Old and New Androscoggin River Bridges at Gilead, 1920s
Editor's Note: The following sketch was written by a Gilead native and Society member whose roots were deep within the town. Miss Heath, a former teacher and office assistant, returned to Gilead after her retirement. She passed away in 1990.
The earliest settlers in Peabody's Patent (Gilead) probably arrived at about the same time as those in Sudbury Canada (Bethel). As related by Nathaniel Segar in his narrative of the Indian Raid of 1781, there was at least one family here at that time. James Pettingill was killed by the raiders, but we do not know the exact location of his house or the number of survivors.
I remember some graves in a pasture on the North Road near the center of the town. They were marked by rough stones but no one knew the names or how long they had been there. Relocation of the road and the growth of woods have changed the place so that it may now be impossible to find.
By 1800, twelve or more families had established homes. This being "Peabody's Patent," some of them were Peabodys. Thomas Peabody's Inn was built about 1800, I believe. It is still standing on Route 2 and near it, across the railroad track, is the Peabody Cemetery. Among others arriving about that time were two of my great, great grandfathers, Joseph Heath and Cutting Bennett, from the vicinity of Bridgewater and Sanbornton, N.H. Some of their children were born in Gilead and lived here for many years. Joseph's son, Timothy, married Cutting's daughter, Dillie, and their son, Josiah Heath, was my grandfather.
Old deeds show that Cutting Bennett bought from Jonathan Peabody in 1817, part of the farm where I grew up. For incorporation as a town, a settlement had to have a certain number of framed (not log) buildings, and the ones on this land were among those existing here when Gilead was incorporated in 1804. My father built a new house in 1902, but the original barn is still standing. Its timbers are hand-hewn and joined with mortise and tenon joints and wooden pins. It must be nearly two hundred years old. My father used to astonish people by telling them that it was "built in Massachusetts." In was, indeed, "Gilead in the County of Oxford and Commonwealth of Massachusetts" until 1820.
After the death of Cutting Bennett in 1864, my grandparents, Josiah and Ruth Emeline (Stiles) Heath, who lived in the Grover Hill neighborhood of Bethel, negotiated with the other heirs and acquired the farm in Gilead. They moved there in the spring of 1866 with their five children, of whom my father Archie was the youngest.
I try to imagine what Gilead was like in those days, and I will tell as well as I can what was told to me and what I observed in my early life.
Many of the farms were on the north side of the Androscoggin and there was a road on each side. I can remember cellar holes in places to which the road no longer went. They were referred to as if people still lived there. Old maps show where mills and dwellings once were. Gilead village, post office, store, railroad, and the highway from New Hampshire to Portland were on the south side. Before there was any bridge, crossing the river was at times a problem. When the water was low, I believe there was a place where horses and wagons could ford, and in winter, roads could be made on the ice. I remember some as late as the 1920s. They were convenient for logging and as shortcuts. Before automobiles appeared, the local men who owned fast trotters often showed them off on the ice. Horses, sleighs, harnesses, bells, and ornaments must have made scenes like those of Currier and Ives, and when the musical bells of the logging teams disappeared, something very nostalgic was gone forever. At least one house remains in Gilead village which was brought down from Shelburne on the ice. It was formerly owned by my maternal grandfather, Edson Lary. There was once a ferry almost up to the Maine-New Hampshire line, and I think there was also one near the present bridge. People in the lower part of town were more likely to go to Bethel than they were to come up to Gilead except for town meeting. Some boats and canoes were used, and in 1803 a tragedy took the lives of four people who had crossed in the upper part of the town to visit neighbors. The story was told in rhyme by Amos Wheeler and published in a small booklet. The Androscoggin still reminds us occasionally that it is not to be regarded lightly.
No doubt the river had much to do with the fact that there were at first two churches in Gilead. One was on the North Road near the center of the town and not far from the graves of the early settlers previously mentioned. The other was a little farther down and across the river, near the Peabody Inn and the Peabody Cemetery. (Cutting Bennett and Joseph Heath are buried in that cemetery.) The churches were of different denominations, but after the construction of the suspension bridge, they joined (about 1879) to form the Gilead Union Church with a new building in the village between the home of J. W. Kimball and what is now the National Forest Picnic Ground. There was a parsonage and for years they had resident ministers. As the older people died or moved out of town, the church became less active and within my memory it was open only a few weeks in the summer, presided over by theology students. The parsonage was sold and later destroyed by fire, as many dwellings have been. The church came to be under the control of the Maine Congregational Conference when it no longer had enough members to survive, and in 1966 they razed it and sold its furnishings, material, and land. The bell was said to be on its way to an African destination to be a memorial to a young lady missionary. Nothing more has been heard about that.
