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Betsy Hyam

INTERVIEWER: Were you born here in Salem?

BH: Yes I was, Salem Hospital. But I grew up in Marblehead and never left.

IN: So you’re still in Marblehead now and you grew up there. Are you still living in the same house you grew up in?

BH: I am.Well, actually—take that back. No, I grew up in—born in Salem Hospital, grew up in Marblehead, lived my whole life in a three-hundred and fifty year old house in Marblehead, and then, when I was married, I lived two other places in Marblehead.

IN: But still in Marblehead.

BH: Right. A little confusing.

IN: How did you first hear about the House of the Seven Gables?

BH: I had a friend who worked in the gift shop and I was talking to her and she said that she heard they might be looking for guides. So she asked me if I’d be interested in applying. And I wanted something part-time, because my children were younger—something I could just work part days so I’d be home in time for them. And I said, “Well, I don’t know if I can do that. I’m so shy.” Anyway, to make a long story short, I took a chance and I went for an interview and here I am.

IN: So what year was this?

BH: Thinking back, I think it was 1985—and when I had the interview, it was—our director was Edward Stevenson—who has since passed away. And his office was in the House with Seven Gables in our curator, Alex Mason’s office. And we were in the office where—the regular office at the House with Seven Gables, believe it or not, was in the guides’ room. I’d come in and I would go into the guides’ room—there’d be, you know, a secretary and, you know, tables and chairs and file cabinets. I’d go to report in there and then I’d go upstairs to Mr. Stevenson’s office. So, very different.

IN: Yeah, because now the administrative offices are on the other property or the other homes on the property. So 1985, around then, of course the house has changed. So what did the house look like when you first arrived?

BH: Well, basically, obviously the structure was the same. But the big differences were all the different decorative features, like all the paint. Doing all the research, all the new paint we have in the parlor and the paint in the great chamber—and all the wallpaper, the beautiful wallpaper in the great chamber and the beautiful wallpaper in the parlor. So wallpaper and paint and then we’ve added new artifacts to the house. So those are probably the biggest things. And then, a new room—the accounting room. That was just a storage area—that wasn’t there before. So basically that—what’s interesting is—of course, this building is an administrative building. It wasn’t built yet. There was a smaller building right on this site—

IN: At the same spot?

BH: —but a smaller building and what we would do is that there would be a little, small film that we’d show. But the guides wouldn’t be in the guides’ room, because that was the office way back then—we would be on the first floor of Fippin. So we’d be in the first floor of Fippin—one of the larger, back rooms and what they do is they’d give us a buzz over there and say, “Please come pick up your tour”—over in this little building—and they would take our tour and go right in the House of the Seven Gables. So, very different. And of course, the tour—I mean, what’s to say about the tour? I mean, we had like, eight directors—we’ve had probably eight tours. Way back, the tour was more—how do I say it—more of the social history, telling more about the individual people and what they wore and what they did work-wise—what they cooked in the kitchen. And we would tell a lot of little stories about things—which we found out later on were, as they call them, myths—not historically accurate—so we stopped saying them. So it was quite different—now it’s—as you know, the tour is more historically correct and we have the different emphasis on the themes now, which we didn’t have then. So that was—I think that was one of the hardestparts—not going through the different directors, but to keep changing the tours.

IN: And so was there a focus on Hawthorne or the families or just general?

BH: Actually, we did talk more about Hawthorne, not just in his house, but on the tour, we did talk more about Hawthorne and some of his works and his life, and, you know, his marriage and his children, et cetera. So we did talk a little bit more about Hawthorne than we do now.

IN: And so you—the tour would also go through the Hawthorne House like it does today?

BH: We would. In the beginning, we did—we just did two house tours. I mean, that was hard, too, in the beginning, because you had the run of the whole House of the Seven Gables and then you had to run the whole Hawthorne House, too, so it would be about forty-five/fifty minutes in doing the two houses. I can’t remember what time period it was when they just had the house—the self-guided tours and they had guides stationed there. But in the very beginning, we had the—we just did two house tours.

IN: Okay. And, okay—someone mentioned earlier—who was around the same time as Chris Patton—said there was some kind of a café or a restaurant. Do you remember that?

