Remembering Rye, NH

Posted on August 28, 2014


Harvest House West Rd.Rye NH

Banner image from a general store a mile up the road from our house when I was a kid. Richard has a great story about that parking lot…

An unapologetic nostalgic rambling

This summer I read two books about my home town, Rye NH. (Although I was born in VT, and you might here me say I’m from Portsmouth just to shorten a conversation, Rye is and always will be home). Rye on the Rocks by William Varell, and Just Rye Harbor by the Claries. The first was interesting because despite growing up in the cauldron of American history (the Isles of Shoals, half of which are in the Rye township, were settle second to Jamestown Virginia, the first settlement on these shores, and with Portsmouth included were the most populous region outside of Boston), there were many things missing from my education. For instance, despite hearing of the Breakfast Hill Massacre (a hill I used to run over to see my girlfriend), an Indian raid that was thwarted by settlers who didn’t want to shoot until an Indian passed in front of a tree, lead being too precious not to be able to recover your bullet, we never heard of the Bracket Road massacre. It turns out that up to 40 people died during this attack, and the stone at the intersection of Wallis and Brackett Roads that the school bus passed by every day was used by the  natives to brain the infant children they decided not to carry away.  There is a burial ground nearby for all of the victims of the massacre. Something else they didn’t tell me in school was that there was a really good reason for this attack, being in retaliation for Dover inviting a bunch of natives to a “war games” and then slaughtering them all. The only NH naval battle of the War of 1812 took place in Rye Harbor, including a Keystonesque attempt to take the town’s cannon ball supply from Rye Center to the harbor, but the bottom fell out of the wagon on Central Hill, scattering the munitions.


Locke’s Pointe, temporarily named Straw’s Point, was also the site of an attack , costing John Locke his life. 400 years later, his descendant was the librarian at our middle school. I remember being at the harbor when she and her husband brought in a 1200 lb tuna that today would’ve paid for their  entire boat.  I had no idea she was a chanteuse who had the chance to tour with Bob Hope. Likewise, my dentist Lee Roper, and his brother turned out to be pivotal figures in the harbor history. His brother becoming zoologist emeritus at the Smithsonian.  Herb Drake, who lived two houses up from me and whose family owned what is the last standing of the Victorian hotels (The Drake House, where my grandmother worked), was a lifelong fisherman. At one point in the Rye Harbor book, one of his granddaughters reminisces about “picking milkweed at my grandfathers house #711 Washington Rd for life jacking filling during World War II. “Our house was two houses down, 691 Washington Rd. I remember Herb making me little puzzles in his barn workshop that still had all of the machines running off off a single leather belt from one engine. The barn had a two story pit in it because they used to harvest ice from the ponds out back in the winter and store it there in sawdust to supply the whole town over the summer.


The entire beach from Ordionnes to Little Boar’s Head was full of grand hotels, all of which were lost to fire (they never built a local fire station), most of which cannot even be sited now. I remember the last grand hotel, the Farragut, was bound for destruction so they actually let the kids in to vandalize it, and my father went in and salvaged much door hardware we used in our own home. Then they built another grand hotel there in my lifetime and never opened it, demolishing it many years later, today, it’s just a lawn. The first Transatlantic cable came to berth at Rye, on the beach where I played soccer in my misspent youth, Cable Road. There used to be an electric trolley car connecting Portsmouth and Rye. I believe you can still see the tracks a the corner of the Junior High soccer field. I always wondered what train tracks were doing there…

