Knocking on Doors, Meeting Friendly Folk
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — SOMEWHERE on a scrap of paper - source unremembered - I wrote down years ago: "Not many sounds in life, and I include all urban and all rural sounds, exceed in interest a knock at the door."This is why so many amiable, trusting people responded to our knocks all along Route 1. We were insistent "knock on the door" journalists. People welcomed us and were candid and fearless with their stories and concerns. In our notebook we have inducted them into the Route 1 hall of fame and friendship. So, with the door open, meet octogenarian and marathon conversationalist Dorothy Vaughn from Portsmouth, N.H. Hers is a story of anger and apathy, of preservation and triumph in a shipbuilding town by the Piscataqua River. When she was a young girl she lived on Route 1. "I used to sit on the steps of the apartment building with a girlfriend," she says, "and keep a list of the out-of-state licenses on the cars going by." She also kept a curious eye on the historic John Paul Jones House on Route 1. Known as Middle Street, Route 1 curves directly through this tourist-flavored town. Jones stayed in the gambrel-roofed house while he supervised the outfitting of ships in 1771 and 1781. When women gathered at the house as volunteers to help the fighting doughboys during World War I, Vaughn knocked on the door one day. 'I told them I wanted to help win the war," she says. "They put me to work rolling bandages for the Red Cross." While there, she marveled at the interior of the old house and fell in love with it. A lifelong appreciation for beautiful old houses was launched. Years later, as she worked her way up to being city librarian (54 years in the library), she watched with growing anger as old houses went down and "beer joints and honky-tonks" went up. "It was awful," she says. "Nobody cared." In 1957 she "forced" her brother to let her talk to the Rotary Club. At that time, Rotarians did not welcome women. "I laid it on the line," she says, which is probably an understatement. "Do you want to live in all these beer joints and honky-tonks?" she asked the startled men. "I don't," she answered for them, and suggested that they shed their apathy and set up a commission to assess the problem. John Paul Jones would have been proud. From that tenacious beginning grew an organization (with Vaughn leading it for five years) known today as Strawbery Banke Museum. Thirty historic buildings, representing 350 years of architecture and life, have been restored on 10 acres in Portsmouth's south end, one block off of Route 1. The museum has the status of a mini-Williamsburg, with a host of programs and activities offered to the public. "We managed to get a $600,000 government grant for urban renewal," Vaughn recalls. "The city matched it, and away we went. The same architect who did Williamsburg did Strawbery Banke," she says proudly. ll tell you, I fought every inch of the way to keep the project going." Vaughn is no longer connected with Strawbery Banke, but still sits on the town's historical commission.On the day we interviewed her, Vaughn was seated in a sunny bay window of her current project in Portsmouth, the 1760 Wentworth Gardner House on Mechanic Street. The house is considered by experts to be one of the finest Georgian houses in the United States. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art owned it once," says Vaughn. "They were going to put it in Central Park in 1933. But they sold it for $10,000 during the Depression." She looks around the quiet sitting room. "Now we've saved it." Meanwhile, 115 miles away up the coast in small Robbinston, Maine, a tall, erect, and wistful Eddie Brooks stands in a gray, misting rain at the edge of Route 1. This is rural, forested Maine and Robbinston is a hamlet of a few houses. Route 1 is only two lanes here, and mostly empty. Mr. Brooks has been in the auto-repair business right here for 57 years. He has two problems on his hands; one is architectural and the other is legal. Behind him is an old auto-repair garage. Brooks built it in 1934 from logs on his property. Too many Maine winters have nudged it sideways, squashed it a little; it leans comically, propped up against the inevitable by six or seven two-by-fours. Rising out of the garage are the smells of oil and grease. It wouldn't be suitable for Strawbery Banke. "State came here and lowered the road," Brooks says, pointing to Route 1 only a few feet away. He rubs his whiskered face with a hand as gritty as the thousands of cars he's worked on. "And they widened it." Progress. The result was that Brooks had to disconnect his gas pumps just in front of the garage and face the difficulty of pushing cars up a hump to get them in the garage. Progress. After considerable thought, he and his wife, Helen, decided to sue the state. "It's been going on four years," says Helen, frowning. "We were awarded $3,000, and now the state wants it all back to cover the expenses of the people who testified." It's all a mystery to Brooks. In the meantime, he and his youngest son, Nelson, built a new, bigger, metal garage just behind the old one, and Brooks continues to work on cars as a metaphor for helping people. An example: A woman couldn't afford to have her car fixed, so Brooks found an old shirt to cover her clothes and showed her how to do it. She fixed the car. Helen opens a thick scrapbook of letters and news clips from people Brooks has helped. She turns the pages, talking about the good he's done for 57 years. A feature story from The Christian Science Monitor is dated 1974. "Not too long after that Dan Rather from CBS was here for two days," he says almost shyly. A car passes in the mist and beeps its horn. Brooks raises a craggy arm and waves happily as if the parade of his friends along Route 1 is just about to start.
Third of three. The first two parts of this series appeared on Nov. 15 and Nov. 22.