Grandstand at Riverside Park fairgrounds, ca. 1895
Editor's Note: The following history of the Bethel Agricultural Fair and Riverside Park was originally written as an independent study paper for the External Credit Option program, a "study-at-home" alternative to regular classroom diploma work, available through S.A.D. 44's Adult and Community Educational division. Mrs. Nowlin, a Newry resident, who, with her husband John, is a Society member, has also contributed an illustrated manuscript history of Newry's Latchford-Bryant Mill (on the site of the present Sunday River Inn) to the Society's archival collections.
Farming was the principal occupation of the earliest inhabitants of Bethel and still is important today. The most progressive among Bethel's farmers were active in various organizations for the advancement of agriculture and the enrichment of rural life. Agricultural societies were the first such organizations to have a decided impact on the farmers of Bethel. Their original purpose being educational, the members met together, read papers, exchanged experiences, and sometimes heard speakers on agricultural subjects. They conducted field tests for various purposes, gave premiums for the introduction of purebred animals and new varieties of fruit, grain and vegetables, and for the production of better crops. In 1819, the Somerset Agricultural Society held at Norridgewock the first agricultural fair in Maine, called by one observer "a brilliant success." After the state began to pay stipends in 1832, the holding of cattle shows and fairs became common, the object being to interest and stimulate friendly competition among farmers in adopting better methods and practices. Shortly before the Civil War, fairs began to add horse trotting, both as an added attraction and to encourage the raising of trotting stock for which Maine was becoming famous. This gradually led to the public preferring to be entertained rather than educated, so that by 1900 fairs had lost much of their educational value.
The average farmer of the mid-nineteenth century was not a particularly great reader; in fact, there was not much on agriculture for him to read until fairly late in the century. Dr. Nathaniel True of Bethel, a member of the Maine Board of Agriculture and a major contributor to the paper Maine Farmer, wrote much of interest to farmers about agriculture and horticulture. He also was the leading spirit in the Bethel Farmer's Club, probably the first farmer's club in Maine. It was formed at Bethel, December 22, 1853, and for many years was one of the most active in the state until the arrival of the Grange in Maine in the 1870s.
According to Clarence A. Day, all of the early Maine Farmer's Clubs were very similar in organization and activities. The Bethel Farmer's Club met twice a month through the winter at the homes of various members. Both men and women attended; while the men discussed agricultural topics, the women had an informal social gathering of their own in another part of the house. Apples were the only refreshments permitted except at infrequent intervals when the women served supper to the entire group. The club averaged about forty members who each paid a one dollar initiation fee.
As early as 1857, the Bethel Farmer's Club sponsored a local agricultural fair and exhibit. All sources seem to agree that in the years between 1859 and 1890, when the fair was held, the exhibition portion took place at Pattee's Hall on Spring Street on Bethel Hill. Though newspaper accounts mention trotting and riding events for many of these years, the actual location for the grounds used remains unknown. The fairs of 1860 and 1865 received coverage in the Oxford Democrat and seemed to both have been sponsored by the Bethel Farmer's Club. The 1860 account stated the fair had grown to be one of the prominent institutions of Bethel and interest increased yearly.
By 1860 Farmer's Clubs could be found in all parts of Maine and by 1874 there must have been as many as seventy-five to one hundred Clubs in Maine, most of them short-lived. The principal reason for their failure was that so many of the new clubs were brought in by outside influences rather than by strong and devoted local leadership. The Bethel Farmer's Club, according to Lapham's History of Bethel, "was in existence for ten or twelve years and accomplished a great amount of good." Another major reason for the downfall of the Farmer's Club was the growth of the Grange, for as in the case of such Clubs, subordinate Granges were local organizations.
While the development of the Grange became important in Bethel during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a local agricultural society seems to have been organized soon after the discontinuation of the Farmer's Club. Agricultural fairs in Bethel continued to be centered around Pattee's Hall and were organized and supported by the Bethel Agricultural Society.