I remember the Bicentennial in 1976, and sitting at my  Great Grandmother’s feet while she was interviewed. She was born the year the Civil War ended and lived to be 103, and she never forgot a thing. To sit there and listen to her recount fully one half of our country’s history, can you imagine? My Great Aunt made it to 96 and I remember sitting with her in her bedridden years. She saw an airplane before they even had radio. A barnstormer landed in their “backyard” to show them what an airplane was.  She was still living in that same house, one half mile from where she was born, and ironically there is now an airport in her  back  yard.  She was born before indoor plumbing or electricity and saw the automobile, airplanes, space flight, and the Internet before she died.  One of her brothers was in three out of four D-Day invasions an wrote a book about it, Never Broken by Hardship or Battle, another brother was in Merrill’s Mauraders and wrote a book about that The Sitapur Incident.  In fact my aunt also wrote a book, transcribing letters from a Civil War relative, that I still need to track down. The third brother was my Grandfather (who built a house next door to the house they were born in and died there), and although he didn’t write a book about his wartime experiences, he was the taciturn Yankee type who could’ve done things you could never imagine. I remember when my sister was 16 she did an Outward Bound wilderness experience into the Pemijawasset Region in NH, a remote and wild place and they had some definite adventures with survival, including hypothermia. This was a legitimate and thorny accomplishment in pre-Gortex-down-wool-and-leather times. When she proudly showed the map to my Grandfather to explain the trip he remarked, “I made that map when I was 16.” He used to row from Hampton to the Isles of Shoals and back in the open ocean (20+ miles)in a single day  to fish . Put your stand up paddleboard back on the Subaru and go back to the gym.

Never broken

I don’t assume that my relatives were special, only that I got to talk to them and know them. I’m sure all of the people of these days and ages did all of these things as a matter of course. These people were tough. The lived every day with things that we cannot imagine. Time has accelerated in a century to show more “progress” than all of the rest of history combined. I’m simply proud and lucky enough to have heard their stories, to have read these books, to put things in some context as time flies by.  But I realized that even in my lifetime I have seen and done things that today’s children will also never do. That I was very fortunate to live in this nether time between the manual age and the modernized world before the digital age. That the difference between my grandparents and me is actually less than me and the kids today.sitapur

So, I reminisce:

In Vermont we would take the AMC Rambler to the drive-in and lie down on the roof to watch movies. I distinctly remember The War Wagon. During that time my parents tapped every maple tree in the neighborhood. We used to collect sap before school and they boiled it after work until the kitchen ceiling fell in. One of the great pleasures you will never have is “sugar on snow.” Once, in Swanton, there was so much snow we had to leave the house through the second floor window over the porch and our entire front lawn was one multi-roomed fort that took a week to excavate.  As soon as it snowed, sledding was the only after school activity. We lived on a huge hill in St. Albans (I once totalled a tricycle by hitting the fire hydrant at the end of the street because a visitor’s car prevented me from turning into the yard). Every year kids would be walking around with casts from some sledding injury or another, but nobody ever thought anything of it. Every kid breaks something, sometime, right?

As kids we played cowboys  incessantly. All of the shows on TV were Westerns. Gunsmoke. Pallidin. Big Valley, Bonanza.  I remember buying my first set of cap guns, of getting the perfect hat and rolling it just right – one side curled up the other down -but that was before we found out  you could lay the caps out on the sidewalk and hit them with a hammer.  And a recess, we played marbles. You were as good as your collection. By 2nd grade, I had traded/won up to a small drawstring baf of size 5 blue clearies. That was it, no calico 1s, just pure identical blue clearies. Have you even seen a marble game? One summer in Swanton we took lawnmowers, desk chairs, old boards and whatever else we could scavenge and build a go cart for our hill. It steered with ropes. Nobody had ever heard of helmets.

When we moved to NH, I immediately started hanging out in the woods, vast tracts of land that still exist in Rye. They say that Rye has more stone walls per capita than any place on earth. When I was a kid they still mowed all of the fields and all of the vacant tracts of land were connected by “fire trails” so that we could run and even bike our way through town like ghosts, only crossing roads but never using them. I got my first motorcycle at 8 years old and that summer by using fire trails and railroad tracks I could be in ME or MA by lunch. A couple of dollars in my pocket for gas and lunch and I would be gone from breakfast until dinner. Behind my house was a 5-trunk oak tree 50′ taller than anything in the forest. We built a fort in that tree. I carved my love’s name into one of those trunks and tied a twig in a knot to harvest later. That lot got clear cut and I never did get to get those back. In Rye, the old orchards were full of apple trees with trunks 3′ across and completely hollow inside. They hadn’t been harvested in 50 years. We used to go out into the fields and have apple fights. I remember Brandt’s lab, Brandy, would gain 20lbs every apple season. Rand’s field had a beautiful spring house in the middle of it, that got trashed even before I left.  But we lived in those huge spaced between the streets, we lived outside. Now I live in Stepford and haven’t seen a kid outside all summer.

