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An elfin spirit runs through Keene

The NH state fruit is the pumpkin, thanks to Keene NH schoolchildren.
The NH state fruit is the pumpkin, thanks to Keene NH schoolchildren.

When the world lost Robin Williams, the people in a small town in southwestern New Hampshire lost a friend. To visit Keene is to find the place where, as he filmed Jumanji his elfin spirit made a Robin Williams-sized impression on their hearts. In Keene, you’ll discover that classic New England small town, the one with the bandstand in the middle of the town square and friendly shopkeepers lining Main Street. The seventh largest city in New Hampshire is the place the location scouts for Jumanji and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's “Distinctive Destinations” committee agreed is picture perfect, right down to the bandstand in Central Square at the head of Main Street.

But there's more, much more. Keene is also home to the Guinness World Record for most lighted jack o'lanterns in one place at one time and the third Saturday in October is the day to see for yourself whether the 30,581 record established in 2013 still stands. And to eat pumpkin pie, spit pumpkin seeds, parade in Halloween costume and just generally pumpkin yourself out. (The schoolchildren from Keene successfully petitioned the New Hampshire State Legislature in 2006 to have the pumpkin declared the Official Fruit of New Hampshire.)

Keene made the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of ”America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations” thanks to is commitment to historic preservation, family friendly community spirit, distinctive architecture, cultural diversity and thriving base of small businesses. Taking the cue from the National Trust's commendation for Keene's walkability, what will you find as you stroll down Main Street?

The icon of Keene is the bandstand located in the middle of Central Square (the place that is covered with scaffolding holding all those jack o'lanterns every October). In 1775, local militiamen gathered here before setting out to Boston where they would be among many Granite Staters to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Today the Square is ringed with restaurants, shops and entertainment stretching out along Maine Street. Restaurants range from Lindy's Diner on Gibo Avenue, two blocks from the Square -- a Keene landmark you may have seen as the backdrop for campaigning Presidential candidates to Fireworks in the historic Lane Hotel at 30 Main Street. Nearby is the Colonial Theater at 95 Main Street, listed on the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places, is the venue for films, ballet, plays and concerts ranging in style from classical to acoustic rock.

As you can tell from the variety of shops and entertainment venues, Keene is a college town, thanks to the presence of Keene State College whose students make up a quarter of the populace, along with branches of the Community Technical College system and Franklin Pierce College. The Keene State campus, located off Main Street, southwest of the Square, is home to a variety of venues for performances and lectures that are open to the public. The college's Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, which describes itself as “a cornerstone for the visual arts in New Hampshire's Monadnock Region” is both an exhibit space and a campus-community center presenting programs, lectures, films and slides in concert with its exhibits. The Redfern Arts Center on Brickyard Pond presents professional music, dance and theatre companies as well as student and faculty performances.

Shopping in Keene is a lesson in creative re-use of historic architectural spaces and the joys of shopping with local merchants, from bookshops to farmers markets. The Hannah Grimes Marketplace, an award-winning showcase of New Hampshire-made crafts, food products and specialty items occupies 1,400 renovated square feet of brick and granite space at 42 Main Street. The Marketplace's collections of 250 artisans, craftspeople, cooks and farmers make it easy to support its mission “to position locally crafted and grown products at the heart of this area’s local economy and everyday life.”

While there’s no promise of a rhinoceros galloping down Main Street, if you look closely, you'll see the “Parrish Shoes” sign from Jumanji left from the production. Keene's other wonders are just waiting to be found.

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