Greatest Generation — Bettey Menson

'Our Anchorage': Bettey and son reflect on their beloved house by sea

Marg Carroll

(The following reflections are drawn from a recorded conversation between Bettey Menson and her son, Jim.)

The Menson "anchorage"

BETTEY — The beginnings of “Our Anchorage” days start actually when my father came to Portsmouth be in charge of the dismantling of the old Merchant Marine shipyard. He came to Portsmouth as World War I was ending and was joined by my mother, prior to my being born, since housing was a real problem in Portsmouth, many in the community gave space in their houses to those who were employed, because of the war. But prior to that when my mother came to Portsmouth with me, and I was just two weeks old at the time, there was no housing that my father could find, so my mother and I joined him at the Rockingham Hotel, where we lived for several months while my mother and dad combed the area for some place for the three of us to live.

The Sweetser family had a beautiful old house on Cabot Street, and they were part of the community that gave their house for those who were unable to find a place to live.

We lived, then, with the Sweetser family for almost two years and it was a wonderful experience for all of us. We had become such a part of the family that we spent a month every year at Lake Winnipesaukee with them where they had been going for years and years to the campground area.


And one thing that I remember — not that I remember just by myself, but because it was my mother and the Sweetser family talking about it — the Sweetser’s daughter Katherine lost her husband, and I was sitting on the stairs, and not quite two years old, and she walked in from the funeral and she looked at me and she said “What are you doing?”  According to my mom and the Sweetsers, I said, “I’m waiting for Kitty. She’s coming and she’s going to be sad,” and that was the beginning of our wonderful, wonderful relationship which continued through the years. We finally did find a house on Wibird Street and were happy to be in a place of our own, but also continued the wonderful loving relationship that we had with the Sweetser family, for all of their lives and all of ours.

A major decision
When we lived on Wibird Street, there was a great deal of, “Should we stay here or should we go back to N.Y.?" where my father had originally started and had left his own construction business. It was a major decision for both my mother and father, because Portsmouth was in a recovery process from WWI, and I remember Harry Weinbaum and Mary Dondero and Mr. Jarvis and his brother all wanting my dad to stay in Portsmouth and to work with them and with other people in the community to bring Portsmouth back in to the kind of city that they really wished it would be. But despite the pressure and along with all the decision making, my mom and dad decided that it basically was wise to go back to New York and to pick up his business that he had left.

But the city of Portsmouth and the whole area were always a part of my father and my mother’s life.

So we didn’t have a place on the ocean. My mother used to speak so often of how they would picnic along the beach and along the rocks and how wonderful it had been and how much she missed that. She was an ocean person more than she was a lake person.

My father came to pick us up at Lake Winnipesaukee. We had been there for almost a month, and I must have been about probably 8 or 9 years old at that point. I remember driving down along the ocean and my father stopping the car and my mother getting out and my brother and I and my mother standing there, looking at the rocks and the ocean, and she said, “Oh, Jack, how some day I would love to have a house here.” And he looked at her and said, “By next year you will have a house here. I bought that piece of property that we’re standing on.”

And it is indeed the piece of property where he built her the house she spoke of so lovingly all of her life. And it is also the house that I have the privilege to own since my mom’s death. So then my mom was so overjoyed, we began all of the things necessary for putting a house on this lot that she loved. My mom and dad were fortunate in the fact that my uncle was an architect and designed the house and really supervised the building. At that time there were just fields, no streets, lots of stone walls. In fact some of the stone walls in this house were used to build the fireplaces and other things, and my father just loved the coast, loved the stones, and he also made sure that he was available and could add his comments as the house took place. My dad basically was the one who named the house “Our Anchorage”, and it certainly has been for all of the Menson/Carroll family, our anchorage, right up until today. You just mention New Hampshire and Rye to one of the grandchildren, one of my children, one of my great grandchildren and the immediate response is, “Oh, let’s go, let’s go.”

Depression, death, war
So it’s been a happy place, and it was a happy place to grow up in the summertime. It did present its difficulties though, to everybody in the region as the Depression took over people’s lives.

In fact my mother and father were only able to keep the house by renting rooms to tourists from Canada who just loved it here, and my family used only the upstairs of the house and the people who rented it used the downstairs; it was kind of a bed and breakfast. My mother would give them breakfast, and each year they would come back, because they had loved the ocean and the house and they loved my mother’s hospitality.

Then two major events occurred that relate to the area and our house and our lives: My dad died in 1939, and, in 1941, as war was declared, our house was taken over by the Army.

There was no notice to my mother. It was just war time, and we were fortunate, in a way, because our house was preserved where so many other houses were taken down with like, one week’s notice and there were some beautiful houses where the Odiorne State Park now is. There was no way they were allowed to keep those houses. I think one of the reasons that our house was saved is that our house was heated.

So 18 soldiers were quartered in our house for a period of what must have been about six months, as they built barracks right across our street. At the end of the street is the big tower, if you know Rye, the radar tower, that kept track of things that were going on the ocean, whether the German submarines were coming close. And there was a tunnel that went right under the road to a big gun which sat across the street.

In fact if you park in that area, even today, you can see where the old gun stood. There’s markings in the rock and some metal pieces still there.

So, we finally did get our house back, mostly through the efforts of one of my mother’s cousins, who was a lawyer and worked for over two years with the Army to be able to work out a proposition which would allow my mother to have the house back again. You can imagine that the house was not the house that we all knew, because 18 young men quartered in a house this size left their marks, indeed. But with a great deal of help from my mother’s brothers, uncles and all kinds of friends, we were able to put the house back together again.

