Wedgwood House, Lang Road, 1940

Photo provided from personal collection

In 1945 I was born into a history home, the 1790 Wedgwood House at 19 Lang Road. My parents were great readers, especially my mother who was always combing through Parsons’ History of Rye, NH, 1905. Riding my bike around town, how could I not become interested in the beauty of our natural environment, the history of all the old buildings and some of the people and town characters I saw and heard about.  We Rye kids played endlessly in Parsons’ barn (now gone), had lots of pick-up ball games at the Rye school field and explored all the nooks and crannies of this old town by the sea.   

Two years spent at Dublin School opened a wider world which led me to college in different parts of the country and a year of study in Europe. I became a high school history teacher in 1968 and, with my mother, began to explore more seriously the history of my hometown. A graduate school course I took required us to interpret primary sources in Northampton, MA and I became hooked on local history. In 1973 I encountered Emma Foss, Central Road, who wrote a five-page letter to me about growing up in Rye during the 1890’s, one of the topics offered on this website.

The 1970s was the time of Rye and the seacoast’s successful fight against the Onassis’ oil refinery proposal in Durham (see book: Rye’s Battle of the Century). 1976 was the 250th anniversary of the parish of Rye as well as the national Bi-centennial celebration. Rye celebrated in style with a huge three-day event that may have been the biggest celebration in the town’s history. The militia from the 1700s was revived and had encampments in Parsons Field. Jessie Herlihy founded the Rye Historical Society, an outgrowth of the Bi-Centennial commission.  By 1977 My family and I were part of the successful grassroots effort to save Parsons field and woods as public land. In 1978 I was asked to serve on the Historic District Commission thus beginning my involvement in town civic affairs. Other grassroots efforts modernized Town Hall office space and started the transfer station and recycling center. When citizens become interested in and engaged in their communities and take action, they are making history.

The Bicentennial unleashed a great interest in local history across the country.  In 1975 I dismantled, moved and reassembled the historic (1654, 1730, 1840) Marston House from Hampton to Rye and began living in it in 1976. The Marston family was very much a part of Rye history too, because the southern half of Rye was part of Hampton/North Hampton until the late 1700’s. When I began teaching at Oyster River High School in Durham the fall of 1976, I created a state and local history course and together we dug deep into seacoast history including the gundalow, the sailing barges that knit the towns of the seacoast region together for two centuries.

For all its citizen initiatives, the 1970’s was certainly one of the greatest decades in Rye’s history, but great challenges loomed with rapid growth and over-development. Many of the RHS programs from 1976 to 1990 were on local history and the society restored old graveyards, collected documents, conducted oral history interviews and used the 2nd floor “Macdonald Room” in the library as a storage area for our growing collection. After RHS founder Jessie Herlihy died in 1989, it was a struggle for the society, but it revived and by 1995 we were soon immersed in planning and then moving and renovating the former antique shop/apartment building for a museum that opened in 2002. All the while RHS continued to be a repository for stories, photos, documents and artifacts, more local history for us to absorb.

In the 1980s I worked with he Rye Civic League in editing the Town News and chaired the HDC through some challenges. Starting in 1988 I directed Russian exchange programs which deeply broadened how I viewed history and the world. Many Russians visited Rye over the next 25 years and several Rye residents were involved as hosts. One of those visitors named Lyuda told me after a walk down Washington Road to the beach: “Etta Rrai!” (It is paradise!).

Jessie Herlihy, David Herlihy, Charlie Green, Louise Tallman, Bill Varrell and Bonnie Goodwin were an inspiration and taught me much about the town’s past and in the last decade Tom Clarie and Roger Philbrick have done the same. By 2000 I realized that an updated history of the town was needed and I began my research. After retiring from teaching in 2009, I revived the Rye Civic League and joined the new Rye Heritage Commission in 2011, both of which opened more doors into the town’s past and present. The Rye history trolley tours which I narrate began in 2011 and became a catalyst to write a new book on the town’s past. In recent years I have worked with the Rye Advocates on preservation of Rye’s older buildings as well as with the historic signage committee. I stepped down from the RHS board in 2022 and they gave me the title of town historian which inspired me to work with students at RJH on Rye history as part of the Rye 400 celebration.

How I View History

Summary Statement

The full range of human behavior and emotions are laid bare in the study of history – the good, the bad and the ugly.  It is important to acknowledge and face up to all of the past, especially the most disturbing parts, and to learn what impact historical events are having on the present. The word historian does not just apply to university professors, but to all those (journalists, teachers, museum staff, local historians and town government officials, librarians, tour guides, etc.) who make a good faith effort to research and present their findings. They are public historians. (see National Council for Public History).  A serious reading of and listening to history will reward us as we get closer to the truth, to the indisputable facts of the past as well as informed opinion on past events. If we do this in a cooperative, open-minded manner, it will help to open the door to national healing and reconciliation.


