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Abundance Of Bustle

History, Croquet, A Parade With Miniature Vehicles, Dragon Boats, Other Events Bring City Alive

September 17, 2006

Dragon boats on the Connecticut River, snarling mini-cars near the state Capitol, the crack of croquet balls in the West End and history at the Old State House helped to fill Hartford with color and bustle Saturday.

Under bright blue skies, people thronged to the various events, jamming downtown traffic. Police had blocked some roads, and parking was hard to find. But the temperature was balmy for a mid-September day, and outside the Old State House on Main Street, salsa dancers were entertaining a small audience. Inside, adults and kids explored a new state history exhibit and a newly opened education center.

The center is designed like a pop-up book of Connecticut history, with the thick trunk of the Charter Oak in one corner, a mural of the Connecticut River on the back wall, an area with baskets and produce meant to teach children about the public market set up in Hartford in 1645 and other displays.

Downstairs, people were learning state and Hartford history at the opening of the permanent "History is All Around Us" exhibit. The $3.5 million exhibit is meant to make the state's story accessible, with plenty of hands-on displays for all ages.

"I like that it gets everybody involved," said visitor Jo-Ann Burton of Manchester. "You have to push buttons, turn pages."

Connecticut's rich past in manufacturing, art, education, cultural diversity and response to wars and disasters was on display. The exhibit includes a piece of the actual 17th century charter that was hidden in the iconic Hartford oak, Native American weapons and tools, an original spelling book by Noah Webster, a 1912 Hartford firetruck and examples of the many products made in Connecticut.

Those included items made by Coleco, everything from campers' craft kits to early versions of hand-held video games; and Underwood and Royal typewriters that were made in Hartford.

The exhibit as a whole is about the state, but there is a focus on Hartford. On an open floor outlined with the map of the city, kids used colored blocks to re-create the city in different eras, starting in the 17th century. A wall display shows the progress of urban renewal in the city from 1945-75.

"It uses Hartford, but it's really telling an American story," said Kate Steinway, a state museum official who conceived the idea for the exhibit. "This same evolution happened in every New England, every eastern seaboard town."

The exhibit will be open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Shriners Return

The Shriners made a historic return to Hartford, holding their first parade here in 16 years. About 3,000 members had gathered for the Northeast Shrine Association Fall Convention, and they took to the streets at 2 p.m. in a line of march that included miniature 18-wheelers, paddy wagons, "monster" trucks, airplanes, motorcycles and dune buggies.

The parade buzzed, rattled and popped. A group of red and yellow mini-cars tore around in circles and figure eights like hornets. A giant walking Fez saluted the new statue of Confucius outside the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Clowns padded along on oversize shoes, a band in purple capes and curly-toed silver shoes marched in step to a tune of ancient Araby and the whole honking, putt-putting menagerie swirled toward the arch in Bushnell Park as a mini-truck played a loop of "It's a Small World."

The fun had a serious side. Shriners, who serve in 191 temples throughout North America, run hospitals that treat children with orthopedic maladies, burns and spinal cord injuries.

Croquet and Martinis

In the city's West End, about 250 people clad in their best summer whites flocked to the 2006 Croquet Classic, raising mallets, martinis and money - about $150,000 - on behalf of the Foundation for Mental Health.

Diann Wienke of Farmington, the foundation's president and founder, called the game an almost perfect mix of sport and fun. Set on manicured lawns at the home of Madeleine and Ed Large, the event looked more like a Merchant-Ivory film than a fundraiser.

"When you hear croquet, you think, `Oh, how boring,' but it's not, it's really so much fun," said Linda Hatten, a former tournament host who made it to the finals one year. "To win a tournament, you need finesse, precision and technique and a real will to win."

Peter Hull, a Simsbury attorney and state croquet champion, said the event attracts a mix of first-timers and veterans, but by the end of the day, after the weekend getaways are auctioned off and the martini bar opens, the battle is on.

"There are some pretty serious golfers and tennis players here," Hull said. "Those who are not athletes are still not the type of people who want to lose, not at business or at croquet. This may start off as a game, but by the end of the day, it's cut-throat competition for a good cause."

The tournament began in 2001, when Wienke was looking for a fundraising idea to support the foundation, which she set up in memory of her son, Scott Kunkle. The organization helps people with psychiatric disabilities move from a hospital setting to the community.

Recovery Walk

Social stigma is one of the hurdles people with mental health problems have to cross, and that also was a theme in the 7th Annual Walk for Recovery at Bushnell Park. At least 3,000 people gathered to "eliminate the public stigma that is still connected to addictions," said Phillip Valentine, director of Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery.

"We want to focus on the lightness of recovery, not the darkness of addiction," Valentine said. "I think that one day, if enough of us come out to events like these, it will no longer be a thing of shame to say you are a recovering addict. It will become a thing of bravery."

The event, which included a march, several public speakers and live music, drew people from as far away as New London. Valentine, who has been in recovery since 1987, said organizers first planned the walk to put a public, positive face on people recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. They thought they might attract 50 people to the Capitol, but instead they drew 700, he said.

That first event proved so successful that it has sparked copycat marches in other states, he said. Forty-five other cities held recovery walks Saturday that are modeled after the Connecticut event, Valentine said.

Dragon Boats

Guts and glory were also at the heart of the 6th Annual Riverfront Dragon Boat Races & Asian Festival. More than 1,000 paddlers descended on Riverfront Park, including a team from Canada, to compete in this 20-century-old Chinese sport.

It was the first year the original event organizers, Riverfront Recapture, joined forces with Connecticut Asian American Leaders Consortium, or CAALC, to host the event, which gave the whole thing "a decidedly more Asian flavor," said Joe Marfuggi, Riverfront Recapture president.

"We had heard about other cities using dragon boat races to get people out to their parks, but we never expected it would take off like this, especially among the Asian community," Marfuggi said. "Dragon boat racing is a real passion among young Asian professionals."

The New York Wall Street Dragons, a group of mostly young Asian Americans in the financial field, captured top honors at Saturday's races.

What began as a way for Hartford area companies to encourage leadership development and collegial camaraderie has turned into an end-of-season stop on the regional dragon boat circuit. Paddlers say Hartford is the laid-back ending to their competitive season.

"I started racing for myself, to push beyond my physical boundaries," said Claudia Miletic, the team captain of Women in Canoe of New York City. Without missing a beat, her teammate, Annie Tan, finished the thought: "But you finish for the team. That is the secret to winning."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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