A poster describing the "Bethel Town Fair" of 1872 exists in the collection of the Bethel Historical Society. A rare and valuable document, the poster highlights events and the people involved. Among the things on exhibit were garden vegetables, fruits, breads and honey, furniture, agricultural implements, hops, boots, shoes, harnesses and leather. Included in the events were ladies riding, foot races and horse trotting (the location of the trotting track is unknown). Awarding committees were established for neat stock, sheep, swine, stallions, mares and colts. Those on the committee were some of Bethel's most prominent people. The names of Carter, True, Hastings, Frye, Twitchell, Mason, Kimball and Wiley appeared frequently. Premiums awarded during the fair of 1872 were undoubtedly encouraging for that era—first purse on trotting $10.00, entry fee $3.00; second purse $5.00, entry fee $1.00; ladies riding no. 1, $2.00; no. 2, $1.00; best under 14 years of age, $1.00; drawing match no. 1, $2.00; no. 2, $1.00; foot race no. 1, $2.00; no. 2, $1.00; best butter, 50¢; best cheese, 50¢; best spinning done in hall, 50¢; best home-made flannel, 50¢. Centered at Pattee's Hall, the Bethel Town Fair of 1872 was obviously a success in many ways.
While the local "town fair" continued into the twentieth century, the founding in 1890 of the Riverside Park Association altered the size and scope of the fair immeasurably. In that year, a group of Bethel men organized themselves as the Riverside Park Association and built a large trotting track on land leased from Moses A. Mason, a Mayville resident whose homestead farm, now the Norseman Inn, was built around 1799 by his grandfather, Moses Mason Jr. (father of Dr. Moses Mason of Bethel Hill). According to the lease, the conditions were that the company would build the track and give Mason twenty-five percent of all the gate money and all he could make outside, and at the end of ten years the track would revert to him or the owner of the farm. Apparently the idea of a new trotting track was supported by the Bethel Agricultural Society, for the Oxford Democrat of October 7, 1890, announced, "a week of fair weather at Bethel has decided the farmers and horsemen to have an exhibition and fair Tuesday the seventh of October." The Democrat continued, "They have an excellent track on the land of Moses A. Mason where the horses, sheep and cattle will be exhibited, and the dairy and fancy work will be exhibited in Pattee's Hall." In later years, the agricultural fair held here seems to have been sponsored wholly by the newly organized Riverside Park Association. In 1890, the last year an agricultural exhibit was held at Pattee's Hall, the focus of attention was, of course, on the new trotting track. Since the first snow of the season held off until the day after, the agricultural fair of 1890 seemed destined to succeed. Termed a "grand success" by the local papers, the fair had a wide variety of displays and events to attract large crowds. Pattee's Hall was "filled" with products from the farm and dairy, and the walls "were decorated with paintings that would be a credit to an art gallery." On exhibit near the trotting track were "fine cattle and horses, sheep and swine." Horse and oxen pulling created almost as much excitement as the trotting events.
Advertisements for the Bethel fair of 1891 began appearing in local papers in September of that year; the fact that Pattee's Hall was no longer used for exhibits allowed G. A. Plaisted to announce that "barges" would run on the hour from the post office at Bethel village to the fairgrounds—a distance of just over a mile. Henceforth, exhibits were to be held in the former Mayville Congregational Church, abandoned in 1887 after the death of its long-time (and only) minister, the Reverend David Garland. Earlier, it had been announced that the Bethel Horse Breeding Association (probably meant to indicate the Riverside Park Association) had installed water into "their grounds" and were making extensive preparations for the upcoming fair.
Over a two day period some 2500 tickets were sold at the gates of this first Bethel agricultural fair held entirely on the grounds of "Riverside Park." With fine weather, and an attendance that exceeded all expectations, the fair featured music by the Bethel Brass Band and meals served in two large tents to over 700 people by the local Congregationalists and Methodists. Of the more prominent individuals and events connected with the fair, the newspaper reports were numerous. President C. M. Wormell and secretary E. M. Walker welcomed the crowd to the grounds. Dr. F. B. Tuell and Mrs. Jeanie Handley received and arranged all the articles presented. Mrs. Handley, from New York City, exhibited two quilts she received as presents while visiting England in 1870, and C. W. Valentine had on exhibition an engine he made while a member of the Maine Agricultural College.
