based landscape architect who grew up in Acworth.

"He was absolutely thrilled to hear we were doing something here," Thibodeau said.

Gowen's parents -- Gordon and Elizabeth Gowen, who own Tamarack Farm in South Acworth -- are also members of the committee.

According to Bland, the design will likely supplement the existing memorial rather than replace it.

"I don't foresee us removing that, because it would take away from what someone else has done," she said.

Thibodeau said the new structure will pay homage to its location, noteworthy for its rich mining history. Like Alstead and Gilsum, Acworth was once known for its deposits of feldspar, beryl and mica, according to Frink.

"We like the idea of using stones from the town and not having some manufactured, polished look like a gravestone," Thibodeau said. "We want to make it unique to Acworth."

Bland echoed those sentiments, saying the committee was inclined toward an unadorned, natural look.

"We want something that's going to complement the area," she said. "We want it to reflect Acworth and all of its beauty."

Meanwhile, committee members are busy eyeing examples in nearby communities like Newport and Walpole, as well as places farther afield.

Thibodeau said he and others are planning a trip to the N.H. State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen.

"In the photos we've seen, they look outstanding," Thibodeau said of memorials at the cemetery. "We've heard from folks who have been there, so we want to take the committee on a field trip out and maybe collect some ideas."

While Thibodeau estimates that the design process will wrap in mid-August, he said the project as a whole will probably take two to three years.

He added that he would like to coordinate some of the major phases with the town's Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations.

According to Bland, that kind of community engagement is an essential part of the group's mission.

"Everybody on this committee loves this town and has some tie to past war veterans," she said. "It means something to all of them. It's something everybody in this town feels very deeply about."

William Holt can be reached at 352-1234 extension 1435, or wholt@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @WHoltKS.

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(c)2018 The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.)

Visit The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.) at www.sentinelsource.com

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