 Detailed Statement

I have spent a lifetime observing, reading, writing, teaching, discussing history. Through it all I have always listened and learned from others, some of whom I have not always agreed with, but who sometimes changed my mind. How a person views history may be influenced by good teachers they had, but it really depends on the individual’s willingness to educate themselves. That is the main purpose of education – to provide the tools for life-long education through reading, listening to independent media and having good quality dialogue with others.

It is good to start with personal history and then move out into family/clan, town, region, nation and the world. There is much that is inspiring and there is much that is deeply disturbing in history. And then there is that vast area of ordinary life in between great and tragic events which is where change often happens. History is constantly unfolding with new research and new perspectives on the past. In some cases, the facts of history are indisputable because there are multiple sources that confirm them. When evidence is not so available, then deeper research, interpretation and even imagination is required to write about what might have happened.

From today’s perspective in the US, there is nothing wrong with criticizing and calling out the wrongs of the nation’s past as long as one keeps in mind the three points in the next paragraph. Criticism and constructive comments are not intended to alienate. I care deeply about my country so it is natural to work to overcome obstacles that are blocking efforts to realize our highest aspirations: “with liberty and justice for all.” 

An example of how to deal with controversial issues is the topic of slavery and its legacy, the central issue of American history and one we have yet to reconcile. One of the Rye history topics on this web site is entitled “African American in Rye.”  In that document is the following statement: In the mid 1770s there were at least 19 enslaved people owned by prominent families in Rye.  If I had lived in Rye in the 1770s, I might have owned enslaved people or I might have been part of the large majority who did not own people, but also did not criticize slavery and accepted it as standard practice or I might have been part of a small minority, like the Quakers and a few others who, at risk to their lives, came out openly against slavery and laid the foundation of the abolitionist movement.

Lies, deception and falsification of the facts have always been with us, but never more so than at the present time. Social media can be a good place to put forth ideas, questions and assertion of history as the writer understands it. But it is not the place to have serious discussions about history when people often hide out there and write inflammatory things which quickly raise tensions and create anger. That is not a good faith effort to learn cooperatively about our past.

I am not on social media, but people sometimes tell me things they read about my short, monthly “Rye History Notes” which appear in video form on the Civic News, published by the Rye Civic League. Recently someone complained that I would not use the word massacre when standing at the Brackett Burial ground. I explained in the next video the reasons for my commentary (the Bracketts died in the midst of a war) and I invited the person who complained to write to me and have a dialogue. I never heard from him.

Social media has its positive side, but more and more it seems to be a platform for people who have grievances and want to fight, but are not willing to have open and honest dialogue. Those who are angry and feel that the country has deserted them need to be asked: Why do you think you have a monopoly on this view and where is the evidence that it is true? Aside from those who are well off, most groups in this country could make the same claim. What have those politicians who claim to be listening to and speaking for you actually done to improve your lives?

Have you sought out non-profit groups that are currently at work trying to solve the problems you are complaining about? Have you sought government assistance to deal with your complaints? Being cynical about government can only cut you off from the good support that all three levels of government can provide. How is extreme partisan speech on social media, that has no interest in dialogue, actually helping to improve our country? There are many success stories in the US, both public and private, that are dealing with our challenges, but commercial media mostly focuses on the negative news. Search for – “Best Practices ” or Success Stories” in the area you are seeking assistance.

The best way to talk or write about history, past or present, is to make a good faith effort to present the facts as you understand them, offer your analysis and commentary and then be open to discussion. The key words here are: “good faith.”  Too often, history is put forth with an agenda of grievance and/or a conspiracy theory that distorts the past, a deliberate effort to block efforts at seeking the truth. These efforts need to be combated with a steady and honest effort to break down such deception and work together to seek the truth. 

It is important to acknowledge and face up to all of the past, especially the most disturbing parts, and to learn what impact the past is constantly having on the present. History invites us to explore all aspects of the past and present with a willingness to listen to all perspectives and be open to those with whom you do not agree.

History is not either/or; it is not black or white; it is messy, nuanced and complex, but it is well worth confronting together and finding solutions so we can break out of this dead-end polarization and build a better country.  We understand this is a truth about human relations, so why is it not true for dealing with the nation’s history?


Contact me at: [email protected] if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or want to speak to me. I would like to hear from you.

Ladd’s by Sagamore Creek. Chips, beer and fun from 1933 until the late 1970’s

Courtesy of Rye Historical Society