When you’re just driving by, they all look pretty much the same.
“The green and white markers everyone sees around our highways; to mark important events, important people, important things about New Hampshire.”
But Elizabeth Muzzey, who directs the state’s Division of Historical resources, says when you look a little closer, you find each of the state’s 236 historical markers tells a unique story.
There’s one in New Ipswich marking the first textile mill.
And there’s one in Claremont at the site of the state’s first Roman Catholic Church.
There’s even one in Lincoln marking a reported UFO abduction.
But more on that later.
Muzzey says the markers are an easily visible way for people to understand and share the state’s history.
“Some people might think marker programs are a bit of a throwback. We hear about now, ‘Well, you should just have an app for that,’” she says. “And we’ve thought about that, whether we could put the markers on an app. It’s still evolving technology. Just about everybody can still pull over on the side of the road and read a marker.”
Well, it starts with a person or group asking for one.
First, they need a petition signed by at least 20 people.
“We do ask people to do research. We ask them to send copies of their research in so we can do a fact check on it and be comfortable that this is accurate to the degree we know now.”
Then, they’ll work together on the marker’s text, making sure it’s not just accurate, but can actually fit on the space allotted.
Standard format is up to 12 lines of text.
“That’s sort of a challenge to really distil an idea down that’s both meaningful and the right size.”
Once finalized, the process moves to the Department of Transportation.
Matt LaBrake with the DOT says the order goes out to a company in Ohio called Sewah Studios, where the markers are made.
“And they’re manufactured by hot aluminum being poured on sand.”
They cost about $1,800 – paid for either by the DOT or through money raised by the marker’s sponsor – and usually take a couple months for them to come back.
Once it’s ready, LaBrake says the DOT reaches out the person or group requesting the marker.
“There would be a contact going out to them and they would meet with our field sign foreman to determine where the sign would be located. And then they put a mark in the ground. The guys will dig safe it and put it up.”
And the program keeps expanding.
Just last month, marker number 236 was unveiled in Concord, on the campus of New Hampshire Technical Institute, just in front of its soccer field.
This marker recognizes the Pennacook, a Native American tribe that had a settlement on the land.
Students worked with a history professor to get the sign approved.
Megan Splitoir is president of the student senate.
“As far as the importance of the history of the land, knowing the Native Americans, the tribe, the importance of this property,” she says. “To be able to commemorate that, I think that’s the most interesting part for me.”
For student Liz Charlebois, the marker has personal meaning.
She’s the education director at the Mount Kearsarge Indian Museum and is of Native American descent.
“Historical markers are kind of a hot topic right now, especially in New Hampshire right now with the Native Americans and Hannah Dustin memorial and island in Boscawen. It was nice to see that something positive didn’t have to be fought for tooth and nail.”
The state’s marker program began in 1958 through an act of the Legislature.
Muzzey says the markers have become an attraction for many and has sparked competition for some.
“We hear from motorcycle clubs, we hear from bicycle clubs, we hear from photographers. It’s like climbing all the 4,000 footers in New Hampshire. It’s a definable list, you can hit them all. You learn great things along the way and see interesting places.”
One Granite Stater who’s become fascinated with the markers is Marek Bennett, a cartoonist and runs a blog called Live Free and Draw.
“I started pulling over and snapping a picture when I passed one and looking it up afterwards, looking into the stories behind them. I found you’re just constantly driving by these great stories.”
Based on those stories, Bennett draws cartoons for his blog.
One of his favorites is the Historic Handshake, marker number 188 in Claremont.
“It says, you know, ‘Here on this site, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich shook hands, and it was carried – and it’s very quaint the way it says it – and it was carried on headlines on the major newspapers across the country.’”
You can find a pretty amusing cartoon recreating that moment on Bennett’s blog.
So, back to the marker about the UFO abduction.
The Betty and Barney Hill incident in Lincoln is marker number 224.
As the story goes, they experienced a close encounter in September of 1961, losing two hours of time while driving south on Route 3.
According to the marker, it was the first widely reported UFO abduction in the country.
Muzzey says that particular marker presented a bit of a challenge.
“It certainly kicked off a widespread late 20th century interest in UFOs and is there life elsewhere in the universe. So what Barney and Betty Hill did was historically important. We’re just not saying for sure…exactly what happened.”
Some markers occasionally go missing and have to be replaced.
And once in a while, the language on a marker may even have to be changed.
“There have been mistakes on markers throughout New Hampshire or at least additional information and research has been gathered on topics. So we’ve learned to be pretty careful about what we put on those markers.”
She says the marker program will keep growing, as long as the people of New Hampshire continue to have a passion for their history.
A handful of new markers go up each year.
And Muzzey says she’s looking forward to seeing what part of history will be marked next.
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View NH Historical Highway Markers in a larger map
NOTE: Bright green place markers on the map indicate the most recently installed markers.