There were treasures beyond compare. Finding millstones in the woods, from mills 400, 300, 200 years ago placed by streams  long gone and now forgotten. Heck we had a millstone in the rubbish pile behind the barn. How or why it got there who will ever know? Before trash pickup, people used to just have “bottle dumps.” It became a matter of course to find these (always at the intersection of two stone walls), and we sold the bottles to local antique stores. Once I found an entire pewter teapot.  I’m sure for the intrepid there are literally hundreds of these yet to unearthed in Rye alone. Across the street was a family cemetery, walled in granite with an iron fence. These also were every where. My sister made a career out of finding them and rubbing the gravestones. If she still has those, it would make a great blog.When I got older I would split wood from the wood pile on winter mornings to stay warm as I waited for the school bus.

One day, my dad took an entire afternoon to hunt for the perfect sling shot tree and teaching me how to make and use one, because, well every boy needs a sling shot. My dad is a lot of fun. When I was young he was a gunsmith and champion shooter (after  not shooting skeet for over 20 years he hit 99 in a row with a musket loader).  Hell, when he was a kid, he used to bring his gun to school to hunt on the way home. Take that, your-kid-brought-a-toy-gun-to-school-so-we-expelled-him modern society. He tells a great story of going to church with my great-aunt when he was a child and her hitting a deer on the way. She pulled a skinning knife out of the glove compartment, dressed it, put it in the trunk and still made it to church in her Sunday best. Both my sister and I would get chemistry sets for Christmas and they would be used up by New Years. I wish you could still get those today, as I really don’t remember a major portion of this seminal education. I do remember the best lectures on what kinds of arrows to shoot out of shotguns, and firing mortars on summer nights loaded with everything from cement-filled caulking tubes to golf balls. Or how to boil water in a paper bag. Or taking apart lawnmower engines from the dump to compare 2 and 4 cycles, or rebuilding a little toy steam engine we found in the barn. I’m sure that these kinds of things are what started me on the path to being an engineer. When was the last time you took a child somewhere and built something with them? Or took something apart? Or hurled projectiles?

We had this little 4′ .22 that I would shoot after school, no supervision. It was my job to keep the rabbits and woodchucks out of the garden. We used to shoot them right through the screens so as not to spook them when we opened them. One day I saw a rat running up the 3-story  drain pipe on the barn and took a shot at it (the bullet went through the siding and left a perfect mark along the  ceiling inside the barn). My dad came running out and said “What the hell are you doing?” I pointed and said “Rat.” He took the gun from me and said “Well you can’t shoot worth shit, where is it?” Another time I shot the hornets nest in the barn peak full of arrows and Sean O’Connor and I spent a frantic afternoon with the 40′ ladder retrieving them. The next morning I was woken up by my dad firing arrows into the very same nest.  He shot so many illegal fireworks for so long the town  eventually just hired him to do the Fourth of July shows. We used to take the mortar, and use a hammer and a dowel to pack it full of wet newspaper as a plug for the charge. My dad got sick of sweeping the yard, so he set it out on the edge of the road. One sweltering night, he set it and came running back to me in the barn. He looked down at me and said “Does that fuse seem a little long to you?” At that very moment, the town cruiser went by, all windows down, the mortar went off, and there was not a scrap of paper to be found. I really thought we were all going to jail but he didn’t even tap his brakes. Swear to God. I still can’t explain it. But it happened. Only in a small town like Rye.

One time listening to peepers my father told me he would pay me $.25 for every one I could catch. I went to the pond behind the Walkers barn, once the wild frontier to me but really only about 2′ deep and 15′ across, and brought back a gallon bucket full of them. Those were nights when the fireflies would dance across the street and we would catch them in jars. I haven’t seen a firefly in 30 years.

