Bethel and Beyond: A Preview Exhibit

Bethel, from the 1853 Guide Book of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad

Opening on July 2, 2019, this introduction to Bethel’s past and the history of its region is designed as a preview to a groundbreaking three-gallery exhibition being planned for the second floor of the Robinson House.

Situated in the fertile Androscoggin River valley and shadowed by the high peaks of the eastern White Mountain region, the town of Bethel traces its origins to a 1768 grant made by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to men whose ancestors had fought in a campaign to conquer Quebec in 1690. Originally named “Sudbury Canada,” in honor of these early grantees from the town of Sudbury, Massachusetts, Bethel was first settled by people of European descent in 1774.

Long before white settlement, Bethel was home to generations of Abenaki Indians. Their main village site here was located on the north bank of the Androscoggin River west of Riverside Cemetery. Thanks to the labors of Bethel’s preeminent nineteenth century antiquarian and educator, Dr. Nathaniel Tuckerman True, we know something of the lives and times of Bethel’s indigenous inhabitants, including the legendary figure Molly Ockett, who died in 1816.

The American War for Independence slowed the settlement in this region of Maine and New Hampshire to such an extent that there were only ten families residing in Sudbury Canada in 1781 at the time of “New England’s Last Indian Raid.” Following the War, the movement of individuals and families from northeastern Massachusetts and southwestern New Hampshire into the area increased rapidly, resulting in the 1796 incorporation of the town under the name of “Bethel,” taken from the Book of Genesis and meaning “House of God.”

Bethel’s Grand Trunk Railway station circa 1890

Farming and timber cutting were the principal occupations of the first inhabitants, who settled near the rich intervales alongside the Androscoggin River. Today, agriculture and forest-related activities remain important, although the marginal hillside farms of the nineteenth century long ago turned back to woods.

With the arrival of the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad in 1851, connecting Bethel to Portland and, later, Montreal, manufacturing and tourism became major driving forces in the town’s economy. Large summer hotels were constructed at Bethel Hill, and the town rapidly became a significant way-station for the growing White Mountain and Rangeley Lakes tourist trade.

Once called “The Athens of Oxford County,” Bethel has long been a significant educational center for the region. Founded in 1836, Gould Academy continues to function as one of the Northeast’s premier college-preparatory schools. In the late nineteenth century, Bethel became the site of Dr. John George Gehring’s pioneering clinic for the treatment of persons with nervous disorders. (William Bingham II, Bethel’s great philanthropist, first came here in 1911 as a patient.)

Gould Academy’s Hanscom Hall

Culturally, the town also profited immeasurably from the efforts of William Rogers Chapman (1855-1935), impresario, conductor, organist, and composer. The founder of the Maine Music Festival in 1897, Chapman brought many notable vocalists to Bethel, including the Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar who performed in historic Odeon Hall. Through the years, a number of other famous people have had an association with the town. The list includes Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife, Mabel Hubbard, was a student of Mary True, a renowned teacher of the deaf, and Ernest Skinner, one of America’s great organ builders, who was married here in 1893 and whose remains lie in Bethel’s Woodland Cemetery.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, Bethel has witnessed many changes in its desire to be “progressive.” Indeed, over the last century, Bethel has experienced an unusual number of outside influences for a town of its size and inland location. These have affected its attitudes and inclinations, causing it to stand apart somewhat from surrounding communities. Often thought of today as merely as “ski town,” due to its close proximity to some of New England’s largest winter resorts, Bethel retains a unique — and historic — personality, as we hope you will discover through our “Bethel and Beyond” preview exhibit.