Text adapted from The Family Farm, a 1975 Bethel Historical Society exhibit guide compiled and written by Stanley R. Howe
Bethel's Agricultural Heritage
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 production.
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.
The 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 Experiment Stations.
The Family Farm
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.
A Winter's Work
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 undertakings.
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 for milking.
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 last.
Put all in thorough repair. Keep from unnecessary exposure to storms.
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 planting.
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.
One Man's Success
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 Bethel.
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.