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A glorious past, an active future for Gill Stadium at 100

A century ago tomorrow — Sept. 8, 1913 — the factory workers of Manchester, along with many of their friends and neighbors, had a rare Monday off from work. Encouraged by their employers to attend the grand-opening celebration of the city's new steel-and-brick stadium, they had plenty of additional incentive to attend, with the world champion Boston Red Sox coming to town for an exhibition game against a local Manufacturers League All-Star team.

Sure enough, a huge crowd celebrated the official opening of Textile Field, the facility now known to sports enthusiasts around the state and well beyond as Gill Stadium.

But as big an event as the stadium's opening was, the fact that its re-dedication will take place Sunday on its centennial is, in some respects, even more remarkable.

At least twice, the stadium was slated for demolition — once to make room for a housing development and later to serve as the site of the city's third public high school. Both times, fate intervened, and the city's premier sports facility was spared.

The games at Gill continued, and they still go on today — literally.

On Friday night, Gill Stadium Centennial CeCenCentral hosts Concord in the season-opening football game for both teams.

After the gates open this morning at 9:30, festivities begin with a performance by the Temple Band from 10-11. All events are free, except for the football game but including a postgame fireworks display.

Sunday's re-dedication ceremony is free, as well, as is a performance by the New Orleans-based ensemble Vaud and the Villains downtown at Veterans Memorial Park, beginning at 7 p.m.

Games where Gill has stood for a century actually began decades before its construction, back when the cattle-grazing area known as The Plains was converted to the Beech Street Grounds for early games of baseball. In 1895, Varick Park, a wooden-grandstand facility serving as home to a professional team in the old New England League, opened at the site, on land then owned by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company.

With wooden stadiums already outdated by the time Boston's Fenway Park opened as a state-of-the-art brick-and-steel structure in 1912, Amoskeag decided to upgrade on the Varick Park site and began construction on Textile Field. Fourteen years after the new stadium opened, the City of Manchester purchased it and renamed it Athletic Field.

Four decades later, the ballpark changed names again, this time to honor Ignace Gill, the city's longtime director of Parks and Recreation.

One thing that hasn't changed is Gill's status as Manchester's premier facility for high school football and amateur baseball. It remains home to Manchester Central for both sports, as well as for field hockey and soccer. The football team for Manchester's Catholic high school, Trinity, also plays its home games at Gill, and every Thanksgiving the city's two highest-rated teams meet in the Turkey Bowl.

The on-again/off-again home to various professional minor-league baseball teams at various times until the Eastern League's New Hampshire Fisher Cats moved into their new ballpark on the riverfront in 2005 after a single season there, Gill still hosts American Legion and Babe Ruth League baseball, as well as youth-league football.

And it continues to attract new and varied events.

Once home to track and field meets on a long-since-removed cinder track, Gill welcomes back the sport of running next month when the Footrace for the Fallen finishes inside the stadium for the first time. A 5-kilometer run honoring fallen police officers and benefitting the Manchester Police Athletic League, the new course for the Oct. 13 race starts on Valley Street in front of the new city police department building, loops through downtown and leads participants through the right-field entrance to the stadium, with a finish at the 40-yard line. In the meantime, the Gill Stadium Centennial Organizing Committee, which has worked tirelessly for more than a year to put together the commemoration, looks forward to welcoming longtime and first-time visitors to this weekend's events at one New Hampshire's most iconic structures.

The committee also extends its thanks to its contributors and sponsors, including: Members First Credit Union; Centrix Bank; Dick Anagnost; Granite State Credit Union; Merrimack County Voiture of the Forty and Eight, Number 183; American Legion Post 21 of Concord; the New Hampshire Union Leader; the state American Legion Baseball Committee; Lionel L. Leblanc; Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas; and the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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