Hunter Stetz | History Naturalist, Seacoast Science Center
Summer tourism has been an inseparable component of New Hampshire’s economy our whole lives. The industry employs over 50,000 people and generates over $5 billion a year. However, the tourism industry is a 19th-century phenomenon brought about by an array of factors that transformed where and how society spends its time.
Before the mid-1800s, Rye was infrequently visited by long-distance travelers because it lacks any major routes that would have necessitated one to pass through it. Municipalities like Hampton and Portsmouth were within the main north-south route that we know as Lafayette Road (Route 1). Rye was, to put it simply, “out of the way.” However, the First Industrial Revolution of the first half of the 19th century restructured where people live and spend their time within our country. Countless folks left their small agrarian hometowns in pursuit of economic opportunities in mill towns and cities. This significantly depopulated small towns that relied on adolescents and young adults to work family farms and small businesses. New Hampshire farms struggled to adapt to this transformation because there were now enormous agricultural operations in the Midwest and Great Plains that could mass produce for profit. Such a shift was easier said than done for small farms that generally only subsistence farmed on an already limited amount of land. Farmsteads were slowly being abandoned or leased to adjacent agriculturists. For example, the Odiorne family began leasing their field to other farms in the 1800s because fewer family members stayed in the area and because those that remained found more lucrative jobs.
To address the increasing amount of “idle” land and decreasing population, some agricultural leaders promoted that New Hampshire was a sanctuary for affluent urbanites to “get back to nature.” This approach was not well-received by New Hampshire citizens and those leaders were ultimately voted out of their positions. However, the impact of the advocacy for repurposing abandoned farms and farmland was irreversible and the transition continued.
Additional societal factors that fueled tourism were the development of dedicated leisure time, the expansion of long-distance transportation networks, and a growing desire for reprieves from overcrowded city life. All of these changes can be attributed to the First Industrial Revolution.
Now that we have some context, back to Odiorne Point! The land on Frost Point upon which the Sagamore House briefly stood was vacant until it was purchased around 1890 by Dr. W. Duncan McKim of New York. Shortly thereafter, he built “Sagamore Farm,” a large private summer home with several outbuildings. He even had a separate building erected for his wife to practice and perform on her pipe organ!
The infrastructure around Odiorne Point was gradually changing as well. Ocean Boulevard (Route 1A) was extended southerly along the coast until reaching Wallis Sands. This required bringing in gravel to build the ground up above the tidal marshes. Dr. McKim built a 100-foot pier on Little Harbor and the US Army Corps of Engineers completed a long breakwater off of Frost Point to insulate the harbor from the roughest of the ocean’s elements. Unfortunately, a side effect of breakwaters is that they tend to accelerate sediment accumulation inshore which leads to the need to periodically dredge the inshore.
Not all plans for development of Odiorne Point were successful, however. Cyrus and Charles Eastman of Littleton, NH, built a house and barn in the early 1870s. Their home stood near the playground on the southern end of the park. The Eastmans subdivided most of their land into small lots in anticipation of increased tourism along the coast. Only one parcel was sold, but it remained undeveloped. The rest of the land was sold in 1906 to Charles Shillaber, who also did nothing with the property before selling it in 1921.
It seems most Rye residents were generally receptive to the shift from a small community to a tourist destination because of the economic opportunities that arose from it. Though Odiorne Point’s Resort Era was ended by World War II, Rye as a whole has not lost its appeal to summer residents and transient tourists. In 2023, it is clear that most tourists visit New Hampshire for the same reasons that tourists visited the state in the 19th century.
P.S. There will be a guided history walk on Thursday, July 20, 2023 highlighting the Resort Era in Rye. We hope you can make it; registration is required!