adapted from The Family
a 1975 Bethel Historical Society exhibit guide
compiled and written by Stanley R. Howe
The potential for making maple sugar from the numerous trees in Bethel
attracted a number of the town's earliest white settlers during and
after the American Revolution. Sugaring continued to be an
important occupation in the community until the early decades of the
20th century, and is still carried out on a much-reduced scale
today. The first farms in Bethel were cleared and established
predominantly along the broad "intervales" of the Androscoggin River
lowlands, where the soil was most fertile. However, a devastating
flood in 1785 forced many individuals to relocate their farm buildings
on the higher ground of the uplands and hillsides. Early crops in
Bethel included hay, potatoes, corn and wheat. The latter
declined in popularity after 1830 in Bethel because of wheat midge and
because western varieties were increasingly replacing local
crops. Agricultural statistics for Bethel in 1820, the year Maine
separated from Massachusetts and became a state, indicate that of the
town's 25,920 acres, 564 were in tillage, 1,208 in upland mowing, and
1,053 in pasture. There were 165 barns, 122 horses, 216 oxen, and
435 cows in town at this time—all supported by a population numbering
just over 1,000. Town fairs, the arrival of the railroad, and the
founding of Maine's first farmer's club stimulated local agricultural
The Influence of the Railroad
Bethel experienced a steady growth in population and agricultural
production until 1860, when a decline began to take place. The
arrival of the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad (later, Grand
Trunk) in 1851 served to stimulate this growth, but expectations here,
as in other small Maine towns with rail connections, were not
met. The railroad did change Bethel demographically, hastening
the movement of the town's political center from Middle Intervale to
Bethel Hill. The availability of rail transportation also opened
the Boston market to this area for the first time, and, with the
expansion of the dairying industry in the latter part of the 19th
century, milk products found their way from the mountain valleys of
western Maine to Massachusetts.
Twentieth Century Change and Adaptation
The 20th century brought further changes to local farm life, notably
the introduction of Rural Free Delivery, which made such marketing
tools as the Sears and Roebuck catalog readily available to most farm
families. The Extension Service and the Farm Bureau also enriched
the lives of those it served. Since the turn of the 20th century,
farming in Bethel—as throughout Maine—has become increasingly
competitive. In many instances, smaller, more marginal farms have
been absorbed by larger ones. Certain crops, such as wheat and
hops, are no longer grown. Dairying (Bethel retains three dairy
farms), field crops (such as corn and potatoes), and poultry were
important locally throughout the 1970s, with the latter industry
virtually disappearing from the region by the late 1980s. The
raising of beef for the Boston market was once a major activity for
several local farmers and cattle dealers in the early decades of the
20th century, but is not extensive in Bethel today.
BETHEL FARMER'S CLUB
AND THE GRANGE
Largely due to the influence of Dr. Nathaniel Tuckerman True, principal
of Gould Academy and editor of The
Bethel Courier, the town's first newspaper, Bethel became a
center of the scientific agriculture movement in Maine during the
middle of the 19th century. It was Dr. True who was instrumental
in organizing the first Farmer's Club in the State in 1853 at Bethel;
other early farmer's clubs in Maine were established in Naples (1854);
West Minot/Hebron (1855); and South Windham, Norridgewock, Waterville,
Pembroke/Robbinston, and Fort Fairfield (1857). According to the
Rev. Darius Forbes, a Paris, Maine, Universalist preacher and charter
member of the Maine State Agricultural Society, the formation of
farmer's clubs was an important "means of usefulness and improvement to
the farmer." In an address given at the Oxford County Cattle Show
and Fair on October 5, 1854, Forbes stated, "The members of these clubs
may meet every week in the winter and employ themselves in discussions
or in reading some of the many valuable works on agriculture.
They can then test what they read." At Bethel, the Farmer's Club
was a social as well as educational organization, meeting in the winter
on a bi-monthly schedule. Topics ranging from "The Best Breed of
Milch Cows," to whether corn or potatoes were the more profitable crop,
were discussed by the men while the women had their social
gathering. Apples were the usual refreshment, although on
occasion a full course meal was served. Annual fairs sponsored by
the Club were held in October.
