I received some obvious but important advice from a friend two years ago, as I prepared for my fist trip to Onset in almost 25 years: “Expect everything to be different.” Well, yes. of course. In my excitement about the trip, those obvious words were helpful. There were lots of surprises and changes. That was a good thing. Rather than be disappointed by the changes, I met them with a measure of relief.
When my parents officially moved to Onset, around 1944, or a little later, they bought a house in Point Independence. It was a large corner lot on an acre of ground. The driveway went around it in a horseshoe configuration, and there was a dirt road from their property all the way to the beach.
THE COTTAGES: MARCELLINO’S REAL ESTATE
I don’t know whose idea it was to build the cottages, Maggie’s or Jack’s or both, but it was a pretty smart idea. Between the proximity to Onset Beach and the proximity to Otis Air Force Base, they had no problem renting them, either to “summer people” or to young Air Force couples. The cottages were modest, mostly two bedrooms with eat in kitchens, small bathrooms with showers, not tubs, and they were furnished. Jack did much of the outside work, along with a neighbor who was retired Air Force and a local contractor. Maggie did the inside work; she picked out furniture, made curtains and couch covers, laid linoleum, (flooring), cleaned the cottages between residents and handled most or all of the renting duties. She also handled the bills, contacted local contractors as needed and at least on one occasion, crawled under one of the cottages to wrap frozen water pipes.
There were times I know she was afraid: there were times I know she was lonely, but in all times I knew she was competent. I don’t know how she knew how to do most of the things she did. She took the commercial course her one year of high school, that was where she learned typing and shorthand and other office skills. She learned how to sew when she was in fourth grade, and sewed all of her life, until about the last two months before she died. She did not have any special training for running a business, but growing up in the poverty of the early 1900’s, she learned a lot about being careful with money. She and Jack were both young working adults by the time of the 1929 stock market crash. She must have liked making curtains and spreads because it is something she did a lot. Even years later, in her own apartment, she would make curtains and a bed spread to match and changed them two or three times a year.
THE UNION VILLA
Maggie worked hard, and truthfully, some of that came with the territory. She did not get a clothes dryer until 1970! Prior to that, everything had to be hung outside to dry, even at the Union Villa. Ironing clothes and sheets were standard, and most things had to be sprinkled before you could iron them. I still own an iron and an ironing board but only use them when I am desperate. With the fabrics of most of our clothes, and linens, that kind of work is not needed. There was no dishwasher either, not even at The Union Villa. Some of the work she did was just necessity, and some of it was how she coped. I did grow up a little spoiled. When I tried to help with ironing my own clothes she said I was taking that away from her, and she needed to do it. I was about 16 and dad was back out to sea. Now she was lonely in a much bigger house, a five story hotel, and I was still away at boarding school during the week.
Jack worked hard too, but when the bar was closed and they were working on projects in the winter, he would stop working a few hours before her and say, “Come on Maggie, why don’t you knock off?” I was never aware of money growing up. I know that my dad made good money in the Merchant Marine, and we had what we needed, but they reinvested everything back into the business and there was no real luxury. They didn’t go out and buy themselves things, the money they did spend on themselves was mostly on entertainment, dinners out and yes, all those drinks.
When they bought the Union Villa, it was much the same. Maggie, at 52, was on her hands and knees laying linoleum in the hallways of the hotel, and hanging new curtains in the rooms. They spent the winters replacing old furniture in the bar and remodeling. It wasn’t anything extravagant, but it looked nice. Most of all, as much as possible, they did their own work. When the bar was closed for the winter and everything else was cleaned, she took the curtains down from the windows, took them to our apartment and soaked them in the kitchen sink repeatedly, until the water turned from dark grey until it was finally clear, with all the nicotine washed out.
When we returned to Onset in 1994 for my mother’s burial, we had less than 40 hours in town. I did notice that the cottages had been renovated and improved, some had solar panels in the roof. I didn’t have a lot of time to sit and stare. You can drive on the road, but there is no street parking, only private driveways. When we returned in 2018 I had more time to look, and even more time to spend walking around and taking pictures when I was there last fall. In 1994 the Union Villa still looked like I remembered it, but it was mostly empty. The bar was no longer there, but there was a Real Estate office in the corner of the downstairs. When I was home last fall, it was completely different. It was no longer The Union Villa Hotel, Bar and Restaurant, but the U.V. Apartments.
WHAT ELSE CHANGED?
In the intervening years, the cottages have been totally renovated in some cases rebuilt from the foundation up. A few of the cottages added a second floor, many have solar panels and decks and most have a second door, which was probably a legal necessity as housing codes were revised. The funniest change I experienced however, was in 1994, when we returned to town for the second part of my mother’s funeral. I had been talking to my husband about the wonderful seafood we used to get from Besse’s Seafood Market, just across the stone bridge. Locals who are old enough remember, you could call up and order fried seafood to go, fish, scallops, clams and more. Or you could go in and order it and watch them prepare it. I still remember watching them toss the seafood in question in the egg wash, and milk, the flour, watching the cooks shake the wire mesh basket up while the flour flew every which way. I remember the smells, the lobster tank, the sizzling sound of the basket going into the deep fryer. Or, if you wished you could buy fresh seafood and cook it at home. I talked about it so much that my mouth was watering. I couldn’t wait to get there. I took my husband and daughter and we pulled up into the parking lot, of … a closed ice cream shop. I think it is a Real Estate office today, but if I am wrong I am sure someone will correct me.
CHANGE IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD
I said in the beginning of this post that I was relieved by the changes I saw. Change is essential to growth. Truthfully, I love what I see in both the cottages and The U.V. because real people live there. The really hard thing, would have been to arrive in Onset and see that the buildings had been abandoned, torn down or otherwise dilapidated. But people, investors, have loved them into new life! I love that! I love the fact that the two “mom and pop” businesses that were the heart of my parents’ work, livelihood and energy, are still that for someone. And I am not saying it is because of them, it is not because of Maggie and Jack. The present incarnation of both of those places is because others have looked at those sites, those buildings and seen new possibilities and invested funds and energy and hope and loved them into a new existence. But because of Jack and Maggie’s vision and work, seeing what those places have become fills me with hope, joy and gratitude.
Sometime soon, I will show my hometown some love, and share with you some of the good things that are available in Onset today. Summer is coming with all kinds of opportunities for family vacations and getaways.
In the meantime though,
Not holding back the tide,