By Dave Rogers
---- — PLUM ISLAND — A last-ditch effort to save the Bennett Hill House from falling into the ocean could be heard and felt this past weekend as a small fleet of excavators and trucks began building a rock barrier in front of the iconic beach house.
Using a private parking lot across Plum island Center as a staging area, work crews from Jamco Excavators of South Hampton hauled large boulders onto the beach area and began dumping them in front of the 19th-century house sitting precariously close to the edge of a 25-foot-tall dune.
The money to pay for the massive endeavor came from many sources, according to Jamco Excavators foreman Jamie Watkins, including neighbors who stepped up to help the Bennett family keep their house.
Current caretaker John Bennett said he was overwhelmed by the level of support shown by his neighbors, who have long banded together when faced with adversity.
“The support from the community was really overwhelming to me. It just was awesome,” Bennett said.
The house has been owned by the Bennett family since 1910 when George Bennett purchased the building before buying the land in 1921. Since then three generations of Bennetts have spent many of their summers inside the house, all along keeping the house as close to its original state as possible. It is a prominent landmark on Plum Island.
Watkins said he expects shoring efforts to take about a week. Watkins said he is familiar with the challenges presented by working on the beach including foul weather and uneven sand, having been here last winter.
Last March, homeowners threatened with the loss of homes paid tens of thousands of dollars to install a series of large rocks in front of their beachfront homes. The move, which came after six houses were lost to Mother Nature, was done without the approval of the Department of Environmental Protection, which has been against the installation of hard surface barriers, but the state did not interfere.
Those rocks, according to selectman chairman Joe Story, helped prevent further property damage after a large winter storm earlier this month brought enormous waves and carved out large sections of beach. Homes not protected by the rocky barriers seemed to have fared badly, with one house losing a deck during the storm.
Last week, selectmen voted unanimously to declare states of emergency in four areas of Plum Island, saying it was the first step in convincing DEP and other regulatory agencies that the community was serious in protecting the island’s infrastructure.
Bennett said while other homeowners were placing rock barriers in front of their properties, he demurred, as he had recently spent $16,000 on massive sandbags only to see them fall apart and disappear into the ocean.
While neighbors are footing the bill for the current shoring efforts, money raised during an all-day charity event at the Plum Island Beachcoma organized by owner Greg Pugh will go toward repaying those who stepped up, according to Bennett.
“Who really stepped up to the plate was the Beachcoma,” Bennett said.
According to its Facebook page, the fundraiser featured several raffles throughout the day made possible by generous donations including motor scooters and gift cards. Co-owner Cathy Pugh said yesterday she and others were still determining the final tally but expects about $9,000 to be raised.
Earlier this month, Bennett and Pugh said protecting Bennett Hill wasn’t just about saving one man’s family home but rather protecting the entire island’s infrastructure.
As massive trucks inched past his house filled to the brim with boulders yesterday afternoon, next-door neighbor Justin Leonard said he recognized that as well.
“In the end it’s going to save my house too,” Leonard said.