Barn Redux: Bethel's Most Modern Barn in 1950


Barn Redux: Bethel's Most Modern Barn in 1950



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Barn Redux: Bethel's Most Modern Barn in 1950

by Donald G. Bennett


The idea for this story came from two sources: the 2005 display of the Smithsonian exhibit “Barn Again! Celebrating an American Icon” at the Bethel Historical Society and my recollections of the episodes from the fire in 1944 to the opening of the new Thurston barns in 1948 onwards. I was a Thurston farm neighbor; and, of course, one is always expected to keep an eye on what your neighbor was doing.

My own barn experience started with my grandfather Crosby’s barn in Arlington, Massachusetts; its purpose was horses, hay and the trimming, washing and packing of vegetables for trucking to the Boston market. Then we moved to Bethel. My father’s dairy operation, Riverside Farms, purchased milk from fifteen local farmers. Picking up milk from each of these farms on a daily basis gave me many mental snapshots of Bethel’s barns. These accumulated snapshots made the Thurston’s new dairy barn really stand out in my mind as very new, very different and very up to date. Finally, Kathy and I inherited my grandparents’ Crosby summer home in Sunday River, which had a connected barn and small tie-up. The Red House barn was a generic family barn since the original owners operated a tannery as their main business. But this barn showed remodeling efforts. One half was post and beam construction and the new half was a mixture of framing with post and beam. Spending summer vacations there gave me connections with another neighborhood group: the Nowlins and Beans. (Jane Bean Young was the leader of this “gang.”) We used to play “Follow the Leader” in my grandparents’ barn then head for the Bean’s barn to try out their haylofts and beams.

I wish to gratefully acknowledge and thank Mike and Connie Thurston and Eric Wight for their very helpfully provided information and for correcting errors and filling voids in my memory of those years from before 1944 until the late 1980s. In true New England fashion, Eric made a “dooryard” call one Sunday morning in June 2005 to tell me of his memories as a teenager working on his grandfather’s farm. He also told how his father, Daniel Wight, Paul’s son-in-law, and Paul made trips to see how things were done in other regions of the northeast and even in Wisconsin. They were looking for new dairy farming ideas, innovations, new building designs and how recent improvements in farming machinery actually worked. Finally, luckily, I got in a few words with David “Fuzzy” Thurston one day in July 2005 at the new golf shop at Sunday River. He reaffirmed for me the role of the farm as a place for kids to play.

For more information about the Thurston family genealogy one should consult the publication “Thurstons of Errol, NH,” revised 4 August 1995 by Robert D. Stoddard. This document is available in the Research Library of the Bethel Historical Society.

My great-grandfather, Arthur E. Bennett, came to Bethel in May 1914 to buy the farm adjoining that of J. A. Thurston. His son, Edward E. Bennett, moved his family to this farm from Errol during the summer of 1914. Arthur ("A. E.") Bennett married Celia Marie Thurston in Wilsons Mills 15 October 1877. In the 1880s, they left their Errol farm in the winter months to run a logging camp. Celia Thurston Bennett died in 1904; A. E. Bennett died in 1933.

A Unique Barn

Only months after national V-J Day celebrations had ended, passers-by on Routes 2 and 26 through Mayville had a new item to spark their curiosity and interest. A terra-cotta tile structure was slowly taking shape next to Paul Thurston’s home where the highway crested before dipping into its winding route along the river toward Newry. Local drivers knew that a year before the Thurstons had lost barn, cattle, hay, and carriage house in a tragic fire. But what was happening now?

The answer was that the town’s newest, most modern, as fireproof-as-buildings-could-be, dairy barn was rising from the ashes of the previous year’s disaster. Onlookers, like me, and other members of the Thurston family saw special building features appear that would make the Thurston barn a unique one for Bethel. Then, as the summer of 1946 wore on, onlookers knew that another building was under way as well. The second building, a fireproof hay barn, was going up a short distance north of the cattle barn. This barn’s signature appearance was its corrugated, concrete and asbestos composition panels.