The Farmer's Club movement eventually gave way to the "Patrons of
Husbandry" (Grange), founded in 1867 by a Washington, D.C., civil
servant, Oliver Hudson Kelly. The Grange provided a broadening of
rural experience, with males and females fourteen years of age and
older sharing equally in the work of the Order. As well, the
strong social and educational aspects of Grange programs improved the
lot of Maine's rural and farm population. The first Granges
appeared in Bethel in the 1870s, and at one time three such
organizations existed in this town—at West Bethel, at East Bethel, and
here at Bethel Hill. The first two, Pleasant Valley Grange #136
and Alder River Grange #145, still exist, although their influence has
declined. Today, many of the Grange's functions in educating the
Maine farmer by emphasizing scientific methods of agriculture have been
taken over by the University of Maine's Extension Service and
The history of any era is composed of a series of transitions, and so
it was for Bethel's farm families. For instance, crops changed as
markets did. In 1860, there were 22 acres of hops being
cultivated in Bethel, but the prohibition movement, with the
accompanying decline in markets, reduced the remunerative
possibilities, so that by 1900 there remained barely a trace of this
former operation. Horses gradually replaced oxen, and the horse,
in turn, yielded to tractors beginning around 1914. The native
cow was succeeded by Holsteins, Guernseys and Jerseys.
Generation followed generation, each influencing and being governed by
developments of their age. Farm families were usually large in
order to ensure an adequate labor force and to beat the odds of early
death. Older members of the family remained useful until their
last illness, when the younger members would care for them and they, in
turn, would repeat the cycle once their youth was spent.
Throughout the era of the primacy of the farm family, there always
remained a distinct bias against cities, which Thomas Jefferson once
referred to as "the sores of civilization." Issues of this town's
first newspaper, The Bethel Courier (1858-1861), for example, contain a
number of declarations of the superiority of rural life versus an urban
existence. As the latter gained ground later in the century,
these assertions tended to become more dogmatic and shrill.
Yet, for many of the young, securing one's fortune in the city proved
an attraction too tempting to resist, especially as the 19th century
came to an end. But, having grown up on farms, many of these
people took to heart their early values and continued to be guided by
them after years in the city. The old adage of taking the person
out of the country, but not the country out of the person, possessed a
ring of truth here.
Bethel's farm families were in the majority for much of the town's
history. Farming remained the principal occupation for most of
the inhabitants until the 20th century. Looking back at that
bygone era, it's easy to admire the industry, independence, frugality,
ingenuity, and full sense of identity shown by these people. But
we should be cautious. Not to be forgotten is the sense of
isolation, the loneliness, the harsh winters in drafty dwellings, the
always present threat of life-denying epidemics, and the often grim
prospects of securing a livelihood from rocky hillsides. There
was little cash to be had, so farms were expected to be
self-sufficient. Barter and the trading of labor often resulted
in the acquisition of items needed to sustain a day-to-day
existence. Bright times there were. Socials, fairs,
huskings, quiltings—plus genuine good neighborliness—immeasurably
enriched life on the farm. It was essential, however, to be
content with little, with simple pleasures. This was the secret
of successful living on the family farm.
Farm life in the 19th century involved year-round work that changed
with the seasons. The wide range of cold weather activities that
took place a century and a half ago is indicated in the following list
published in The Bethel Courier
of January 18, 1861.
Calendar of Operations for January 1861
The season is auspicious to the commencement of improved practice on
the farm. If, upon a survey of the past year's operations, it is
evident there was too much attempted for the amount of capital
harvested, now's the time to concentrate upon a smaller area.
Sell land enough to make your place manageable. Fifty acres well
tilled will make more profit than double that number half worked.
If scarcity of fodder is apprehended, better reduce the number of
animals than to limit their feed below their wants. True economy
is rightly using what we possess; let it be the rule in all
Barns & Stables
Arrange the old ones, and plan for the new ones, if to be built, for
convenience in threshing, feeding, manure making, etc., and for the
comfort of stock. Keep the barn tidy. Fowls should not be
allowed to roost around where they choose. Tools, harnesses, etc.
should be kept in appropriate rooms. Allow no manure to
accumulate against the sides or sills of the building.