Summing up the local optimism felt by many people over the expanded fairgrounds and new location, local poet Addie Kendall Mason contributed a lengthy verse to a local newspaper:
by Addie Kendall Mason
Bethel has woke from its slumbers It really is on the move. For years it's been quietly dozing But I guess it's got out of the "groove." Something has stirred up the people And they've started quite a boom. And the spunky ones jostle each other And call for more elbow room.
The chair factory whistle calls shrilly, The corn shop looms up quite near. The lockup is quite to the purpose From the band stand good music we hear. The waterworks, surely all praise them For their sparkling treasure so clear That is brought from the distant mountains, All the hearts of the people to cheer.
As these projects all worked to perfection, Why staid Bethel went on a "lark" And to finish up the proceeding Has built a fine trotting park. Of course it's not done for nothing, And someone will rake in the "tin" While some will stand back proper distance And call it a "howling sin."
But I give my vote for the horses— Be they black, red, brown or grey Who can take us to "mill or to meeting" And not be on the road all day. But they must first learn their lessons And the rein and the voice to obey, For like fire, they are very good servants But as masters a cent they don't pay.
Where is River Side Park? someone questions Why, just over the bridge from the Hill— Down past Mason who lives at the corner Round back of the church in Mayville. And there you will find some spry trotters With no doubt a pacer or two— "Redwoods," "Pilots" and "Patchens" And royal descendants of "Drew."
"Black Hawks," "Knoxes" and "Fear-Naughts." Of course they all have a place. But sometimes it's hard telling the winner Till the distance flag falls in the race. No doubt some of their pedigrees Would reach the length of a mile. And some whose "getup" is so funny, It calls to your face a broad smile.
But then Bethel is really growing— Perhaps will yet make its mark. So come to the Fair in September And hurrah for the River Side Park!
August 3, 1891
While the next year's events were undoubtedly similar, even more attention seems to have been placed on horse trotting during the 1892 fair. Indeed, trotting events were to be held during the weeks before the actual opening of the fair in years to come. Announced as "a mark of great enterprise on the part of the managers of Riverside Park Association," trotting races took place on August 18th and 19th which included the famous trotter, "Nelson." Before the races took place "eminent horsemen" from Pennsylvania and New York inspected the track and pronounced it to be one of the best half-mile tracks in New England. Large crowds gathered to witness this sporting event of the season, before the actual fair took place. During the August trotting events, ladies of the Bethel Universalist Society furnished dinner at Riverside Park in their new "pavilion" erected on the grounds. Some forty feet long, and wide enough for two tables running throughout its length, the structure, in later years, housed the annual Universalist Sunday School picnic which was held during the first week of September.
The Bethel Agricultural Fair was held at Riverside Park Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, September 20-21-22,1892. Good purses were offered and the show of stock was large and of a high standard. Most important of many improvements since the previous year's fair was the construction of a large grandstand next to the trotting track. With its expanded facilities and interesting hall exhibits (held for the second time in the former Mayville Church), the 1892 fair passed as a very successful gathering for the promotion of local agriculture.
Riverside Park was located in the top left corner of this 1914 map of Bethel, opposite Riverside Cemetery and just to the right of the numbers "657" Map courtesy of Donald G. Bennett
Previous to the fair of 1893, the property on which Riverside Park was located was sold by Moses A. Mason to Charles Ryerson of Upton, Maine, for $10,000. The sale included the Mason homestead, its many out-buildings, and the nearby trotting track, as well as nearly 200 acres of timberland. A lumber operator and hotel owner, Ryerson had purchased the Lake House at Upton in 1875; he and his wife, Ellen, successfully managed this important hostelry for many years. Upon his arrival in Bethel in 1893, Ryerson began the reconstruction of the Mason homestead, which in its expanded form became known as the "Riverside House." Moses A Mason, the former owner, soon left Bethel on a trip that included the Chicago World's Fair and a short visit in Washington, D.C. (Apparently unsatisfied with other parts of the country, Mason soon returned to Bethel where he resumed residence and became a trustee of the Riverside Park Association.) The existing lease arrangement continued between Ryerson and the Riverside Park Association, for announcements of a trot and baseball tournament to be held August 22 and 23 soon appeared in local papers. For a special race held on August 23 between the horses "Griffin" and "Orvaissa" (the latter owned by G. W. Fernald of Bethel), reduced rates were offered to people taking the Grand Trunk to Bethel, and the Bethel Chair Factory shut down to allow workmen to take in the racing.