The most important lesson in barn building that has been passed on from generation to generation is: Decide precisely what your barn will be used for and then build a barn to fit its future use. (In real life, more often than not, only the barn’s first owner gets the right barn for the job.) At this juncture in his farming career, Paul Thurston had a chance to do just that. There are at least three perspectives on barns afloat in society: There is the perspective of the intellectual, artist, writer, social historian who sees barns in almost romantic mental constructions depicting beauty, frugality, struggle, “fortress” against the elements and the vicissitudes of the farmer. There is the nostalgic perspective which comes from childhood memories formed while playing in barns and hay mows, youthful years of farm living, happy days. And finally, there is the perspective of the farmer who has to use the barn(s) for his farm production, unromantic, endless hours of labor, daily anxiety and isolation.

In the 19th century three types of buildings stood out as characteristic sights of Bethel’s economic landscape: mills, barns and covered bridges. The year 2005 has become the year of the barn in Maine. To celebrate the barn’s place in growing America, the Smithsonian Institution has loaned the exhibit “Barn Again! Celebrating and American Icon” to three Maine museums, including the Bethel Historical Society. As you might have guessed from this story’s title, this article is about barns, specifically a dairy barn in Bethel.

As the center of Bethel’s widespread farming community, Mayville claimed the town’s best-known barn of that era, the old fairgrounds barn near (in 2005) Bethel Regional Airport. Large barns were the sine qua non of small town economies dependent on surrounding farms for feeding the inhabitants; barns are also New England icons. Some barns were seen as picturesque, but usually they were seen as an essential utility. (Barns, also sometimes called granaries, had become the symbol for a new 19th century social organization, the Grange, a fraternal order devoted to improving farm life.) By the 1950s, Maine’s remaining covered bridges were deemed to be of such historic value that they warranted state protection. The barn, however, although it, too, like the covered bridge, had been slowly disappearing, was not so fortunate. Fire had always been the barn’s worst enemy. Hundreds of Maine barns have been lost to fire, but loss of a barn was a far more personal tragedy than simply losing a building.

Barns had a life of their own. Life came from use whether it was a family barn housing a horse, some cows and oxen and hay or a huge horse barn owned by a logging company; its life drew energy, nature and activity from its inhabitants—cows, horses, oxen, sheep, goats, barn swallows, bats, cats and mice. One evening at dusk, I have counted twenty-four barn swallows swooping in through the open main barn door while twenty-four bats darted out into the gathering darkness. However, without usefulness or life inside, an abandoned barn slowly deteriorates; it weathers away, its beams sag and eventually break; the clapboards and shingles that had shielded it from the ravages of rain, sleet and snow eventually grow increasingly porous, letting in more and more water that spreads rot into key joints and timbers.

In the 20th century, barns quickly lost one of their main functions as tractors replaced horses and oxen. An “industrial strength” barn designed only for hay and horses lost its place in life when the horse lost its job. The 1830s, the era when the third generation of Sudbury Canada (later Bethel) settlers were building large barns (the first classic New England barn era), was also the period when the main house and barn on the Thurston property were built. Local farming methods underwent constant change as new inventions in farm machinery swiftly moved into farming communities, increasing each farmer's productivity. Barns changed, too, as the years went on, but remodeling a barn posed a more difficult problem to the owner because few could afford the expense of tearing down a large barn, then turn around the next week to build a new more modern one. Farmers “upgraded” their equipment as rapidly as they could afford to do so. Newspapers, farm journals and local farm equipment dealers made sure that the newest items were advertised and made available. Barns, however, were a different matter. So when the commuters, logging truck drivers and vacationers passing through Mayville saw a new barn going up on the Thurston farm, it was a novel, if not unique, sight.

(Above) The Thurston family moved here from Newry Corner in the 1890s.
The house and barn faced the Bethel to Newry Corner road (now US Route 2). The buildings
were most likely built by Spencer Bartlett in the 1830s and were destroyed in a 1900 fire.
(Below) The farmstead shown above, viewed in the 1890s from across the Androscoggin River.

