The past came to claim Rye this month. It walked over and stood on patches of grass near Milton Road, Purchase Street, Locust Avenue, and Smith Street, startling Rye residents who thought they knew every square inch of their town.
By Alison Brett
The past came to claim Rye this month. It walked over and stood on patches of grass near Milton Road, Purchase Street, Locust Avenue, and Smith Street, startling Rye residents who thought they knew every square inch of their town. It protruded from the parks, pointing to the diversity of people who lived here throughout a period of more than 200 years, demanding that we read their stories and seek knowledge of the history of our community.
Launched in 2010 as a way to raise awareness of the town’s history, Walk Rye History is a self-guided tour that will include 22 signs, incorporating photos and text, focusing on the social history of Rye and how it relates to the rest of the world. Six signs describing the history of the Square House, Village Green, Firehouse, Knapp House, Cemetery, and Timothy Knapp House, have already been installed, and the rest will be in place by early September.
A member of the Rye Historical Society board of trustees suggested the idea for a permanent walking tour at a board meeting in 2005. After Rye celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2010, former Historical Society president and City Councilwoman Laura Brett (my mom for full disclosure) raised the idea again. Brett assembled a fundraising team and Historical Society trustee Pamela McGuire took the reins in creating the tour.
“Walk Rye History is a social history of Rye, where, rather than focusing on dates, we give people a feel for what life was like in Rye during the time period,” said McGuire. “The personal dimension is who lived in those places and what was important for them.”
In contrast to the Historical Society’s annual guided walking tours in the fall, the new self-guided tour views history from a more general perspective. The annual two-hour tours cover a specific time period or area in town and are more detailed on one subject; the self-guided tour, on the other hand, features every aspect of history from the beginnings of the Timothy Knapp House in the early 1600s to the life of Caroline O’Day, a woman in the 1920s.
“What makes Rye special is that it has all these layers of past and present,” McGuire said. “Visually — it’s beautiful to walk around. Intellectually — people who made such important contributions to the country and to the local community lived right around the corner.”
Already, a sign for the Firehouse and Rye YMCA features a story about the “much-beloved Y Secretary,” Pa Cope, who helped generations of boys in Rye find their way through college, and whose spirit is remembered today. Soon to be installed, signs, such as one on Rye’s Commercial District, feature photos and descriptions of places Rye residents still commonly visit.
However, the opening of such signs to the public would not have been made possible had it not been for the support from the City Council, Department of Public Works, and other local sponsors. In a sense, the display of the signs is a representation of community effort to promote Rye’s history.
“What is great about Rye is we have such a passionate and active community that good ideas usually start from the bottom-up from our residents,” Mayor Doug French wrote. “My job as mayor is to encourage and support the ones that match Rye’s past and future goals. Preserving our history is one, and we were very supportive of this initiative at the outset.”
After the Council formally supported the Walk Rye History project last spring, the City Manager and DPW came together to install the signs, including the ones seen around town today.
Sponsorship for the signs came from Real Estate agencies, families, and local businesses including Carpet Trends, Corner Stone Caterers, Piazza Pizzeria, Playland Market, and Rye Beach Pharmacy.
Piazza Pizza owner Ross Barone said his decision to contribute “was a no-brainer. A self-guided tour keeps history alive — people come up, some parents forward it on to their children, new people come into town and see it — it just makes Rye’s history better known. You’re not gonna find that local flair elsewhere.”
Currently, other plans for the Walk Rye History tour include an online version of the tour as a subset to the Historical Society webpage, a Google Maps interactive view of the sites on the tour, as well as an application for Smart phones that would allow users to listen to a tour narrated by Rye High School volunteers. In the meantime, six signs are open to the public for viewing, with more to come soon. Stay posted.