I was always fascinated with the old ways, combing ours and the neighbors’ barns (everybody had a barn, ours had 3 stories). Playing in barns was a major part of what we did. I remember one old barn on Locke Road had a Cord automobile in it. Even then I knew what I was looking at, because of the exhaust pipes exiting though the hood. They all had wagons, sleighs, old cars, workshops. The Walker’s barn had an old Willy’s and a homemade tractor Sandy and his friends used to race in the woods. We kept our horse there. It was magical. Ours used to be a hardware store. It was full of old radio equipment which I sadly never did learn to understand. I put together an old grinding wheel and a draw knife and made bows our of everything from blueberry wood to red oak. The neighbors, the Walkers, had an old Willy’s JEEP and a homemade tractor Sandy and his friends used to race around the fields. My sister used to keep her horse there.


Walker’s Barn

I inherited a wooden tool chest, a true antique, with hammer, saw, plumb bob and have had it as long as I can remember. My first toys were things I made, first out of cardboard boxes using a nail to perforate holes and cut them out), and then later out of lumber, and then in the woods. For years I made all of my models out of coat hanger armatures covered in masking tape. Once we built a 20′ tall stand in the trees so that we could have more height for our flying saucers before we hit the hills. I started the endless job of painting my parents’ house when I was 12. 3 stories in the front, 4 in the back with an attached barn. From the cupola of the barn, you could see the ocean. Used to be we could ride our bikes to the Harvest House up the street where they had an entire cart of penny candy and a  barrel of real dill pickles. The ash tree in our front yard was so huge, I once swept 15 bags of leaves out of the driveway, while the leaves on the tree were still green. Creating and playing in leaf piles was a major pastime. But I remember that after a certain amount of work my dad would always stop me, and we would go to the beach to fly kites. We had a huge stockpile of kites. Many of them redeemed from Green Giant box tops. Those were awesome kites! Can you imagine any company today having a promotion like that? Even without my dad, I used to fly kites after school. The simple, easy things like that. Have you ever flown a kite with a child? You want to do something cool, bring back the promotional kite to market your business!

One summer my “job” was to sell this little pamphlet on Rye history door-to-door. It was like $.50 and I don’t think I got anything for them.  My friend Brandt convinced me that I should sell them for a dollar and keep $.50/each. This was such a good idea that when I got caught, the people who published the pamphlet merely called my mom and said I should raise the price to a dollar and keep half. We would go to Donnie Steven’s dive shop and rent snorkeling gear and dive in our long underwear until he started outfitting us for free. I worked at Ray’s Lobster Pound one summer and saved $100 in $1 bills in tips to buy a suit. I put them in a paper bag and bungied them on the back of my dad’s Honda 750-four and went to Donnie’s with a friend on the back. At some point the back burst on Lang Road and my friend knocked on my helmet to let me know. We only found $97, but Donnie sold me the suit, a custom lemon yellow job his wife built, for the $97. For two summers I worked lobster boats, pulling up to 400 traps/day, at $40/day and $.10/trap.  At night we would unload the bait boats for close to $100/hr (1980) , which covered a pretty serious smuggling operation.

The houses were so far apart on Halloween we used to stash multiple costumes in a hedgerow, and keep changing so we could hit the same houses over and over again. Do you remember coloring cornucopias in school for Thanksgiving? Have you ever seen one? A bushel basket of produce? Cider from the local mill? I remember tasting it everyday cold in the barn, waiting for it to get hard. People used to come door-to-door on sleighs or wagons to carol, depending on the weather . I never learned to skate. I think it was because I always had yard-sale gear and my friends played hockey with the latest equipment. But I remember playing on Eel Pond, the goals must’ve been a half mile apart. In one direction the wind would push you the whole way without skating, but the trip back was hard for somebody with my few skills, like a piston, I was always out of phase with the game, showing up just when it changed direction.

So, no, I don’t need xBox, I don’t need a smartphone. I need a kite, and the time and solace to fly it with people I love, before they too have passed into memory.  I need to go home.

P.S. Who Are You and Where are You From?

Who is visiting me from the Ukraine?

WordPress gives me these awesome reports and I can see how people find me, where they live, how they found the blog, what pages they visited. I see people from Europe, Asia, South America, and I always wonder who they are. I would love to get comments from  you!