Editor’s Note: A version of this essay was delivered during a Society program held on 14 May 2009. It has been edited and expanded for publication in The Courier.
Interest in writing about the local and regional past in the United States extends back to the Puritans, who believed history was important to document God‘s interventions in people‘s lives and that His influence was pervasive throughout the world. This view of history was later superseded by a more secular perspective that reflected the influence of the Enlightenment. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Americans began to develop a deeper interest in their past. State historical societies began to form in the early 19th century; the Maine Historical Society, for example, was founded in 1822.
Increasingly, the study of history became a common pursuit at all levels of society. State governments responded to this change by requiring the teaching of history in public schools. In addition, a strong sense of nationalism began to pervade the United States during the first half of the 19th century. The most famous nationalist historian of this era was George Bancroft (1800-1891), whose ten volumes of national history, written between 1834 and 1874, eclipsed all other historical writing of the period. Bancroft was an anomaly for this era, however, since he was a professionally trained historian who had received a formal academic background in historicism in Germany that resulted in a Ph.D. degree. His extremely nationalistic history was widely read and dramatically told. Known as the “Father of American History,” he celebrated the "common man" and was thoroughly Jacksonian in outlook.
With these developments as a backdrop, it is possible to look at the amateur historians—commonly referred to as “antiquarians” from this era. These were largely men of leisure, clergymen, literary figures and the like. They were intensely interested in their immediate environs and based their writings on materials that many of them spent a lifetime gathering—namely diaries, letters and other personal documents.
One of the most prominent historians of this sort in Maine was William Willis (1794-1870), of Portland, who is considered by many the most influential historian in the State from the 1830s through the 1860s. He was from a maritime family, a graduate of Phillips Exeter and Harvard. Eva Marion Bean (1895-1969) For more than a half century he was a leading citizen of Portland, serving in political capacities, including mayor of the city. He also was president of the Maine Historical Society and edited the first six volumes of its collections. His most significant work was a 900-page history of Portland, which remains authoritative after all these years.
One of Maine‘s most active historians in the 19th century was William Williamson (1779-1846), acting Governor of the State in 1821, who gathered historical materials from many Maine towns for his two-volume history of the State. It is still an important source today.
In Bethel, credit must be given to Dr. Nathaniel Tuckerman True (1812-1887), who, in the columns of The Bethel Courier (1858-1861), collected all kinds of details about the Bethel area, much of which can be found nowhere else today. Dr. True‘s published remarks from various commemorative gatherings are also useful source materials still consulted today. True‘s work formed the basis for Dr. William B. Lapham‘s History of Bethel published in 1891. Dr. Lapham added more details and corrected some of True‘s accounts. Lapham‘s work appeared in an era when towns or wealthy patrons hired antiquarians to compile histories of communities that they were not all that familiar with. Lapham had lived in Bethel and Woodstock, but his knowledge of Rumford, Norway and Paris was not so clear.
Lapham‘s five histories of Oxford County towns, a record never surpassed, epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of the antiquarian approach. Like Williamson, Lapham collected much historical data that might have been otherwise lost, but he did so without a discerning eye as to the relative importance of his information. He also colored his history with his own distinctive viewpoint, judging historical figures as to whether or not they agreed with his strong temperance views. About Israel Kimball, Jr., for example, he wrote the following glowing tribute: “It is always pleasant to speak of such a man as Israel Kimball, Jr., because pleasant things can be said of him without fear of adverse comment and without exposing the writer to the charge of favoritism. Such men as he are the salt of the earth, and the world is better that they have lived. He was honest, industrious, frugal and thrifty. He had an abundance of charity, but he bestowed it with discrimination and judgment. He despised shams in whatever form they were presented. He excelled in everything he undertook and as farming was his chief employment, he was one of the very best in town. He studied it in all its branches, and sought for the best results in which he generally succeeded. Inheriting the broad intervals of his father at Middle Intervale, he kept the farm in the highest state of cultivation. He was a man whom everybody respected, and in whose integrity everyone had the fullest confidence. He never sought office much preferring to devote his whole time to the care of his farm, but he was often elected on the Board of Selectmen and urged to serve. In this position, he always acquitted him with honor and to the entire satisfaction of the people of the town. In the neighborhood and town, he was peaceable and a peacemaker; in his family he was kind and indulgent, and to visitors or strangers within his gates, he was courteous and hospitable. I speak from knowledge, having spent many pleasant hours beneath his roof-tree. His wife Sarah (Webber) Kimball, was a most excellent woman, a model Christian mother, and an ornament to her sex. The lives of this couple were a constant inspiration to the people of the town, leading them onward to higher attainment in all that pertains to domestic and country life.”