The barn building activity Mayville’s passers-by watched in the late 1940s was the second time, since the Thurston family had first owned the farm in the 1890s, that fire had ruined their barn. As I understand it, this is how the story goes. Jacob Almond (J. A.) Thurston was born in Eaton, New Hampshire (a town south of Conway), 15 November 1843. Not long after he was born, his family moved to Errol, New Hampshire, where he grew up, married and began a career of logging and milling that gained public approval for himself and for his business. During his years in Errol he was justice of the peace, selectman and town clerk. Then the J. A. Thurston family moved to Newry, Maine. At Newry Corner (near Stony Brook), he built and operated a dowel and spool mill as well as a general store. His business operations covered a wide area; in 1888 he was involved in buying heavy machinery for a new mill from the Erie (Pennsylvania) Ironworks. When the engine and boiler arrived they were moved to his mill in Riley Plantation from Bethel by a team of ten horses. Bethel’s 1887 Town Report detailed all of the transactions of the town farm, which included entries of buying and selling by J. A. Thurston. (Some of the items sold to the farm by Thurston included: a scythe for $1, a package of Horsford’s Bread Preparation for $.20 and two pounds of tea for $1.) The Newry Corner mill was known as the J. A. Thurston mill and store. His son, Paul Cleveland, who would succeed him as owner and president of the J. A. Thurston Company, was born there on 2 December 1887. In 1893, J. A. Thurston purchased the farm in Mayville that became known later as the Thurstonia Dairy Farm. The Oxford Democrat reported that on 21 May 1900, a very severe thunderstorm stayed in the Bethel area for nearly four hours. The account in the Democrat appeared as follows: “The buildings of Mr. J. A. Thurston were struck by lightning and burned. The barn received the fatal stroke, which consumed the whole contents of the stable, excepting a pair of oxen, which stood near the door. The flames soon spread to the ell and the main part of the house, which were consumed. Furniture in the main part of the house was saved. The loss is a heavy one amounting to $6,000 above insurance. There were six horses, six head of horned cattle, 30 tons of hay, $500 worth of dowels, carriages, sleighs, and farm wagons, mowing machinery, horse rake, hay tedder, corn planter, seed sower and plows. Mr. Thurston was one of our progressive farmers and everything was in first class condition.” J. A. Thurston soon rebuilt the barn, ell and house. The barn, from what can be determined from photographs, was quite similar to the original barn, which had been built sometime in the 1830s. The looks of the new main house hinted that J. A.'s plan for his new home called for slightly grander style (a touch of the “Gilded Age” maybe?) compared to the house he had so recently lost.

(Above) House and ell that replaced the buildings lost in the 1900 fire.
(Below) A circa 1922 view of the Thurston carriage house and barn built after the 1900
fire with part of the house veranda showing. Carriage passenger is Murray Thurston.
The barn and carriage house behind him were lost in the 1944 fire.

From 1900 onwards, the J. A. Thurston farm prospered until Jacob died in 1917. Upon his death, his son, Paul, kept his residence at the farm and assumed the presidency of the family business. Being thirty-one years old, Paul was young, energetic, well-educated and experienced in management skills that would open doors for him locally as well as in county and state politics. (Sometime after Paul became head of the Thurston clan, his taste for enlarging his dairy farm must have taken root.) His family and descendants saw dairy farming as Paul’s hobby. What we do know is that by the time of the 1944 fire, use of the barn had shifted from the general purposes of housing livestock and storing equipment to mainly housing cattle and storing hay. That is the way it was on my last visit before the fire. Most of the big equipment was stored in a wagon shed across the road from the barn near the office building.

In 1917, the homestead buildings consisted of the main house, ell and barn, with another building across the road from the main house that was used as a Bethel office for the J. A. Thurston Company as well as a store. (The company mill moved from Newry Corner to the Rumford/Mexico area.) Later this office/store building was remodeled to include family apartments (the building is shown as a black square on an early 20th century Bethel map. My aunt, Ruth Bennett Lord, and her husband, Robert M. (Bob) Lord, lived there for a few years after they were married in the early 1930s. Connie Thurston told me that she and Mike lived in one of the two apartments right after they were married.) By 1944, the farmstead included, besides the main house and barn, the office-store/apartment building, a three-story hen house, and a large open front carriage shed with four or five bays for storing haying and field equipment as well as the farm tractor (an International Farmall) and, as Eric Wight recalled, the 1940s red Dodge farm truck. Although the upland fields seen in the 1890s photograph of the farm had been partially taken over by new trees and brush, the land west of the main road was pasture land used at night for the milking herd and throughout the summer months for young stock.