The third annual fair at Riverside Park (the first, of course, had not included the general exhibits, which were held at Pattee's Hall) took place on September 19th, 20th and 21st, 1893, during which time frequent rain showers often kept crowds below the expected level. Nevertheless, the afternoon races, the amusements on the grounds (including the fair's first merry-go-round, operated by Archie Heath of Gilead), the bountiful meals provided in the "Universalist Hall," and the variety of intriguing exhibits in the old church, provided something for everyone. Mr. F. W. Hunt had on exhibition the only White drophead sewing machine in the area.
The agricultural fair of 1894 was held on September 11-13, perhaps to take advantage of warmer weather. During this year's events, the fair featured the usual amount of hall exhibits and various booths and games located on the grounds. The managers of the association had also arranged to have several "special attractions," including a "mid-air performance" (probably a form of trapeze entertainment), which they noted could be best observed from the large grandstand. In the Bethel Historical Society's collections is a copy of a sixteen page booklet which describes this, the fourth annual meeting of the Riverside Park Association. Highlighted in the publication were the Association's general regulations (including the rules for exhibitors, instructions for the judges and where the all-important "forage for stock" might be located), the list of prizes, and the various committee members (divided into categories of stock, events and exhibits). Among the trustees of the group were listed Moses A. Mason, Charles E. Ryerson (the owner of the property) and William R. Chapman, who would figure prominently in the history of the fairgrounds property in years to come. Though often called a town fair, the Riverside Park event attracted as many exhibitors and livestock promoters from surrounding towns as it did from Bethel. Among the Maine communities listed within the pages of the 1894 pamphlet were Rumford, Newry, Gilead, Albany, Upton, Andover, Greenwood, Mason, Hanover, and Milton Plantation, plus Errol, New Hampshire. Admission for that year was listed as twenty-five cents for adults, ten cents for children and fifteen cents for "teams."
As an additional note to the agricultural fair of 1894, the Oxford Democrat announced that the second day of the fair (September 12th) had realized a sale of 2,000 tickets by noon and estimated that two hours later 300 more had entered the grounds. On that same day, over 300 people patronized the Universalist Hall at noon.
As early as August of the following year, premium lists of the "Riverside Agricultural Association" were published in the Bethel News, the local paper that henceforth is a major source of news on the fair. The potential difficulties in attracting exhibitors and other problems to the 1895 fair are seen in a revealing excerpt from one News article on the fair:
There has been such a unanimous call from the citizens for a fair at Bethel this fall that the directors of Riverside Park Association have decided to push the thing through if possible and have set October 8 and 9 as the dates for the fair. There seems to be a feeling on the part of everybody that we should have a rousing, old-fashioned fair and the directors are anxious that everybody including every farmer in town should take hold of the matter in earnest and make the affair an unlimited success. Now it is evident the directors cannot do it all. They can and are ready to do a certain amount but it takes the support of the farmers and they should come forth and add their mite.
When the fair did open on the ninth of October "with H. C. Barker presiding at the gate, as usual," little evidence appeared to indicate a lack of interest in the promotion of local agriculture. In "Floral Hall," possibly the old Mayville Church, were displays of fruit, vegetables and many items crafted locally. The Bethel Chair Company displayed some "excellent specimens," including floor rockers, dining chairs, and center tables. C. S. York, a Bethel photographer, had on display photographs of every size, subject and style. Other items on display were braided and husk rugs, needlework and "wrought lace," exhibited by women ages 7 to 85. The Estey organ, exhibited for the first time by Harry Clark of South Paris, created much interest. As an encouragement to attend the fair, the managers made arrangements with the Grand Trunk Railway for half-fare tickets at all stations between Island Pond and Portland during the two days of the fair; tickets were good to return the 10th (similar arrangements had been made in 1893).