As one can readily observe, the Kimballs neared perfection in Lapham‘s eyes. However, to local resident Consider Cole, he was not so complimentary: “Consider Cole was a Greenwood man, but he was often at Bethel Hill, and when there, provided he had the means to gratify his insatiable appetite for drink, he was sure to become intoxicated. On one occasion, he crept into the school house which stood near Robertson‘s shop, intending to spend the night there. It was a bitter cold night, and seeing him enter I followed him. He was camped upon the floor, and when I entered, he lifted his head, and resting it upon his hand, his elbow on the floor, he peered into my face and said, "are you the school committee? If you be, won‘t you have glass set in the windows to keep out the wind?" I took him to the tavern where he had obtained his drink, and by a little coaxing and a few threats of prosecution, induced the landlord to take care of him for the night. At another time, I found him late at night in a horse-shed, upon the ground, in a drunken stupor. It was a bitter night and the glittering stars looked coldly down upon the snow-clad earth. We raised him up, and each taking arm, walked him off toward warmer quarters. As we were going along, he turned upon me, and having some idea where he might be going or ought to go, with a drunken leer, he enquired, "be you the devil?" Our interference on this occasion doubtless saved his life, for he could not have outlived that frigid night. Consider enlisted and went to the war and never returned, which was perhaps just as well. He could not resist an appetite long indulged and which was hereditary. His father, lying before an open fire in a drunken sleep, was roasted alive, and the whole family were slaves to the intoxicating cup. Consider and his brother did not marry, and the family has become extinct.” Such was the judgment of a temperance-minded historian! Although Lapham‘s writing style was often awkward and his organizational abilities in need of improvement, his writings are still the only source available for particular information.
By the late 19th century, with the founding the American Historical Association (1884) and the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (1907), historical writing became increasingly professionalized. The MVHA later became the Organization of American Historians; it and the AHA are among the leading organizations for American professional historians today. As well, of particular importance to those in public history are the American Association for State and Local History, founded in 1940, and the National Council on Public History, which came into being in 1980.
With this background in mind, we turn our attention to local historian Eva Marion Bean, whose book, East Bethel Road, was published exactly fifty years ago. Eva was born in East Bethel on July 11, 1895, the daughter of Eugene Sue and Ella Brown Bean, at the house built by Asa Kimball in the 1790s. After attending local schools, she graduated from Gould Academy in 1913 and Colby College four years later. In 1922, she received her R.N. from Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Following her training as a nurse, she went to Paris, France, where she taught nursing. Returning to Maine, she settled in Portland, where she was supervisor of nurses at what is now the Maine Medical Center. Her next position was as a private nurse and governess for the J. M. Andrews family of Akron, Ohio; Mr. Andrews was the owner of the Quaker Oats Company. With the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in the 1930s, which meant that every day was full of constant pain, Eva was forced to retire from regular employment in 1934. Fortunately, a disability insurance allowed her to devote the remainder of her life to historical research and writing.
A "Kimball Neighborhood," East Bethel
As longtime secretary of the Gould Academy Alumni Association, Eva worked on assembling materials about the Academy‘s past with great dedication and enthusiasm, and her efforts were later incorporated into the history completed by Francis Parkman in 1976.
In 1959, she published East Bethel Road, a model of local history and a genuine “labor of love.” Her stated purpose for writing the book was to raise funds to build a fence around Bartlett Cemetery in East Bethel, one of the town‘s oldest burial sites, but also one of its most neglected. After the publication of this book, her next goal was the founding of the Bethel Historical Society in 1966, an organization in which she served as the first secretary and “leading spirit.” It was a tough struggle for the nascent organization to survive, but Eva kept it going, thanks to her strong will and commanding presence. She died in her sleep on October 18, 1969; at the time of her death, she was also working on a history of Oxford County.
Since Eva had been a nurse with a sound medical background, it is perhaps not surprising that she left her body to science. Her remains were later cremated and her ashes scattered, according to her instructions, in Bartlett Cemetery (although her “official” marker is on the family lot in the East Bethel Cemetery). In 1984, at the urging of Robert D. Hastings, a plaque in her honor was placed in Bartlett Cemetery during a special observance that also included a reception at the East Bethel Church.