What was to be my last visit to the barn built in the early 1900s must have been in 1943. It was a chilly fall day and, as usual, my cousins and I were looking for something to do or someone to play with. The Thurston barn was always one place to look. The neighborhood gang of the forties was made up of Bennett kids and Thurston farm kids. The Thurston farm kids (apartment family kids) were as likely to be found in the barn as anyplace. I remember at the time that the two guys we found in the barn were at work cleaning up. They were “Sigi” Olson (who was later killed in Korea) and Neal Merrill. As it turned out, that was the last time that I saw that barn.

Late one night in October 1944, disaster struck the Thurston farm again. The 26 October 1944 issue of The Bethel Citizen headline news item of the week stated: “Paul Thurston Loses Barn and Guernsey Herd in Night Fire.” The article went on to report that the residence of Thurston was saved, but the barn and connecting carriage house were lost at an estimated value of $30,000. Besides the loss of the barn, 32 registered purebred Guernseys and 60 tons of hay were also lost. The fire department arrived at about 10 PM, but the barn was already fully ablaze. Nearby water sources were soon exhausted. By midnight the fire department moved its pumpers to the Androscoggin River for more water. A Rumford fire engine arrived and set up at Twitchell Brook near E. E. Bennett’s farm, nearly a half-mile away; it stayed until daylight. The J. A. Thurston Company office across the road and two apartments were not threatened.

My father had made a brief visit to his parents’ farm at the time and was on the scene to help as much as he could with the fire fighting and evacuation. What I remember most about his telling of the tragedy was the awful screams of the cattle as they slowly burned and suffocated. It was a horror no farmer ever wants to imagine. Connie Philbrick Thurston (who became Mrs. Murray Thurston three years after the fire) told me that she and Doris Lord had learned of the fire after returning to Bethel village that evening and had come to the farm where they watched the fire fighting from the office and apartment building across the road. In 1936, only a few hundred yards from this tragedy, my grandparents, Ed and Minnie Bennett, lost home and barn to fire, but thankfully almost all of the livestock had been saved; the cows, outdoors at the time, were kept herded back and away from the fire. Historically, the Thurston farm and my grandfather’s farm had a common beginning: their real estate had belonged to Mayville’s original settler, Eli Twitchell, brother of Eleazer Twitchell and son of Joseph Twitchell, President of the Proprietors of Sudbury Canada. The Thurston farm had for many years been the home of Eli Twitchell’s son-in-law, Barbour Bartlett, and daughter, Julia, then later his grandson, Spencer Bartlett. Another son of Barbour Bartlett, Curatio, had built the farmstead lost in the Bennett’s 1936 fire. The two homes, built in the 1830s, were virtually identical in design. Barbour Bartlett had been a very active, well-respected town leader; he served in virtually every town office and was a founding trustee (corporator) of Bethel (later Gould) Academy. Therefore, after the disastrous fire, Paul Thurston’s decision to rebuild his dairy herd and barn contributed to the lengthy farming history of this land. If he had not been comfortable living on an active farm, taking pride in his herd and wanting to rebuild, this story would not have been written. Times had changed and often lost buildings meant turning to a different livelihood for the unfortunate owners.

The rebuilding project had four parts: (1) the tile dairy barn, (2) a separate, also virtually fireproof hay barn, (3) a tile garage to replace the lost carriage house that had livestock pens in the basement level and (4) a pair of new wooden silos. (As a sample of how the tile structures once looked, the still visible north gable of the main house ell is made of the same tile. There was a lot of masonry work to be done; Bethel’s best-known mason of that time, Frank Gibson, was the mason-in-charge and general contractor. How he would build the new farm buildings was according to a plan that came principally from the owner. Paul Thurston had picked and chosen from some of the best barn designs that he could find in New England. During the time of the fire and the recovery period, Paul’s son, Murray, was serving in the Army; his assignments covered a very wide span of the globe: Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Philippines and Japan. Even after the new barns were finished, Eric Wight, Paul’s grandson, recalls that Paul and his father (Daniel Wight) took a trip to Beloit, Wisconsin, to visit and tour farms and learn from what other farmers were doing in the heart of America’s dairy country.

