Twenty-five Years of the Courier: A Personal Memoir
by Stanley Russell Howe
Masthead from an issue of Bethel's first newspaper, The Bethel Courier (1858-1861)
When I became Director of the Bethel Historical Society in 1974, there was almost immediately a discussion of the fact that the Society did not have a newsletter. Every so often from then on, the topic of a regular publication came up, but so much time was being spent in acquiring a collection, preserving old newspapers, and generally setting up operations for the museum, gathering materials for the research library and developing exhibits, that nothing appeared of this nature until late in 1976. At that time, it was decided to proceed with something that contained local history articles, program information, news of the Society and a membership application. The publication of the first issue, called The Bethel Courier after the town's first newspaper (1858-1861), attracted more than a hundred new members. This initial issue contained a brief history of the Society, an editor's column which indicated that this new venture would be semi-annual, and that response would dictate whether or not it would be issued quarterly. A list of officers and committees was also published along with a schedule of programs, news of a restoration project, the Broad Street Historic District, greetings from the Society president, genealogical notes, a review of Francis Parkman's Gould Academy Story, details of the sealing of the bicentennial capsule, a bibliography of recent Bethel area publications, and, finally, an article on Chester Harding, who executed the portraits of Doctor and Mrs. Mason. First class postage (thirteen cents) was used to mail the approximately 100 issues, all hand-addressed, to members and friends.
For the next few years, succeeding issues generally followed the format established in the first issue. Feature articles ranged from "Memories of Broad Street" and "Bethel During the First World War" to "Dr. Mason's Golden Wedding Anniversary" and a history of Main Street. There was also an extended discussion of area ferries on the Androscoggin and a history of the Bethel Library for its centenary.
In June 1980, the decision was made to go quarterly, which has been the pattern to the present time. Generally, The Courier contained eight pages until the 1990s when it moved to twelve. As one looks at twenty-five years of issues, one is struck with what a resource these pages are for learning about the issues facing the organization at any given time, from the early days of fund raising to the present capital campaign. Here one learns of donations of artifacts, membership numbers, annual giving levels, special events, lecture series, and other special times.
To give some of the flavor of The Courier throughout the years it seems appropriate to quote from some of the issues. From Margaret Herrick's memories of Broad Street comes the following: "I knew Mr. Bingham well; I used to love to waltz with him. You see, until it appeared in the Boston papers that he was the richest man in Maine, he lived like everyone else. Then when the big headline came out, 'Unknown Is Maine's Richest,' with an extensive story about Mr. Bingham, everyone started deluging him with begging letters and he could no longer live his own life. He went into a shell. He was a wonderful man; he used to do a hesitation waltz, and I used to like to do it with him. He went to all the dances, and also played the violin beautifully. He was a delightful, genuine aristocrat." (Volume 1, Number 2).
In Volume 5, Number 1, we find Margaret Joy Tibbetts discussing the Irish Neighborhood: "I can remember going with my father when he paid calls in the Irish Neighborhood, probably in the late 1920s. The road was steep, narrow and hard for the old Ford. The Irish Neighborhood families were favorites of my father, Dr. Raymond R. Tibbetts, who was proud of the touch of Irish in his own background. He was particularly fond of the Harringtons, but he had good friends all over the Neighborhood. He relished their wit and much enjoyed it when Bernard Harrington teased him about being a Republican. (No one was ever a stronger Republican than the Doctor; the Irish Neighborhood, on the other hand, had many good Democrats.) But best of all, the Doctor appreciated the loyalty and tenacity of the Irish in the Neighborhood. They stuck with their friends and were proud of their heritage."
In the June 1981 issue of The Courier, the Society's most ambitious publication project of that era was announced. This was the reprinting of Dr. William B. Lapham's History of Bethel: 1768-1890 with new subject and name indexes, as well as an interpretive essay which contained information on Lapham and his work as a local historian, in addition to a brief history of the town since his era. Since that time, publication projects have been featured in The Courier, providing potential customers with information and incentives to purchase the book at a discount.
A special edition of The Courier also appeared in 1981 in observance of the Indian Raid bicentenary. It was a sponsored issue with over sixty individuals and businesses making it possible. This issue contained an introduction, schedule of events, Nathaniel Segar's Narrative, information on the 1881 observance, Margaret Tibbetts' recollections of the 1931 sesquicentennial activities, biographies of well-known Indians of the region, plus numerous photos. It sold for $1 and helped defray the expenses of this three day event.
The organization's emerging regional focus began to appear in a feature article focusing on Emeline Heath's memories of the neighboring town of Gilead in the December 1981 issue. Since that time, there have been articles on all kinds of regional topics by authors who are primarily associated with other local historical societies or neighboring communities.
Memories of specific events or subjects increasingly became regular fare of The Courier beginning with Barbara Brown's "I Remember the Snowboat" and becoming more ambitious with Leslie Davis' memoirs and in recent years the diary of William S. Hastings. All of these brought first-hand accounts of significant developments and changes.
One of the most annoying moments for me in the publication of The Courier was in the Spring 1983 issue where, through a printing error, a photo of Bethel Grange #56 and one of the Kimball family neighborhood in East Bethel were interchanged. Not wanting to reject the whole issue due to publication pressures, we enclosed a slip of paper in each issue pointing out the mistake so confusion would be kept to a minimum.