Eva was remembered by former Ambassador to Norway and Bethel native Margaret Joy Tibbetts as one of “those friends whom we miss more each day.” Ms. Tibbetts continued, “She had a splendid and admirable character with a warm, generous, and open spirit. She was positive and strong minded, but she was always kind and always just. Her sense of humor was constant and her wit was sharp and never malicious.” To her longtime friend Edward H. Hastings, Eva “was a living symbol of courage in the face of adversity.” He added, “Somehow, each year, which brought a decrease in physical stamina, served only to sharpen her wit and increase her zest for life.” Barbara Hastings Honkala recalled Eva‘s strong influence on her life, particularly for encouraging her love of historical research and bird watching. “I might never have gone to college, if Eva had not approached my uncertainties with the attitude that continuing my education was something that there should be no question about in my mind,” she remembered.
Only three hundred fifty copies of East Bethel Road were printed and the original retail price was $12.50 per copy. Later, Eva raised the figure to $15. After the initial surge, sales were slow and it took nearly ten years for the book to sell out, the last one selling not long before she died.
In conceiving East Bethel Road, Eva may have been influenced by Martha Fifield Wilkins (1879-1963), who had earlier researched Sunday River valley home sites and, in 1947, donated to the Bethel Library much genealogical information on families connected with that area. In any event, Eva wrote the manuscript for the book in her own distinctive hand and, from there, Carl Brown and his sons at Citizen Printers in Bethel transformed it into print.
East Bethel Road was intended to be a sequel to Lapham‘s History of Bethel, with a focus on the eastern portion of the town in what had once been known as the “East Parish.” The book contained house site histories and considerable genealogical data on families with some connection to East Bethel. Also included in the book were aspects of Gould Academy and church history, a chapter titled “Odds and Ends,” a section with dates and events, cemetery records and veterans‘ listings, and “Additions and Corrections” at the end of the volume.
Eva’s writing style was direct and unadorned. She spent countless hours reading 19th and 20th century newspapers, as well as considerable effort examining deed and probate records. While she had many photographs that might have been placed in the book, only eighteen made the final cut. This limited number was likely dictated by cost concerns.
The “profits” from East Bethel Road were placed in a special fund held by the Town of Bethel to fence in Bartlett Cemetery so that cows could no longer roam freely through it. However, it was not until 1976 that a fence was installed by a youth group led by Donald Feeney with Robert D. Hastings helping with his tractor to string the page wire fence, which was stapled to cedar posts. This fence worked for a time, but it was always a struggle to keep the gate closed. Constant vigilance was necessary to make certain the cows did not enter and rub on the stones, pushing them over or breaking them off at ground level.
By the late 1970s, after the Dr. Moses Mason House opened as the headquarters of the Bethel Historical Society, it became obvious that East Bethel Road had become a much-sought after book, with some collectors offering as much as $500 for a copy—a price that far exceeded most out-of-print Maine books, especially ones published in the last twenty or so years.
It soon became clear that a new edition of this book needed to be produced. The copyright was then owned by two of Eva‘s nephews and their heirs, who, when approached, graciously transferred the copyright to the Bethel Historical Society.
From this point, the Society proceeded to plan an update. Three residents of East Bethel—Agnes Haines, Mildred Jackson and Nancy Mercer—played leading roles in gathering and recording information, with myself as the general editor. It was then manually typed, corrected and retyped, a long process that would have been infinitely easier with today‘s computer technology. Finally, the book was ready for the printer, and the Society received a $10,000 grant to help with publication expenses. In addition, a special, pre-publication price was offered, which raised enough money, along with the grant, to cover all publication costs. It was determined to retain the original book text and to add over three hundred page of supplemental material regarding changes in the residence and family data.
For the dust jacket, an 1880 watercolor landscape by local artists Susie Kimball was used; this work depicted East Bethel Road (now “Intervale Road”) in the foreground looking east towards the Brick End House built by Dr. Timothy Carter in 1816. A photo of Eva Bean standing near Amos Hastings‘ monument at Woodland Cemetery was included in the front of the new edition. Margaret Tibbetts, then Society Board of Trustees chair, wrote an introduction and I, as editor, composed a reflective piece about changes in East Bethel since the years of my childhood there in the 1950s. The second edition appeared in 1984.
For professional historians used to analyzing lots of details to develop distinctive patterns and trends, local and regional history can be of enormous value. To those interested in national and even international influences and how they affect the local scene, it is perhaps useful to cite John Quincy Adams‘ observation: “Posterity delights in details.” East Bethel Road abounds in details and is the delight of many who still find useful information in this “labor of love” left to posterity by Eva Marion Bean.