In the summer of 1945, only months after the fire’s debris had been removed, my family moved to Bethel from Arlington, MA. We took over our own dairy farm and milk business that my grandfather had operated for twenty-eight years. From here on, I had a chance to watch the “Phoenix Bird barns” rise from the old barn’s ashes.

Over the next two or three years, the entire Thurston dairy farm operation was rebuilt. Donald Varney was hired as the new herdsman; his family, like the Felts later, moved into the herdsman’s residence across Routes 2/26 from the main house. (This was the building that included a store and J. A. Thurston Company office.) The lost herd of primarily Guernseys and some Holsteins was replaced with new cows temporarily housed in a picturesque (to the non-farmer) but weather-beaten barn located on the north end of the field where the present “Brew Pub” (Moose’s Tale Food and Ale) sits today. Later in the 1980s, I discovered that one of my compatriots at the Bethel Inn, Maurice Brooks, had worked for the Thurstons in this rustic establishment that served a vital role during the transition. (The Varneys later bought a dairy farm next to the Blake’s on Blake Hill south of Bethel Hill Village. For a number of years, Don Varney sold his milk to Riverside Farms for delivery in Bethel.) Within the next two years, all the construction was finished. The first thing I knew, the cows had been moved from the their temporary home near Swan’s Corner to their new "palace." (If cows could read and had the new barn catalogs of the times in front of them, they would certainly have picked this one as their first choice.) The floor plan of this new cow “palace” emphasized greater labor saving efficiency for milking and cleaning as well as better lighting and ventilation for the cows.

(Above) Bethel’s only tile dairy barn, seen in its second life as an apartment-style
motel after the highway (Route 2) was relocated in 1974.

The new barn was built in the shape of a “T” with the cross of the “T” on the south end. The “T” wings were used for a milk room on the highway side and silos on the river side. The silo wing of the barn connected the silos to the main barn with a covered hallway. At first, two traditional wooden silos were constructed. A year or two later, as part of Paul’s experimenting with new farming techniques, one of the wooden silos was torn down and replaced with what became another landmark structure: a big blue International Harvester steel, glass-lined silo. Although it was designed and built to provide push-button unloading, Maine winters sometimes interfered with the best plans of mice and men. (For silo fans, one can still see copies of the “big blue” silos while driving to Boston on I-95 in Danvers, MA. The Alfalfa Farm there uses its two now faded blue silos as huge sign posts.)

The south main doorway was used to unload grain and sawdust or shavings used for livestock bedding. The north door was used by the cows and to bring in hay from the hay barn. The milk room, located in the end of the T wing facing the road, contained facilities for straining milk and storing forty quart milk cans for cooling and shipping to Rumford. The room had a large refrigerated water tank cooler where the fresh warm raw milk was cooled and awaited shipment to Breau’s Dairy in Rumford the next day. The Deval milking machines were washed and stored here, as well, after each milking. A few years later almost all dairy farms changed their milk holding and cooling facilities to stainless and bulk tanks. (The sanitation concept was to never expose milk to air, pump it through sterilized tubing all the way to the consumer’s delivery container, bottle or paper carton. In the 1950s, Paul Thurston’s daily trip to his Rumford office included a detour to Breau’s Dairy plant with his car trunk loaded with the farm’s half dozen forty-quart cans of milk.)

In recalling new barn improvements compared to the old barn, Eric Wight first spoke of the watering system with cows sharing stall cups they could activate by pushing the cup valve with their nose. The old barn had no stall cups and cows either drank from a tub or had to be hand watered. Mike Thurston remembers the anti-humping rail; this device was designed to keep the cows that had a dumping urge to drop their waste in the gutter instead of humping their back up and messing the bedding. My first impression of this cattle housing was that the improved lighting, feelings of broadened space that seemed almost cavernous compared to the older barn, and large windows made a brighter work place. The steel tubing of the stalls gave the whole barn, when empty, the look of a barn brochure photograph. But the star of the barn’s show was its gutter.