In the beginning, at least six school districts were formed so that there should be a school within approximately a mile of all the homes. Over the years, the school population varied and if the number of pupils became too few the school was closed and other arrangements made. Some of the buildings were still standing when I was a child and one is still in existence as a garage. Those on the North Road were near the homes of G. A. Chapman, A. D. Wight, and J. E. Richardson. On the other side of the river one was beyond Wild River bridge, one near the Peabody Inn, and one on the Bog Road. Maps differ, so they may have been moved while still active. Eventually, the one-room Gilead Village School (now Gilead Library) replaced the district schools, and was the only one in town at the time I attended. The one in the northwest part of town above Richardsons was used for a few years in the 1920s when there were too many pupils for the building in the village. Occasionally, it was more efficient to send pupils to schools in other towns. When transportation became an issue, there were some "headaches."
My parents and their brothers and sisters attended the district schools, which were ungraded and taught by men and women who had varying educational backgrounds. Pupils were grouped according to their achievement levels and advanced according to ability. One might read with one group and have arithmetic and/or English with another. This was still true to some extent when I started school. I still think we profited much by listening to and trying to do for our own satisfaction the work of our older associates. In our spare time we had access to textbooks and other good materials, often provided by our teacher at her own expense and effort. I was always happy in the one-room school and felt that I had excellent teachers.
Pupils were entitled to attend school as long as they wished and were studious. However, most of them would leave to seek employment or to attend a higher institution when they felt qualified. Older boys attended when the farm work was least demanding, and girls and little boys went in the warmer weeks. School years were shorter and had a long vacation from the Christmas holidays until late in March. Occasionally a group of parents would join in hiring a teacher on their own to conduct a private school for a few weeks when the public school was not in session.
Advanced students often attended Gould's Academy for a few terms, "boarding themselves" in rented rooms in homes in Bethel. Some of those became teachers. For many years, high school graduates could qualify for an elementary teaching certificate by passing a state examination. Gould's once offered a "Normal Course" for prospective teachers. Many retired teachers can probably relate that they started in one-room rural schools, working at the same time toward their normal school diplomas by attending summer sessions and/or winter quarters at one of the normal schools.
With the establishment of consolidated schools, the one-room schools began to disappear. There has been no school in Gilead for several years. We are not a part of any administrative district and send the pupils out of town on a tuition basis. Who can predict the next development?
The Gilead post office was established July 4, 1823, with Thomas Peabody as postmaster. It may have been housed in his Inn. The maps of 1858 and 1880 both show that the post office was at J. W. Kimball's store and he was the postmaster. How many changes occurred between 1823 and 1880 I do not know, but Kimball was the earliest name I recall hearing. The building I knew as Kimball's home and store was beside the church and occupied by members of his family until about 1920. The store was vacant most of the time when I was growing up and in 1922 the house underwent remodeling which eliminated the store. The first postmaster I knew was F. B. Coffin, who lived in the house on the corner of the road leading to the bridge over the Androscoggin and had a general store (now a dwelling) where the post office and public telephone were located. He moved away about 1920 and W. R. Kimball operated a store there for a time. I am not sure whether he was appointed postmaster or whether it was moved then. About 1922, G. E. Leighton, owner of a general store, mill, and other property nearby, bought the Coffin buildings and renovated them for his family. The store became a garage and the post office was installed in the Leighton store. I think his son, I. B. Leighton, was then postmaster for a while. In the summer of 1922, Mr. Leighton's brother-in-law, C. H. Cole, joined him in business and, some time later, took over the store and the post office. More time elapsed and Mr. Cole's daughter, Shirley, became the youngest postmaster in the United States with the post office back on the south side of the track, near the Cole home (the J. W. Kimball house mentioned earlier). Shirley's life ended tragically during a severe electrical storm in 1940. Her brother, C. R. Cole, served as postmaster for a time, followed by Mildred Carroll and E. H. Bean. Mr. Bean sent out the last mail from the Gilead post office on the afternoon train the last day of September 1955. Those who wished to do so thereafter received their mail via Rural Free Delivery.