BH: There was a little—in this admissions building, there was a small café. You could get, you know,coffee and muffins, cider, juice—things like that. There was a small café, but very basic, yeah.

IN: So would the staff sort of do things together there? Or was it—

BH: There was one point—I think it was during the holiday time, I can’t remember the dates of these, unfortunately—we had to make cookies and sell them to the visitors.

IN: Oh, okay.

BH: But that was just during the holidays. I think it was during Christmastime and during October. And of course, in October, then, was nothing like it is now.

IN: Oh, yeah—tell me about October.

BH: I mean, it was just—I mean, now it’s basically the whole month is a big celebration, but it really wasn’t that different. I don’t—we had a few festivities at night, I think—random things. But we didn’t have all the performances we have now. And it was more—if we had anything, it was more the weekend of Halloween. It didn’t go the whole month.

IN: Okay.

BH: So that’s sort of vague—it just was not such a big production as it is now.

IN: As it is now in Salem, in general, or just at the House of Seven Gables?

BH: In Salem, in general, you’d see the festivities going on, but just around that weekend. I mean, I don’t even know if they had a big, huge parade like they have now. They might have had a parade during the weekend. But certainly not to the extent it is, now—and you didn’t see—you’d never see people coming in Halloween costumes, visiting the house, either.

IN: So how has the Gables involved the community over the years that you’ve been here? Can you remember special events that they put together or—

BH: We’d have different functions in the garden for things going on in the community. And the Settlement House would have different things going on—fundraisers, too—I can’t remember any specifics. But they did do a few things like that, yeah.

IN: And how do you remember the Settlement House from back then? Some people don’t always sort of relate the two together—were they more in unity or—

BH: Well, I don’t remember which director it was—if it was—somewhere in the middle of the directors, if it was David Goss or whoever it was—we did have—at one point, we did have a couple lectures about what the Settlement House does. And then you’d go over and visit the Settlement House, talk to some of the teachers there and just sort of watch all the kids play, things like that. They tried to have us understand what was going on so it wasn’t so separate—so we would know what was happening in that big building across the street. So they tried to get us, you know, a little bit more involved with that.

IN: Now, do you have any particular memories of the people you worked with? People you might still keep in touch with?

BH: Actually—yes, to a couple of those things. Some of the people way back that I worked with—for example, well, you probably—did you know—Terri Delangowski, I’m not sure when she was here—but Terri Delangowski, Dot Barney, Joyce Davies—for example, are some that I worked with. And when I first came here, they sort of—they sort of were like, mentoring me. We do get together on occasion. We get together usually once in the summer and we get together once around the holiday time. So, I still talk to them. And some of them are—have visited the House, too—recently—to see all the changes, et cetera. So I do see them.

IN: Do you have any particular stories or memories that you would like to share about the Gables over the years? I mean, you always share all these great things about the costume changes and—funny things.

BH: Yeah, besides the scripts and the directors and the costumes—they are right there, too, with the changes—when I first started here, we could just wear our “street” clothes—just what we wanted, as long as it wasn’t too risqué, that it was in good taste.

IN: [laughs]

BH: And I think there was some temperature, it had to be thirty degrees or whatever that we could wear slacks. Otherwise we had to wear skirts or dresses—just anything that was conservative, we could wear. That was for a good period of time. Then we went to various different costumes—we had to wear—they issued us a white top and a navy blue skirt that we had to wear for awhile. Then we had a cranberry-colored skirt and a white top for awhile. And then we had period costumes for awhile—you know, almost a Victorian—with a high neck, ruffled—white blouse, long sleeves, and long skirts. We had that for a period of time, too. And then—I don’t—I guess it was—I’m not sure if it was five or six years ago—we wore our black and white costume—our uniform, whatever you’d like to call it—which probably is more practical, because everybody seems to have things that are black and white. And the trouble with the costumes at different times—you know, when people would leave the Gables, et cetera, they were always, constantly having to be repaired and then had to be altered to fit somebody.

IN: Right.

