Bill Varrell--An Appreciation

Alex Herlihy

Never did I think I would be writing twice within the year about the loss of
two stalwarts of Rye history. Last August it was Bonnie Goodwin, and now it
is Bill Varrell, our town historian, whom we lost on July 23.

Bill was born in 1936 into one of Rye's founding families, the Varrells, and his mother came from another such family, the Philbricks.  Growing up on Washington Road, also known as Sandy Beach road in earlier times, he was steeped in the town's history and learned at an early age to listen to his parents, their friends and remember the stories of the oldtimers. Bill worked at the Salty Breeze snack bar at Foss Beach with his sister Cynthia and later was employed at the Ocean Wave Hotel (where Crown Colony is today), south of Stinky Creek. These experiences just deepened his interest and desire to know more about his native town, and he began talking to people in a more formal manner, collecting stories, reading old newspaper clippings on Rye and combing the existing sources.

In 1962 Bill self-published Rye On the Rocks: The Tale of a Town that Resorted to Resorting.  I have to say that I am so glad he did not give the book to a publisher who might have airbrushed Bill's homespun style. Reading this book again after all these years is like hearing Bill give one of his many slide show talks here in town that were peppered with anecdotes, irreverent and otherwise, and it reminds me of our many talks in his home where I went to soak up his lore. Bill's book is the closest thing we have to a complete town history, since Parson's history was published in 1905. But more than that, it is such a readable story, not filled with dry facts, but with the spirit of someone who loved his town and its people and listened closely to their stories. Humor is such an essential aspect of good writing, and Rye on the Rocks takes the measure of all aspects of the town, follies included.

Bill served four years in the Air Force but stayed in close touch with the goings on in town through news clippings his mother sent him. While studying hotel administration at UNH, he became more aware of the large number of resorts in Maine and N.H. during the Victorian era. In 1966 he married Martha Walsh of Jamaica Plain, Mass., and they moved to Ipswich, a compromise between their two hometowns. Bill worked at Filene's for many years, but his love of history soon carried over into the ancient town of Ipswich, about which he eventually published two Acadia books.

Still, he was not done with Rye which played a prominent place in his second self-published book, Summer by the Sea: The Golden Era of Victorian Beach resorts.  In this book Bill chronicled resorts from Old Orchard Beach to Salisbury Beach, including Portsmouth and more details about Rye. He even dealt with White Mountain resorts. His original interest in Rye resorts and his studies at UNH paid great dividends. Both of these books sold well as there was a high interest in both topics. Certainly both books deserve reprinting today.

By the 1980's Bill was fully involved in the ancient history of his adopted town, but he still had time to return to Rye for the annual historical society picnic and give a talk on Rye resorts of the Victorian era. He kept close contacts in town and often visited his mother, Mary, a prominent member of the society and long-time teacher at Rye School.


In the 1990's Acadia began publishing the familiar illustrated town histories, and it was only a matter of time before Bill was asked to write Rye and Rye Beach published in 1995. Soon after that he began making regular visits to Historical Society- sponsored slide shows and talks about the town. The first in the Rye Beach community hall was mobbed, so the next ended up in the Junior High auditorium. By this time the town museum was undergoing restoration so there was a lot more interest in Rye history. Bill made his final appearance at the 25th anniversary of the society in 2001 giving a memorable and humorous talk in the church vestry, and he was there at the opening of the museum in July 2002. The large Farragut Hotel sign in the current exhibit on Rye Resorts was a gift from Bill, not to mention many other donations of photos and documents. We will be busy transcribing tapes made of his talks to give a fuller account to the town of his great knowledge. In my last conversation with him this past June he wanted me to know that he had willed all of his Rye resources to our Historical Society.

Bill Varrell gave to his home town as only a native son can do, with all his heart.  He unearthed and preserved for us the fabric of life of those who built Rye, and he never forgot the village that nurtured him. We are all the richer for his life and work.  

(Alex Herlihy is chair of the Rye Historical Society)

September, 2007