From farther back than I can remember, our address on the farm was Bethel, R.F.D. 2. The route in those days was simply up one side of the river, across the Gilead bridge, and down the other side, a total of approximately twenty miles. The village residents and all above the bridge had to go to the post office for their mail, but we had ours brought to us daily. We often received mail addressed to Gilead and sometimes took outgoing mail to the post office or directly to the train. (This was frowned upon, but was often more expeditious.) The first carrier I remember, and perhaps the first of all, was Mr. Charles Valentine of Bethel, and Mrs. Valentine was his substitute driver. He kept two pretty driving horses and later added a third, so each horse made the trip twice each week. In summer he had a carriage with a folding top which could be tipped back on pleasant days and also a boot to enclose the driver's space in bad weather. There was a transparent window and an opening for the reins. It seems to me that they were attached to something inside, so that they could not accidentally slip outside when he was handling the mail. In winter his sleigh was much the same sort of vehicle, with plenty of covered space for packages and I think a lantern, because darkness could easily overtake him during the short days. He had a musical string of bells which encircled the horse and could be heard a long way off when the horse trotted. We could see far up the road toward the bridge then because the trees had not been allowed to grow up and obscure the view as they do everywhere now. One of my earliest memories is of seeing Mr. Valentine's horse and sleigh coming down the little hills and along the field. There was always much snow in those years and the roads were often very bad. When either snowdrifts or high water made them impassable, he would have to return the way he had come and travel in the opposite direction the following day. The high water was most likely to come in spring and after several years the road was moved to higher land. There were a few times when the roads were impassable for more than one or two days and we and our neighbors would ask the Bethel post office to send our mail up on the train. Someone would go and get it, maybe on snowshoes, and distribute it. It was really exciting to see what would be included. The short days just before Christmas must have been especially difficult for Mr. Valentine. It would be nearly dark when he reached our place, his sleigh loaded with parcel post packages, both incoming and out-going. Postal rates were low. It cost two cents to mail a letter (except for a while during World War I, when it was raised to three cents), and postal cards cost one cent. People sent many post cards which also took one-cent stamps. Many were of very good quality and the recipients collected them in albums. Newspapers and magazines were much less expensive and most farmers subscribed to dailies, weeklies, and farm publications. The women subscribed to magazines containing fashions, needlework patterns, recipes, short stories, novels in serial form, etc. There was usually a children's page which attracted me. After I was able to read, The Youth's Companion was eagerly awaited every week. It often contained a short story by C. A. Stephens, a Norway, Maine, resident who wrote about happy times on his grandfather's farm. We had several of his books on the same theme. Mr. Valentine retired after many years on R.F.D. 2 and was succeeded by Albert Silver. Times were changing. U.S. Route 2 was built, snowplows replaced the six-horse teams hauling a road grader or a big wooden roller accompanied by shovelers, automobiles began to be seen on the roads in winter, and the winters seemed to become less rugged. Then, for many years, I no longer lived on R.F.D. 2 and I may not remember the different drivers. Among them were Mr. Whitman and Mr. Bane. Parts of other routes were combined with this one until the round trip became about fifty miles. At present, the carrier is Ronald Kendall and his substitute driver is Mrs. Fleet.
Unless you are a senior citizen, you may not remember the old Gilead suspension bridge. Built in 1872, it spanned the Androscoggin at its narrowest point near the village. Some people did not enjoy crossing the bridge. Signs at both entrances warned of a three-dollar fine "for driving or riding faster than a walk over this bridge." If a horse did enter at a trot, an up-and-down wave motion occurred and some of the loose parts squeaked and thumped until the motion subsided. To stop the rattle of the planks a second floor of thinner boards was added along the center of the roadway. At times, repairs and replacements were necessary and another coat of dull red paint would enhance the appearance. The water under the bridge is said to be nearly thirty feet deep and it is something to see when the river is in flood. (The present bridge is several feet higher than the old one and the road has been improved near it.)
The four cables, from which everything was suspended on steel rods of graduated lengths, were hung over wooden towers on either shore. One was set on the solid ledge which dropped almost vertically to the bed of the river and the other was set on a masonry abutment rising from the lower ledge on the other side. The fact that it is still visible a few feet from the abutment of the present bridge is evidence that those builders built things to last. The cables were bent, bolted, and secured through large rods fixed in the ledge. They inspired many questions when, as a child, I rode over the bridge with my father. I never did find out exactly what was inside the ledge. At least one of the anchors remained in place more than a hundred years but someone finally removed it, I heard. There were two cables attached to the sides of the bridge and leading to the ledge to prevent any sideways movement. Under heavy loads, such as logging teams, the bridge would sag and the low spot would move along as the load went, the horses always walking uphill, although the roadway sloped towards the south shore.