For me, the mechanical gutter cleaner was “IT.” (Cow stalls are concrete pads sandwiched between a feeding manger in front of the animal and a waste gutter behind.) Compared to the barn I worked in, a half mile away, this new one was a dream. During the course of twenty-four hours, one cow can produce a heap of manure and wet sawdust bedding. Fifty cows could produce quite a load to dispose of at least twice per day. In my barn work it would have meant filling, wheeling and dumping a dozen or more wheelbarrow loads twice daily to just clean the cow stalls. The barn cleaner in the new barn consisted of a long linked chain with scrapers attached to the moving chain that moved the gutter’s contents on its journey to an outside conveyor and thence to the traditional manure pile. Electric motors replaced manpower. The guy who flipped that switch to start the new cleaning system was the Thurston’s new herdsman, Linwood “Tink” Felt.

The barn’s floor plan was the way to save labor; the new barn was designed so that the cows faced outward; milking and cleaning required fewer steps. One person could easily move milking machines from one cow to the next in line for milking on both sides of the aisle because the milking end of the cow faced the barn’s center aisle. (Not many years later in Bethel and at other Maine farms the “milking floor plan” changed again to an even more efficient one: cows were trained to file into milking “parlors” so that cows move instead of people.) But in 1950, the Thurston’s new barn was one generation ahead of the older tie-ups where cows faced each other and the milking area consisted of narrow aisles against the barn’s outer walls.

Barns were expensive to build and few farmers could afford the luxury of replacing an existing barn for the sake of a new floor plan. Early barns were designed with priority given to hay storage; the barn’s center “hallway” had to be large enough to allow a loaded hayrack to be drawn by a team of horses or oxen in one door and out the other end. Having another barn for hay storage meant more attention could be given to just housing, milking and feeding. This also meant that the farmer could build an “industrial strength” dairy barn for the single purpose of housing and milking cows.

As mentioned earlier, the “bull barn” was in the basement of the new garage and not in the main cow barn. Eric Wight again remembered that sometimes if one was in the main house he or she could feel the shudder or hear the occasional bang or thud or bellow from the garage’s lower level “tenants.”

The new hay barn, as I recall it, was a two-story rectangular building with a hip style, split-porch roof. Like the cow barn, this building was designed for hay alone—an “industrial strength” hay barn. Fireproof walls and roof were made of large, very heavy, composition panels attached to wooden frames. The panels were a mixture of concrete and asbestos. Tapered concrete pilings raised the barn off the ground. This design feature allowed air to flow through the spaces left between its floorboards so that the stored hay was naturally ventilated. Baled hay versus loose hay was another change in the farm’s modus operandi. Paul had purchased a New Holland hay baler for the farm. (Eric believes his grandfather Paul and his father Daniel may have driven to New Holland, PA, to get it.) If one has a separate barn, getting hay out of storage and moved in front of the cows is far easier with bales than using pitchforks and loose hay; this had been the method used in the previous barn.

All of this probably sounded pretty good to farmers who did not have these amenities. I know that I was impressed. However, in real life some drawbacks developed; in the winter, despite built-in ventilators, moisture inside the cow barn turned to frost when it hit the cold tiles of the fireproof walls. Also, after the “automated” silo came into use, the combination of run-off liquids and deep freeze temperatures caused freeze-ups in the spiral worm gear mechanism that unloaded the silo into feed carts. It turned out that old-fashioned silage forks were still needed.

After the new barns were finished and occupied, Mike recalls that driver complaints about cows crossing the highway led to the building by the State of a concrete underpass beneath the main road (U.S. Route 2 and Maine Route 26). This tunnel allowed the herd of milking cows to move to and from their pasture safely. Cattle crossing the main highway in summer were always a challenge to summer vacationers who often tried impatiently to drive through the herd. The afternoon crossing at our farm required at least four people to safely get the cows from their pasture across the road to the barn. On one occasion, I thought my father was going to ram a car with his tractor (early example of “road rage”) when an out-of-state driver tried to push through the line of cows crossing the road.