Post-war change
After 1946, and after we had reclaimed the house, my husband and I and the four children that we had at that point came from Indiana where we were living, to spend a month here at the ocean, and what a wonderful time that was, and how much we looked forward to it.

Things definitely were in the process of change. New houses were started. There was an attempt at putting some roads in, and that gave difficulty to the lots and the land and where the houses should be, because up till that point there was a plan, but nobody had paid much attention to it. However, the area just kept developing. The fields were gone and the stone walls were gone and there were more people, as the area grew and as the population grew.

Along with the addition of new houses, there was a real change as far as the beach was concerned, because the road at that point ran directly along what is the stone wall that we see at the beach now. Across the street was a place called 'Dinnerman’ where all the kids would take the bottles that they collected on the beach and where you could buy penny candy and just a place that was a child’s delight, as well as a grownup’s delight, too.  There was also was a very lovely tearoom, that all disappeared as they changed the routing and made the area into a state park. There was more building along the beach, houses were being torn down and new ones put up so that there were a lot of things going on and continued to go on, and Rye continues to grow.

SON JIM — And I started coming up every summer with my family, starting when I was about 9 months old, and have returned every summer, for every year.  I have been here even though we’ve moved different places through the US. This place seems like the one constant place in my life, most because I always return to it and also because of the meaning of ‘Our Anchorage’ and the house.

When I was young it was always a lot of fun to come to the shore. It was fun to go to the beach, to Wallis Sands to play on the beach and swim and also we quite often used to go right across the street off the rocks and swim off the rocks, and we used to swim off the near side, which was kind of a small pool and we used to go off the far side, which was diving out into the ocean. I always recall how cold the water is and how your heart almost stops as you jump in, and you can almost feel it stop and start back up, but just with an exhilarating feeling.

We also used to wander down the shore to some of the little beaches, small beaches, one we called Carroll’s beach, which was maybe just a 20-foot wide beach, and explore all the different rocks and walk up and down the shoreline.

What was the favorite activity kind of changed as your grew up, sometimes it was Wallis Sands, sometimes it was rocks, sometimes it was swimming off the rocks.  But always it was fond memories and always loving to be here, of when my grandmother had the house and when my parents had the house.

And as I got older and developed more concerns and issues to resolve, and some of the more perplexing issues of life, this place always remained a refuge, a place to kind of sit and listen to the waves and clear my head and get perspective as I worked my way through the teenage years and into college and beyond. I know my whole family feels that way, that this is a special place we can come and kind of re-sense our priorities. I started coming with my young children, when they were again, about the same age I was coming here. Katy and Nick were one when they first got here. They have continued to come every summer, and Katy became a resident of New Hampshire, and now, Maine.

House adjustments
BETTEY — When my mother died, my brother and I inherited the house together, but after some consideration and also some time, he and his wife decided that they did not want to be a part of the house. So over the next several years, my husband and I gradually bought them out. We also looked at the house from the viewpoint of its use and balancing it with our budget and our large family of children and college expenses and all the things that we all go through. But we were always dedicated to the fact that somehow or other, we would all be able to keep this house. Which we have done, indeed, and loved every minute of it. We did do alterations to the house in 1978. We enlarged the house, put a garage in the back and even now we have plans, and my children have plans, my grandchildren have plans about what will be the next step as far as the house is concerned, because the family grows and the need for usable space increases. We do have the potential of being able to enlarge and to expand on what my generation did to the house.

In 1992, actually the day of The Perfect Storm, my husband and I moved up here as permanent residents. It was interesting and really kind of funny, because we hadn’t been here for very long when we had gotten our license plate which said “RYE BEACH” with a plus on it, and I came out of the store at one point and there was a man standing looking at my car and looking at the license plate, and he said to me, “Are you a native?”, and I kind of looked at him and I said, “well, I came here when I was 2 months old and I said, “Oh, and my brother was born in Portsmouth.” He kind of took a look at that car again and said, “Well, I guess it’s OK.”  and walked away from me kind of mumbling, and I think he wasn’t real happy with our conversation, but he was accepting of it. And that kind of made me feel good too, that even though I was not a real native, why, it was ok.

After The Perfect Storm, of course, like everybody else around here, we needed to see what needed to be done as far as our house was concerned, and we spent time not only thinking about what we’d do with the house, but also beginning to enjoy what it was like to be a permanent resident of Rye, living here all year long. We both became involved with activities of the area like the Rye Art Study Club and the church activities, and I became really interested also in some of the opportunities for being involved in the  decision-making processes in the town and was made a member of the Board of Adjustment and served on that board for 11 years. And what a great experience that was for me. I had an opportunity to get to know people and to learn about the growth and to be a part of decisions, trying with other members of the Board to be able to look forward but also to look backward on all that Rye had to offer each one of us.

JIM — So through all the changes that Rye’s gone through, and our family’s gone through, and I’ve gone through, this house in Rye has stayed an anchor for us, a place, an anchorage for us, a place to arrive, and find ourselves settled in the ground; it’s become a place where we can enjoy family, tell stories, leave a candle in the window for the next people coming in, a comfort and …

When we were in Ireland, not too long ago, driving up to Malahide Castle, we stopped along the coast there and I looked out and could understand what my grandfather felt, looking off this coast here at Rye, when it reminded him of his home in Ireland, and that special feeling of looking out at the sea.

BETTEY — And so our story ends, and I feel, just standing at the window and looking out at the ocean every single day of my life, brings peace to my soul, and I am so thankful for my mother’s and father’s decision to build this house for my family to love it as they do, to help us to keep the family feeling and to care for each other.

September, 2009