Rye New Hampshire: A Town at the Crossroads of American History

Pagoda Dance Hall on the boulevard at Cable Road from 1919 to 1949. BYOB

Courtesy of Rye Historical Society

In 2000 I invited interested people to the library to see if we could start a joint project to update the town’s history, the way some other towns have done. The project did not get off the ground because most people in RHS were focusing on getting the museum ready to open in 2002. At this time, I began regular visits to Ipswich MA where Rye historian Bill Varrell lived and I am grateful for all I learned from him. My RHS co-chair, Bonnie Goodwin, who oversaw the museum renovation and opening, was a wonderful friend and history partner to work with. She had a genuine interest in Rye’s past and I owe her a great debt as our many conversations so enriched my knowledge of our history. After she died in 2006 at age 66, I had no one in town with her interest and knowledge with whom to talk about Rye history and then Bill Varrell died in 2007 and I was left even more on my own. Beyond Rye I was fortunate to still have RHS charter members Becky Marden and Ralph Morang III. From 2000 to 2011 I continued to read and research Rye history, especially after retirement in 2009., and consolidated the information that I had, and read or re-read and took notes on all published sources.

The real catalyst for my new Rye history happened in 2010 when I worked with Rye Elementary School to help narrate a Rye history trolley tour for 4 th grade. (This is when I met Paul Reardon of Seacoast Trolley.) For that tour I created a two-page Rye history time line. The success of the 4 th grade tour inspired RHS to begin our public history tours in 2011 and I updated the history time line for adults. It soon grew to four and then eight pages and by the end of the year – one hundred pages, thus creating a skeleton to begin a new Rye history. But it has been a very slow process because of other interests and demands on my time. Over the last decade I have spent more and more time talking with Roger Philbrick and have learned much from him through his research on many topics from Rye in the 1900s. Priscilla Jenness is another collector of Rye history which she faithfully shared with the public through the annual town reports.

When RHS treasurer Steve Cash joined the board in 2010, I gained a new history partner because of his interest in early Odiorne Pt history. But my real partner in Rye history emerged when local history author Tom Clarie showed up at the museum in 2011 and gave me an index to Bill Varrell’s Rye on the Rocks that he had created using software that scans and makes an index. We became fast friends and he has been my biggest supporter to get this history done since that time. His Oceanside History of Rye Beach and the Farragut, 2013, was invaluable in writing my book because he used newspaper articles to document a century of Rye history 1860’s – 1950’s. Tom also printed out dozens of other news articles for me to use during that time span. i.e., the KKK burned a cross on Wallis Road in 1926, etc.

Since 2015 I read all the town reports from 1863 to the present, incorporating selective information into the draft of the book. I also read many secondary sources on seacoast history and non-published sources in the museum. Most important have been the primary sources in the museum such as probate, militia, tax, deeds and other records, not to mention all the documents in our Access Rye History (1850-1920) collection on our web site. I have included selective sections of these. I have also included: Jessie Herlihy’s twelve Rye history poems and her “Growing up in Rye in the early 1800s,” Emma Foss letter of 1973 about the 1890s, excerpts from late 1800s diaries of Supply Foss Trefethen and George Lang and 20 th century memoirs of Evelyn Drake, Dona Berry, Harry Lowell, Rolf Lium and David Mahar, Sandra Goss Munsey, Fred Clark and Priscilla Jenness, et al. In addition, there are many smaller items from others that have been inserted and will continue to be added.

Those who have served on the board of the Rye Historical Society over the years as well as the staff of the Rye Public Library have also been stalwart supporters of this project, even as the book often seemed to be more of a dream than a reality. There have been countless people I have met at the museum and via e-mail who have made endless contributions to my knowledge of Rye history. I now understand why I read in so many books why it took the authors often decades to write them.

Knowing J. Dennis Robinson and reading his columns and books over the years has added greatly to my knowledge of seacoast history.

The most recent history person in my life is Hunter Stetz of Hampton Falls, who received his degree in archaeology from BU in 2015 and works part time researching, writing and giving tours for the Seacoast Science Center at Odiorne Point State Park. He is yet another “public historian” in my life, a term I came across a few years ago. It is an apt description for all of us, those whom I have mentioned and others, who care about and cultivate the history of their town and region. One does not have to be a trained academic to be an historian. (See: National Council for Public History established in 1980).

The book has been copy edited by Roland Goodbody of Portsmouth, content edited by retired college history professor Weston Cook Jr. of Rye and retired English teacher Kay Morgan has edited selected chapters in each century.

In 2023 the images, with captions, have been turned over to book designer Grace Peirce, Great Life Books. I first started talking with Grace about this project several years ago and even worked with her to get two books published. Grace has designed dozens of local history books and will create a digital draft of my book with all the images laid out through the text. This process will be a real catalyst for finishing this long project and moving it toward publication. I am grateful to all have supported it on this long and winding road of Rye history.

Publication is expected sometime in 2024.

Painting by Denise Brown showing Rye Center in 1890’s

Courtesy of Rye Historical Society