Visitors to the fair of 1895—held so late in the season—had to build fires near the booths to make life bearable. In addition, one newspaper noted that most candy and refreshment booths were not operated by Bethel traders. The writer asked, ''Why was this left to outside people?" It seems there was still room for much improvement, at least in the eyes of some Bethel people.
Besides the Universalists of Bethel, the Gould Academy Athletic Association made use of the Riverside Park grounds for many of its events, beginning in 1895. The Bethel News of October 23 reported "the Gould Academy Athletic Association held their field day of sports at Riverside Park "with a goodly number of spectators assembled on the grandstand and throughout the grounds of the park." In the evening, the News article continued, "a reception was held at the Bethel House followed by an oyster stew supper."
"Entertainment" at Riverside Park, ca. 1895
The "town fair" of 1896 was greeted with a number of changes and improvements at Riverside Park. The trotting track had been newly fenced, new cattle sheds had been constructed nearby, and the former Mayville church, now "Floral Hall," had been prepared, under the direction of Bethel's Dr. Francis Tuell, for a large variety of exhibits. The managers of the fair had decided to have two parades on the fairgrounds—one for the farmers and a second for the local "traders." With Eben S. Kilborn and Gerald Smith manning the entrance gate (those attempting to sneak in without paying were charged double if caught), the fair opened. The "Farmers Parade" took place on the second day and formed at the entrance of the track. It was led by the Norway Band, followed by the officers of the Park Association in carriages. A. W. Valentine was next in a corn and vegetable-trimmed vehicle, after which came numerous cattle. The following day's parade was made up of "fancy horses, driving teams and bicycles," among other things.
By all accounts, the fair at Riverside Park seems to have reached a high point during this period. Besides the refreshment stands, game booths and the ever-present merry-go-round, the exhibits, both of livestock and of produce and crafts within the old church, spelled out an awareness of the value of local agriculture as it had developed since the advent of the first farmer's clubs. One observer of the 1896 affair commented that "the show . . . surpasses anything ever seen in Bethel." In that year, among the many prize winners were listed Henry and Wallace Farwell for the best herd, H. S. Hastings for the best stallion in the county, and Arthur Morrill for the largest variety of fruit raised on one farm.
The seventh annual fair of the Riverside Park Association took place during the following year (1897) on September 7-9. Noted as having "excellent weather and large attendance," the fair also encouraged people from all over western Maine and parts of New Hampshire to that "delightful spot in Mayville" for the usual excitement provided by the horse trotting. Of the fairgrounds by the Androscoggin, one person wrote, "what better location can be found for bringing together a fine showing of farm stock than at the handsomely located grounds in Mayville."
In 1897, besides the Universalist building serving meals, there were tents and booths near the grandstand selling "fruit, confectionery, cigars, cold drinks, hot buttered popcorn, pies, cakes, peanuts, ice cream and cheap beer." One cherished souvenir was a photograph, perhaps taken by local photographer Irving Kimball, for twenty-five cents. Of the other fair attractions along the "mid-way," the local papers listed Walter Gordon of Waterford with his shooting gallery and H. L. Heath of West Sumner, who had a new kind of swing. It was reported that a bullet from one of the shooting galleries on the grounds went through the fence surrounding the track and stuck Orrington H. Pingree in the back of the neck. Luckily, this bit of excitement at Riverside Park ended in only a minor injury to this fairgoer.
Among the exhibit hall displays in 1897 were a large assortment of oil paintings, one example of which was an oil painting labeled "Made by Miss C. W. Hale of Fryeburg Academy nearly one hundred years ago." But it was the races, "one of the crowning features of the fair," that Bethel people took greatest pride in during the annual event. Most agreed that the trotting events at Bethel were "unexcelled by any fair in western Maine."
Described as "a record breaker" and "a fair worthy of the town in which it's held," the 1898 event, held during the second week in September, continued the pattern of attendance already established. Of the livestock brought to Bethel, one Bethel News reporter wrote, "From the steps of the old church at the entrance of the fairgrounds you could see animals, drove after drove, herd after herd—they came from the north, south, east and west." Indeed, on the first day of the fair, the horse stalls and cattle sheds were filled before ten o'clock and the fair managers wondered what to do if more entries came in.