BH: And then some of the skirts didn’t work out well because—especially the one that was sort of cranberry red—no matter how many times you washed it, it ran all over your undergarments, so that was an issue. So we’re very happy—I’m very happy now with the black and white. It’s easy—simple. [laughs]

IN: Much easier than the Victorian, lacy outfits you had to wear.

BH: Yeah, right.

IN: How about some of those myths that you’d tell in the tours? Can you remember them? Some are them are really funny.

BH: Oh, heavens. I remembered them so long in my brain and then I had to just completely cut them off. Well, they used to say—obviously—the biggest thing, obviously, was the secret or hidden staircase. We used to always say—of course, the dates are all wrong. We know now—but then we used to say it was used for the Underground Railroad to hide slaves on their way to Canada. We would also say they would hide from the Indians there. And then the third thing we’d say about it was merchants like to smuggle goods and not pay the high input tax, so they hid their smuggled goods in there. So those three things we’d say, always. Then, we’d always say the dining room, they’d call it a “keeping room” because the lady would keep her china and silver there. And then the nails in the front door—there were four hundred—oh my word, let’s see—there were four hundred and eighty-seven nails in the front door and nails were a sign of wealth. So that’s why you could—you can come to the conclusion that the people who lived here were wealthy.

IN: Oh, I didn’t know that one. [laughs]

BH: Oh, heavens—those are just some things that I had to immediately erase from my brain when I started this current tour. Oh, last thing—the dining room table—in the dining room, people would change their seat between courses. They’d change seats because that way you could—people would have a chance at being warmer, being closer to the fireplace.

IN: Oh—so it was like a rotating dinner table?

BH: Like the modern day musical chairs, I suppose—I don’t know. [laughs]

IN: What kind of impact do you think the Gables has had on your life? You’ve been here for a couple years now—more than a couple years.

BH: When I started this job, I was doing a lot of volunteer work—which I still continue to do, through hospitals, through my church. I volunteer at the Salem Mission. In any case, I was doing volunteer and part-time jobs and I thought, “Well, I think this is something completely different than I’ve ever done, so I’ll start this part-time job and see if I can do it," since I was basically shy, which my current colleagues laugh about. If it works out with my family, with my kids—because I had been working hours—we call them “mother’s hours”—I’d be working from, like, ten to two—or ten to 2:30. And then college students would come in and take over, and I would go pick up my children from school, et cetera. That’s why we didn’t work weekends, most of us, or the summer, because our children were in school. So I’d do it a few days a week and see how it worked, and then I got to meet people I really enjoyed. And I loved the house and I love the property and the setting, so I thought, “Well, let’s just keep doing this.” And it just sort of kept going and going and going. And I cannot believe I’ve been here as long as I have. And I like it because, for me, especially now— when I’m older—it’s very flexible as far as hours and days [are concerned]. And it just is a very pleasant place to work. And I’m not one—I don’t think I could sit at a desk all day long and stare at a computer screen. I like the people and I like to interact with people. I like young children. And I like to move around. So as long as I can still walk and talk and they still want to have me here, I’ll probably do this a little bit longer. I don’t know, we’ll just see what happens. But it's a great spot.

IN: And it’s also beautiful, right on the water.

BH: I know! I mean, I never thought—sitting here, I never would have thought I’d be here this long. I really didn’t. So—and I keep meeting new people, which is great—I mean, new staff, too. The only thing that’s hard sometimes—you meet people you work with, now, and you get to know them well. And you have a rapport with them and all of a sudden, after a year or two, they’ve gone on to do something else. But that’s the nature of the beast, you know, in this town.

IN: Now, I forgot to ask you—you grew up in Marblehead—so do you remember ever coming here as a kid?BH: When I got the job here, I came over to the site and at first I wasn’t even sure where it was, which was embarrassing. I think I did come when I was a girl scout or a brownie—I didn’t come with my parents, which is strange. But I came with a group when I was probably eleven or twelve. And like all people today, the only thing I remembered, obviously, was the secret staircase. I didn’t remember anything else.

IN: You're the one who tells us all the stories about what’s happened in the house over the years. When people ask me things, I’m like, “Oh, ask Betsy—she probably knows.”

BH: I know. It’s funny—as the years go on, now, I’m hearing less and less of that.


Betsy Hyam