Beginning with the Indian Raid issue in 1981, we began to produce a sketch of some local history buildings to use as a special "logo" beside the address label. Through the years, this has varied from the East Bethel Church, to the Bethel Grand Trunk Station, to the Summer House, to the Middle Intervale Meetinghouse, to a Civil War soldier. In more recent years, a sketch showing the Society's two buildings—our Regional History Center—has been used.
Perhaps no article attracted more favorable comment than the memories recorded by Marjorie Farwell Cummings on her childhood growing up on a "mountain" farm. They were published in several installments beginning in the summer of 1983 when she was in her mid-eighties. In one installment, she wrote, "For a few year in the early 1900s, my father and his brother, Porter Farwell of East Bethel, hayed their father's farm after all the families had moved away. Some years, part of our family would move there for a week or so while they were haying. They would take one of our cows along to have for milk. Wallace would take the shortcut across our place in later afternoon to help with the chores at home, and return when he had finished with the chores in the morning. It was interesting roaming about the old house. I remember seeing a cord bed. I had never seen one before; it had a big rope strung back and forth through holes in the side pieces, and was topped with a corn husk mattress. There were several beds and pieces of furniture around, and in the kitchen an old table and chairs and a stove so Mama could cook the meals. The water came from a spring above the house and piped down to a tub outside the shed. Close to the back of the house stood a row of red cherry trees that still bore fruit, and nearby an apple orchard; on a small knoll was a cranberry patch, and there were a lot of blueberry bushes around. I liked to watch the men unload a load of hay with the big hayfork, that was attached to big ropes and pulleys. Grace says she remembers she didn't like being called from picking blueberries to ride the horse outside as he pulled the big rope out that carried the hay to the scaffolds."
From time to time, The Courier has included enclosures highlighting some special exhibit or a forthcoming publication. One of the first exhibits that gained attention by this means was the one on the Twitchell portraits in 1984. We also had others, including flyers on the William Rogers Chapman exhibit and the publication of a second edition of Eva Bean's East Bethel Road, and the program for the conference on "Rural Reform and Improvement."
Although earlier issues had focused on officer and trustee profiles, in 1984 a regular feature was instituted with what was titled "Member Profiles." Longtime volunteer extraordinaire Barbara Herrick Brown was featured as the first of this genre. Since that time over seventy profiles of outstanding volunteers or people significant to the Society for one reason or another have been included.
One of the unusual authors for a Courier article was Yvonne Nowlin, who as part of SAD # 44 Adult Education's External Credit Option program, then supervised by our Curator of Collections, Randall Bennett, researched and wrote about the Bethel Agricultural Fair and Riverside Park. It was a popular topic and attracted broad interest and comment.
Significant developments in the Society's history have also been noted in The Courier. When photographs of the Mason portraits were included in the National Portrait Gallery catalog for its Chester Harding exhibit, this news was carried on the front page of a 1985 issue. Items ranging from the receipt of major grants, announcements of bequests, policy and dues changes, annual financial report, and fund-raising success have all received space in The Courier.
When the focus turned to assembling the histories of Bethel streets and neighborhoods in the 1980s, space was provided for these articles. A good deal of the history of various house sites is now included here, which frequently is consulted when anyone wants to know about his or her property. Because questions were asked while people were alive who remembered, we have saved considerable oral history that might otherwise have the gone the way of the grave.
Another novel experience was the publication in 1990-91 of Joyce Wanger's article on 19th century medicine. A graduate student in history at West Virginia University, she worked under my supervision to complete her M.A. degree. One of her projects was to research and write a history of 19th century medicine in Bethel. Since her husband was an emergency medical doctor at the Rumford Hospital, this topic had real significance for her. For many, this article was one of the best ones ever published in The Courier.
One of the most unusual stories, in my opinion, was the memoir written by my grandmother, Edith Kimball Howe, a Charter member and close friend of Society founder Eva Bean, that I found after her death in 1975. It was not purely historical, but dealt with her friendship with a woodchuck she called "Mrs. Chuck." Woodchucks on farms are generally considered the enemy, but to my grandmother this female woodchuck became a pet that visited her daily looking for a handout and in doing so engaged the whole neighborhood. It amused and entertained her. Her memoir was published in the Spring 1996 issue of The Courier and brought a variety of responses, most of them positive.
In the final issue for 1996, there appeared news of a grant from Exxon courtesy of Walter Hatch, then Society president. This would prove to be one of the "watershed" periods of Society history, for it meant the advent of the computer era at Bethel Historical. The following year, nearly all functions of the organization were either computerized or in the process of being so. By 1998, the progress of the Society's recently launched capital campaign began to be regularly reported. As the contributors increased, this space has gradually expanded until at present it takes up nearly two full pages. When the mortgage on the Robinson House was paid off, the official document to that effect was published so that everyone responsible for this good news (as well as the entire membership) could share the moment.
As I look back on the past quarter century, The Courier has served in so many capacities. It has announced Society activities and milestones. It has included historical articles and photographs. It has provided all kinds of information to many members and friends scattered around the nation and world who in some cases have never set foot in Bethel, but wish to maintain a connection. This is a bit of what this publication has meant to many over the years. Future changes will come in time. The evolution from the early issues to the present one has been dramatic as the graphics have become bolder and more numerous. Photographs in the early days were more limited due to cost considerations, but today are found on nearly every page, sometimes spreading over entire pages. No one can tell just what The Courier will look like in another twenty-five years, but it is hoped that it will be enjoyed by even more readers in the future.