Give them generous fare, but not a surfeit. Keep them
sheltered. Their progeny will repay all such care.
Keep them in warm stables with plenty of bedding. Feed regularly,
and with a variety of food. Roots, oil meal with hay, and an
occasional allowance of unthreshed oats cut fine, if you have any or
all of these, will pay. Use the card or curry comb
frequently. Break steers. Handle heifers to prepare them
Cover bins of roots or apples in danger from frost. Remove
decaying vegetables. Keep out rats; cats, which are nearly as
great a nuisance as rats, or poison, must be resorted to. Traps
won't do — at least with us.
Prepare timber when the weather allows. Make gates, bar posts,
etc., in the workshop in stormy weather.
Examine occasionally to secure from dampness and vermin. That for
the spring seed should be specially cared for.
Slaughter any remaining of the fattening stock; they can gain little in
cold weather. Allow plenty of bedding, and keep the pens
warm. Turn in the male, if not already done.
Keep in warm stables, and blanket them in very cold weather.
Cover them when starting out for a drive. Give an occasional
allowance of carrots, if you have them with hay and grain. Are
they well shod and sharpened? On cold days warm their bits before
harnessing; it is cruel to skin their mouths with cold iron. Do
not give them icewater to drink. Keep well cleaned, especially
their feet and legs. Handle and break colts.
Fill as soon as practical. The first really good ice may be the
Put all in thorough repair. Keep from unnecessary exposure to
Improve the snow in drawing logs to mill.
Prosperous farming commences in securing abundant supply. Arrange
troughs and reservoirs to collect liquids from the stables, and absorb
them with mulch and straw. Use all sink slop, poultry droppings,
chip dirt, dead animals and other decaying matter in the compost
heap. These, combined with stable manure and mulch, will in many
cases double the amount here-to-fore made.
Orchard and Nursery
Leisure evenings may be improved in studying works on trees and fruit
culture, planning new grounds, and selecting an assortment for spring
Give them cooked food, and raw meal chopped fine, with cabbages or
other vegetable. Keep them in warm quarters, with plenty of
light. Supply water, gravel, lime and ashes, or chop dust.
Remove obstructing drifts, and keep water courses and bridges in order.
Salt animals at least weekly.
Shelter from storms, feed from racks separated from other stock.
Give sliced roots, and occasionally a treat of grain, with hay.
Prepare a year's stock in advance.
The following article from the August 24, 1860, issue of The Bethel Courier gives a
revealing look into the farm operations of Josiah Brown (1792-1875) of
We took a stroll the other day over the farm of Mr. Josiah Brown, and
were highly gratified at the element of prosperity around him.
Mr. Brown is one of those men who thought that a farm was worth more to
him than a lap stone and a hammer, and so he purchased a farm two years
ago, which many men would have regarded as a hard chance; but Mr. Brown
thought differently, and in this short space of time we see the
evidence of a reward for his industry. His field was a rocky
upland farm, and Mr. Brown has cleared off the stone as fast as he
cultivates and puts these into a double wall. He has several
acres of very handsome wheat, an acre and a half of corn, some five or
six acres of potatoes, and two or three acres of oats, all in good
condition. He has cleared out the stone from an unproductive
field. We could but contrast what will be the condition of his
granary, his barn, his cellar, and his corn bin, next November with
what it would have been had he stuck to his bench. With his own
hands and the aid of his boys he has done this without any outlay of
capital for labor. The last winter, besides taking care of his
stores and getting up his firewood, he made one hundred pairs of thick
boots. During all this time, he has had severe sickness in his
family which has added not a little to his care and anxiety.
There is nothing like economy, energy, and perseverance in overcoming
the difficulties of life, and we take pleasure in recording such cases
when we see them. There is no reason why a man's progress in
improving the surface of the earth should not be noticed as much as
that of the man who covers it with houses.