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Marietta’s birthday bash draws on history this year, every year

April 2, 2012
By Kate York - The Marietta Times ( , The Marietta Times

Marietta's 224th birthday is only days away, but in a city where history is a top tourist attraction and source of tremendous pride, planning is already underway for a bigger-than-normal 225th bash next year.

"Planning has started for next year," said Washington County Historical Society President Ken Finkel. "We want to do something special to celebrate. If you go back and read the history of the early settlers here, it's a miracle they succeeded in as many endeavors as they did. It was very difficult."

The historical society hosts a Pioneer Day Dinner each year on April 7, the anniversary of Marietta's founding. This year, the speaker will focus on the War of 1812 but next year the group will probably tie in Marietta's big anniversary with another one-the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

"We've tossed around the idea of maybe having a masquerade ball based on the Civil War," Finkel said. "The Civil War will be a main topic in whatever we do."

Jean Yost, who is serving on a 225th birthday committee along with Marietta councilman Michael Mullen and former Ohio representative Nancy Hollister, said specific plans should be announced later this spring.

"We do know that the first event we'll plan will be to celebrate the anniversary of the ordinance of 1787 which stated there would be no slavery in the Northwest Territory and provided public grounds for school and religion," he said.

Fact Box

Q&A: The woman behind the city's special birthday performances

It's been a part of Marietta's birthday celebration for as long as many can remember.

Each year on April 7, the chimes toll from the tower above the First Congregational Church on Front Street, with special birthday songs. These days, it's Marietta resident Nancy Riley playing those songs. Riley also plays for the church each Sunday and goes mid-week to the tower to learn the songs for the week's service.

Though often referred to as bells, what she plays are technically chimes, Riley says. A carillon has 15 bells and there are only 10 at the church-and they're not as easy to play as one might imagine.

Q: How long ago did you start playing the bells?

A: It's only been a few years-probably four. I learned how when Larry Dye, who had done it for years and years, had a stroke.

Q: What's the process for playing them?

A: It's all manual. There's a "keyboard" that looks like the foot pedals on organs with the rounded ends and there are 10 of those. Each is connected to a bell in the tower. They're actually connected to the clapper in the bell because the smallest bell is 240 pounds and the largest is 2,000. You couldn't swing a 2,000 pound bell and then immediately swing something else without shaking the tower down, so instead of ringing the bell, you swing the clapper. The largest clapper is 15 to 20 inches long, so it's heavy. You have to shove down on the lever. If you don't use enough force, it won't make a sound.

Q: How long can you play without getting tired?

A: I'm usually good for 15 minutes. That has me pretty well soaking wet. After 20 minutes, it's nap time. When I need to play for longer, there are guys down in the church who come help me when I run out of steam. On April 7, I try to have someone with me to spell me.

Q: How long did this take to learn?

A: I'm still learning. Some songs are harder than others to play and you can't do it with the same comfort. And I can't practice without the whole town knowing I'm up here. I usually give myself an hour each week to practice songs. I just sort of figured it out by myself.

Q: Why did you decide to volunteer for this?

A: I always thought it would be fun to play the bells. And it is fun. Sometimes I feel like I'm cheating someone else out of a really good time. Although, some songs are difficult. If there are too many Fs and Gs at the same time, I'm spread eagle over the console. And there are some songs with too many sharps and flats that you just can't play on the bells.

Q: Do you have a background in music?

A: I grew up in a family that enjoyed music. My aunt should have been a professional mom was musical. We've always had music and I learned to play the piano.

Q: Is there someone to fill in for you if you need a longer break?

A: There have been some young boys interested but I'm afraid they'll damage their shoulder sockets and have arthritis later in life if they do it too much. When I broke my arm in January 2010, the bells were only played three times until I could come back.

Q: Do you plan to keep doing this for a long time?

A: As long as I'm able to climb up in the tower, I'll play.

Kate York conducted this interview.

Yost said next year's events will be beyond the norm but not on the scale of the bicentennial nearly 25 years ago.

"I think the public interest will be there but with the bicentennial there was a lot of money appropriated," he said."Because of the economy, we want to have a nice celebration but not go overboard. We think local money needs to go to our museums and other programs that are more longterm."

Yost said the committee will also be encouraging the other states of the Northwest Territory to get involved.

The Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau expects to be heavily promoting the events linked to the 225th bash, as well as an early birthday celebration coming this June.

That's when the Ohio Chautauqua program will come to the city, for free living history performances by actors portraying historic characters and workshops and activities for children and adults. The program is in honor of a 225th anniversary already occurring this year-that of the ordinance that established the Northwest Territory in 1787.

The traveling program's theme this year is "When Ohio was the Western Frontier" and characters will include Johnny Appleseed and members of the Lewis and Clarke expedition.

The tent that will be set up for performances June 19-23 at the corner of Fourth and Putnam streets can hold 500 people and Jeri Knowlton, executive director of the CVB, said she expects it will.

"I think we'll come close to filling the big tent or filling it every night," she said. "And we'll certainly see a bump in people going to restaurants and other attractions. And with the people coming in being people interested in history places like Campus Martius, The Castle, the Henry Fearing House and Henderson Hall should all see a bump in attendance."

Even without special events, history is one of the biggest draws for tourists traveling to Washington County, Knowlton said.

"People love coming here for that," she said. "History and Marietta go so well together."

In a visitors segmentation study completed by the CVB, the No. 1 phrase or adjective selected to describe Marietta was "rich with history," Knowlton said.

The two anniversaries

This years marks the 225th anniversary of the ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory and prohibited slavery.

Next year will mark the 225th anniversary of when members of the Ohio Company reached the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers in April 1788. The community, known then as Adelphi, had its name changed to Marietta that July in honor of Marie Antoinette, queen of France.



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