Taking part in the fair of 1898 were several of the local granges, all of which had displays in the old church. It was noted that Mrs. F. F. Bean had made the banner displaying the name and number of Bethel Grange, No. 56, which had a majority of the exhibits. One of the oddest was a tree raised from a castor oil bean planted a year previous by I. A. Cushman of South Bethel; the tree's height of some six feet and leaves "of immense dimensions" attracted the attention of all who entered the "Floral Hall." In addition, Round Mountain Grange of Albany and Newry's Bear River Grange had good exhibits that year. One visitor to the Hall later wrote, "the people here have simply outdone themselves in displaying farm products." Mr. E. P. Grover had the largest individual exhibit in the building. Among the usual "mid-way" attractions that year were numerous food stands, a "tin-type tent" handled by Bethel photographer Wilfred Bowler, a shooting gallery operated by Harold S. Stanley, and various games at which the usual charge was a nickel to participate. Nearby to the clatter of the merry-go-round, a number of dry goods dealers from all over the county were displaying their wares. Calvin Bisbee had leased the dining pavilion usually operated by the local Universalist Society and was carrying on a thriving business. Among the more interesting displays were three styles of White sewing machines exhibited by Benjamin Lovejoy, a dog-powered Leval cream separator exhibited by Porter Farwell (described by the News account as one who is "interested in home dairying and believes in modern methods"), and a copy of the first newspaper published in America, "The Boston News Letter" (1704) displayed by Mrs. Jacob Annas. Near the cattle sheds, visitors found George and Claude Goddard busy with a cage of "Virginia Rats" which attracted much attention.
Beyond the smaller attractions, the racing once again caught almost everyone's eye. Still regarded as one of the best half-mile trotting tracks in Maine, the Riverside Park track witnessed heated competition on the days the fair was held, with the Norway Cadet Band presenting selections between individual races. At the same time, the pulling matches and judging of livestock brought throngs to Mayville for several hours entertainment. All in all, the fair of '98 did much to uphold the event's reputation for promoting the town of Bethel and the success of the area's agricultural production.
Articles published in the Bethel News during the operation of the fair of 1899 confirm that the usual "mid-way" attractions were present. The old church, which had been used as an exhibition hall for the past nine years, was filled to capacity with the usual exhibits. "Guaranteed to fit and waterproof," gaiters, dress skirts, macintoshes, jackets and capes for all were exhibited for the first time by H. A. Hallowell. Booths furnishing popcorn, soda pop, frankfurts and "light drinks" were numerous. Bethel fair was always noted for its good horses and this year was no exception. It was stated that one day's attendance exceeded that of any other day in the history of Riverside Park.
The fair of 1900 seems to have been as successful, in general, as any of those of the past. The fact that local papers announced that the Grand Trunk Railroad was to run a special train each of the two evenings the fair was held provides an indication of the crowds that were making Bethel their destination. Of special interest to Bethel Historical Society members is the fact that Cyrene Littlehale, the niece of Dr. and Mrs. Moses Mason, had on display in the old Mayville Church a collection of items connected with her prominent relatives. Among these were a pair of stays reputedly one hundred and fifty years of age, a chair two hundred years old, a red cloak of the same age, the dress, bonnet and shawl worn by Mrs. Moses at the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson, as well as the portraits of Dr. Mason and his wife, all prominently featured in the hall. Though usually devoted to agricultural produce, locally built items such as the Bethel Manufacturing Company's chairs, tables, tete-tetes, and couches "in the latest styles" were also on display.
Trotting track and judges' stand at Riverside Park, ca. 1900
Early in 1901, an article appeared in the Bethel News which shed light on the use of the Mayville Church as the Riverside Park exhibit hall. One reporter wrote: "The white steeple of the Garland meetinghouse with the dark mountain side for a background, presented a picturesque landscape view. Forty years' passing have wrought a change in the situation. Father time has wrought a dilapidating and demoralizing work on the church edifice, but the name "Garland" is perpetuated in the Parish House annex."