With virtually a new farm operation, things were definitely looking up. Paul Thurston must have enjoyed a full sense of satisfaction over what he had accomplished. Besides the barns, there were other dairying techniques that were increasingly coming into use that kept dairy farmers on their toes; selective breeding (versus one bull for all calls) and internal herd improvement had become the name of the dairy game. By using selective breeding, dairy farmers like the Thurstons could plan an almost assured path of genetic improvement for raising more productive cows. Also, since 1908, Maine had been part of the dairy movement to test cows regularly—cattle testing associations became Maine’s Dairy Herd Improvement Association’s monthly report. Each DHIA member’s mail included an honor roll listing of top cow producers. It was like a monthly SAT for cows (and their owners) that showed how one herd fared against others. This report created a spirit of friendly competition among dairy farmers. The race was on. Who in Bethel or Oxford County or Maine would raise the most productive dairy cows? The monthly honor roll would provide the answer.

This was the state of things when on 9 August 1963, Paul Thurston died. Reading the news of his death in the Bethel Citizen for 15 August 1963, an outsider would never have known that he owned, operated and lived on what was the most modern, up to date dairy farm in Bethel at that time. The quality of his livestock, their production, feeding and care—closely monitored by “Tink” Felt—enjoyed upper level ranking in the halls of Maine’s dairy agriculture. The fact that Thurston, a “local boy,” had climbed life’s career ladder to many achievements (President of J. A. Thurston Company, Chairman and former longtime (since 1934) President of the Rumford Bank and Trust Company, President of the Gould Academy Board of Trustees, and Chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority, to name a few) must have seemed too “glamorous” to that day’s obituary writer to even think of mentioning such a mundane lifetime pursuit as dairy farming.

From the late 1940s to the day when closing the farm was decided, Mike had been one of the “hard core” members of the “skiing in Bethel, skiing for Bethel” group, along with Howard Cole, Wilbur Myers, Avery Angevine, Addison Saunders, and Henry Hastings, who produced both the Vernon Street ski tow and later the Sunday River Skiway. From 1958 to farm decision time in 1966, Mike had been President of Sunday River Skiway Corporation. So it was not surprising when he and Connie decided to convert the modern tile dairy barn into a condo style motel. As the farm faded and the conversion from barn to motel proceeded, Connie found that she had stepped into a full-time job of running a new business.

From 1966 to 1968, Bethel’s modern dairy barn became the work place for Eddie Daye and Skip Davis, two very well-known local builders, who had been hired to transform the barn into eight, two-bedroom apartment-style motel lodging units. Mike recalls that a temporary, raised sub-floor had to be built first in order for the ceiling work to be within reach. After the first six stall conversions were done, the Barn Motel opened for business. (This Motel joined L’Auberge—located between Mill Hill Road and Kimball Park—which had been converted earlier by Peter Schutt, Bethel Inn’s general manager, for his home and guest housing, and the Oaks of the Bethel Inn, as primarily unused horse barns converted to tourist lodgings.) In the meantime, the cattle had been sold, and the hay barn and blue silo dismantled and sold, as well.

In 1968, the Barn Motel, which had begun life as the most modern dairy barn in Bethel, took up the role of being the most modern motel in Bethel. It had eight apartment style units, and each consisted of two bedrooms, living-dining room area and a complete kitchen. They were electrically heated, with television and tennis courts as special amenities. The building’s tile walls made for cool rooms during Bethel’s hot spells in summer. Bethel's National Training Laboratory participants coming for summer labs soon discovered the Barn Motel. Connie Thurston recalls that some of the N.T.L. people were skeptical about living in a bedroom that had once been home to cows. Metropolitan types at first seemed reluctant to sleep where whiffs of cattle might turn up as an unwanted amenity. On the other hand, skiers “took” to the Motel in a wholesale fashion; this group usually rented the facilities for the entire winter season, paying in advance, no less. Hunters found the Motel to be a favorite “camping site.” Forsaking the hunter’s reputation for loving to rough it, this group became comfort-loving “regulars” a.k.a. “Connie’s Hunters.”