Sometime before 1900, as a herd of cattle was being driven along the North Road, the leaders entered the bridge against the intent of the drivers. Instead of allowing a few to cross and then be returned, at least one man ran ahead of them and attempted to turn them back. The rest of the herd crowded onto the bridge until their weight pulled the cables from their fastenings and the bridge collapsed. News of the event made the New York City newspapers and was read by my mother who was there at the time, but no one seems to have preserved a copy of that account. I do not know that anyone was badly injured. I think only one end of the bridge went down and that it took long enough for the people to get clear but some of the animals were less fortunate. The necessary repairs were made and the bridge continued in service until the early 1920s. The plate on the new steel bridge bears the date 1922, but the project was not finally completed until much later. Later still, a great deal of work was done on the North Road near the bridge. In spite of efforts to make the area safer, the bridge bears many scars and repairs, and a few people have had very narrow escapes due to poor judgment. The horse and buggy days were certainly less hazardous!
Bridging Wild River was a different problem and one which had to be dealt with very soon after the incorporation of the town. After some delay, a bridge was constructed in 1813, but I do not know what it looked like or whether it was the same one that I saw about a century later. Probably the covered bridge was not built until later. Although Wild River appears peaceful most of the time, it can rise rapidly and be very destructive. It is said that repair and rebuilding went on for about forty years. The covered bridge had more than one span and was about where the present bridge, built in 1928 and enlarged later, is located. I don't know the name of the builder but I believe it was of Paddleford construction. Few pictures of the interior seem to be in existence. I remember the pier in the middle of the river, built of granite blocks and designed to withstand the ice which might come down whenever winter rain or spring thaw took place. If sleds crossed in winter, it was usually necessary to strew snow on the floor where the runners went. There was not much traffic on that road in winter and much of the time it was impassable to Shelburne, N.H. People traveled by train, and teams used the North Road or logging roads which might be available. Stories were told of the difficulties of helping doctors to make trips to homes when the roads were very bad. No one would have thought of driving a car in winter before the construction of Route 2. I remember one occasion when a passenger train was stranded in Gilead for many hours, waiting for the track to be cleared of drifts. The chief problem was to find enough food.
Just below the highway bridge across Wild River is the railroad bridge, one of the longest on the line between Portland and Island Pond. I was told that the builders of the railroad once considered putting the track on the north side of the river to avoid building that bridge and some lesser bridges on this line. However, they built the bridge and it is quite an achievement. There are three piers in the river, which is very shallow there but often is partly filled with the unpredictable ice. There is only a single track, so trespassers are wise to keep off the structure. There used to be many trains very day. As school children, we were much entertained by observing the activity. Freight trains would wait on a siding for other trains to pass. Sometimes a car would have a hot box and have to be set off and left. When the mill was running, a local freight brought cars and took cars away. During both World Wars, guards were placed on the bridge. Their duty was to cross the bridge on foot after every train, looking for signs of sabotage. They never found any that we heard of and we wondered what they would have done if they had. They were local men during World War I, but during World War II a small group of servicemen were stationed in Gilead. Any damage to the bridge would have been a serious matter because of the freight coming from Canada and the West.
It was in the 1930s, while the post office was in Mr. Cole's store, that a few of us waited one afternoon to welcome Postmaster General James A. Farley, whose party was expected to pass through Gilead at a certain time. The gathering was very informal. Everyone simply left what he was doing and made a trip to the store. The traffic on Route 2 in those days was very light and we had no trouble seeing the shiny black cars as they approached. Flags appropriate to the Post Office Department and the Postmaster General fluttered at the front fenders. Mr. Farley and three or four other men came in to see the Gilead Post Office and shake hands with the citizens. I had a pen and a copy of a government publication for stamp collectors which I asked him to autograph on a page containing his signature. He remarked that he would have to be sure it looked exactly like the printed one or I would think him an impostor. I think he wore a pin-stripe suit and carried a straw hat. In moments they were on their way to New Hampshire and more elaborate receptions while I trudged back to the farm with the autograph for my stamp collection.