The 1901 agricultural fair seems to have been smaller due to bad September weather, though several lists of displays and mid-way exhibitors indicate how widespread was the geographic area represented by the participants. F. W. Albee had his "victuallers tent," the People's Clothing Store of Rumford had a large display, W. L. O'Connor of Percy, N.H. had a lunch counter, and a Dr. Drew was advertising Woodford's electric belts. Carrying people from the village to the fairgrounds in "ten cent carriages" were George Ryerson, Harry Plaisted, George Swain and Isaiah Coburn. Gerald Smith could be found taking tickets at the main gate, while the Bethel Band, considered by one observer as "one of the best bands in western Maine," furnished music on the grounds.
Within the exhibit hall, the most intriguing display was no doubt one of gas lights powered by an Angell Acetylene Generator. The News called this "one of the best and cheapest lights on the market." This particular exhibit was given by C. W. Wyman of Gorham, N.H.
Events having to do with the next year's fair in 1902 remained encouraging and only a few will be cited here. Under an article which began "No stone will be left unturned to bring to Riverside Park all the component parts which go to make up a first class fair," appeared news of the expected success of the trotting events. In addition, "the best showing of livestock in years" greeted the many visitors to the grounds. In the old church, new items on exhibit included hand carved picture frames made by William Ames, hand painted China by Laura C. Hall, and drawing lessons given by Alice Billings. One unusual event, a "grand fair ball," was given at Odeon Hall in the Cole Block during one of the evenings of the fair. Held under the auspices of the officers of the Riverside Park Association, the ball was provided with music by Plummer's Brigade Band of Lewiston. It was reported, however, that "not many people attended."
The thirteenth annual fair at Riverside Park (1903) was anticipated as being one of the largest fairs held in Bethel, but the lack of published accounts hints that the fair may not have come up to its former standards. Though racing events attracted a crowd, one account in the News simply stated that the "agricultural display was not as large as usual this year."
The tradition already begun which allowed the use of the fairgrounds for outside groups continued when races were held in early August of 1904 and baseball games (including one between the Locke’s Mills and West Bethel teams) were "side attractions." The Gilead Band provided music between the races. It should be pointed out that at the same time that the Riverside Park activities were taking place, many local fairs were being operated, in addition to the larger county fairs at Norway/South Paris, Fryeburg and Andover. On August 24, 1904, the News reported that the West Bethel Fair held at "Grover's Birches" had recently attracted over three hundred people. When the fair of 1904 was held, the Riverside Park Association offered an extra premium of $100. on draft horses, "an opportunity the likes of which were never known at Riverside Park before." Little wonder that Bethel, in weeks after this fair took place, was being called "one of the horse centers of western Maine."
Of the interesting particulars of the 1904 fair (held on October 4-5 ), the Bethel News reported that a fortune teller was on site, and an exhibit was held by the Bethel Creamery Company, with Mrs. H. S. Hastings, Mrs. Eli Barker, Mrs. E. A. Capen and Mrs. O. H. Spearin exhibiting butter. Also featured were a high-diving dog which leaped from a thirty foot ladder onto a canvas set up before the grandstand, and the Dixfield Brass Band, which played during both days the fair was held. Though the exhibits in the hall were not as numerous as in the past and the local granges did not participate, "the usual array of fakers and dime catchers were in line."
Though the three day fair of 1905 was announced well before it occurred on September 26-28, a number of changes were taking place that would soon alter the course of Riverside Park's future. Charles Ryerson, who operated the old Mason homestead (on which the fairgrounds was situated) as a boarding house or hotel, died in 1901 and was buried in nearby Riverside Cemetery. While Mrs. Ryerson obviously carried on, aided by her young son, George, it probably came as no surprise when people read of the sale of the farm in the September 6th issue of the Bethel News. The notice concluded that "upon the farm is a trotting course of the Riverside Park Association which, with all buildings, goes with the farm." Despite such news, the Association's officers urged the public to do its part in keeping the fair alive, and the event was held as scheduled to the tune of "good crowds and good trotting."
In 1906, the fair at Bethel was seen as a great success. Wrote the News reporter, "the shriek of fakers, the whistle and hum of the merry-go-round, the tramp of hoof and the toot of the automobile, and the hum of many voices made a perfect pandemonium." The pulpit of the old Mayville Church, from which the Reverend David Garland had so long preached, was used to form an archway "which added much to the Bear River Grange display." Despite these notes of optimism, the newspaper noted that the exhibits were not as large as in previous years. The majority of articles on the fair carried details of the many races and the prizes awarded during them.