The Motel filled a void many vacationers had been looking for in Bethel: something comfortable and modern. Connie Thurston’s personal, fastidious touch turned a novelty into a highly regarded part of the Bethel tourist scene that was attempting to overcome some of its 19th century style heating and plumbing facilities. As a result, when the Thurstons were ready to retire in the late 1980s, the Motel’s success led to an offer from an investment group who wanted to expand the original Thurston idea of sleep-cook suites from eight to thirty-two such places under one roof. The thirty-two apartment style units were turned into condominiums purchased by the individuals in this investment group and immediately made available to rent. Air conditioning was later added to the amenities of the entire cluster of suites. Out on the highway, the name of the business became the River View Motel (later changed to Resort). But buried deep inside the shell of the River View Resort lies the soul of Bethel’s most modern dairy barn of the 1950s.

(Above) The River View Resort in July 2005. Within the shell of 32 condos
is the 1968 Barn Motel, created from the most modern barn in Bethel in 1950.


My own barn experience started with my grandfather J. Howell Crosby’s barn in Arlington, MA; its purpose was for horses, hay and the trimming, washing, and packing of vegetables for the Boston market. Then my family moved to Bethel, Maine. My father’s dairy operations, Riverside Farms, purchased milk from fifteen local farmers. Picking up milk from each of these farms on a daily basis provided me with many mental “snapshots” of Bethel’s barns. These accumulated visions made the Thurston’s new dairy barn really stand out in my mind as very new, very different and very up to date. Finally, Kathy and I inherited my Crosby grandparents summer home in Sunday River, which had a connected barn and small tie-up. The Red House barn was a generic family barn since the original owners operated a tannery as their main business. But this barn showed remodeling efforts. One half was post and beam construction and the new half was a mixture of framing with post and beam. Spending summer vacations there gave me connections with another neighborhood group, the Nowlins and the Beans. Jane Bean Young was the leader of this gang. We used to play “Follow the Leader” in my grandparents’ barn, then head for the Bean’s barn to try out their hay lofts and beams. My great-grandfather, Arthur F. Bennett, came to Bethel in May 1914 to buy the farm adjoining that of J. A. Thurston. His son, Edward E. Bennett, moved his family to this farm from Errol during the summer of 1914. A. E. Bennett married Celia Marie Thurston in Wilson’s Mills, 15 October 1877. In the 1880s, they left their Errol farm in the winter months to run a logging camp. Celia Bennett died in 1904 and A. E. Bennett in 1933. For more information on the Thurston family genealogy, one should consult the genealogy by Robert D. Stoddard, “The Thurstons of Errol, NH,” which can be found in the Research Library of the Bethel Historical Society.

With Paul Thurston’s passing, the third generation took over. Murray and Constance, Paul’s son and daughter-in-law known popularly around town as “Mike and Connie” picked up the reins and continued the patriarch’s responsibilities. Mike woke up daily with “three traffic lights” blinking and competing for his attention: the J. A. Thurston Mill in Hale, the Sunday River Skiway (Mike was serving as president), and the needs of the Thurston farm. In addition, Mike had three young sons, David, John and Peter. For a time, according to Mike and Connie, they could rely on someone else to worry about the farm and the herd. “Tink” Felt was still their farm manager.

(Below) This house, built by J. A. Thurston after his home burned in 1900, was 104 years old in 2005.

During this time, Mike and Connie exchanged residences with Paul’s widow, Florence. Mike continued to juggle his responsibilities of the mill business, the farm and Sunday River Skiway for the next few years until another crisis occurred at the farm. In 1966, “Tink” Felt severely injured his hand in an accident. His injury precipitated a family council meeting to discuss how to deal with running the farm. Managers with “Tink” Felt’s skills, experience and reliability were difficult to find. After many hours discussing their new situation and the time commitments for Mike to superintend the farm in addition to his responsibilities, the Thurstons decided to dissolve Thurstonia Dairy Farm.