Only sporadic notices of the fair of 1907 appeared in the local papers. Again, the exhibits appeared not to be as large as those of the past. One of the most "attractive" exhibits, however, was a snowshoe display exhibited by Seth L. Mason of Northwest Bethel. Of this the local reporter observed, "He showed nine pair of completed snowshoes and three frames."
The agricultural fair of 1908 was the last to be held in what we might term the "heyday" of Bethel's Riverside Park. At this, the eighteenth exhibition of the "Bethel Fair and Cattle Show," the days saw excellent weather and large crowds of people. A highlight of the fair was the "Florida Animal Zoo," where were exhibited a nine-and-a-half-foot alligator weighing three hundred and ninety pounds, a seven foot rattle snake, and a cage of prairie dogs. During this same fair the races and other "interesting things" were captured on film by a photographer who planned to make post cards of the scenes.
Anyone researching the Riverside Park property after 1908, when the fair no longer took place for a time and the fairgrounds were used for other purposes, frequently encounters the name of William Rogers Chapman, a man once synonymous with Mayville and the present Norseman Inn (the former Mason farm), which Chapman owned as one of his several Bethel residences. An article appearing in an 1892 edition of the Lewiston Journal spoke of Chapman's "track" laid out by himself on part of his farm. According to the location of his Bethel residence at that time, this would place the track behind the present Dorothy Fadner house in Mayville. As the Riverside Park trotting track was laid out on Mason family property in 1890, one might ask whether Mayville contained two trotting tracks in the 1890s. In any case, Chapman seems to have been the owner, at one time, of hundreds of acres of land in and around Mayville, and a closer look at deeds of several Mayville properties might clear up any uncertainties. In 1895, Chapman announced the sale of his "stock farm" in Mayville, described in the Bethel News two years previous as having stables housing fancy trotters, brood mares and "youngsters."
Mrs. Charles (Ellen) Ryerson died in 1911 and "Professor" Chapman, then a well-known musician and founder of the highly successful Maine Music Festival, purchased the old Mason homestead and its expansive property, including the Riverside Park fairgrounds. In July of 1912, several months after the purchase, the Maine Music Festival picnic, by then an annual event hosted in Bethel by Chapman, was held on the fairgrounds. During the following year's picnic, an extensive account of the event appeared in the Oxford County Citizen (later Bethel Citizen) under the title of "The Old Shack." This rather distasteful label for one of Bethel's more venerable landmarks brought a response in the paper from Thirza Mason Stone, a younger sister of Moses A. Mason, the former owner. Of the massive house she wrote: "Over this transaction I have shed many bitter tears. That my home has passed from the Mason ownership into other hands and from the Mason name forever was hard to realize." Despite such sentiments, "Professor" Chapman continued the alteration of the Mason property, already much changed under the Ryerson ownership.
Merry-go-round at Riverside Park, ca. 1900
The period of Chapman's ownership saw major developments on the former Mason farm, one of Bethel's oldest-settled properties. Chapman had the Northwest Bethel road repositioned from between the former church and the back of the present Norseman barn to its current location south of the homestead. In early 1915 he dismantled, moved and re-constructed a massive barn (from the Chapman Homestead near the Gilead line) to Mayville just west of the main house, to use as a stable for his growing number of horses. This barn was later moved to a location nearer the present Bethel airport, where it still stands. Chapman may also have been responsible for the razing of the old 2nd Congregational Church, though the exact date of its demise is unknown. Photos of Mayville taken in 1927 from the south abutment of the Androscoggin covered bridge (razed that year just before the flood) give no hint of the church. In a taped interview, the late John Harrington stated that parts of the church were used in various Bethel buildings, including the Hanover Dowell mill building. In any case, it seems probable that the church, long used for fair exhibits, was torn down between the time of Chapman's purchase and 1927. It stood between the present Norseman Inn barn and the home of Floyd Thurston facing present-day U.S. Route 2.
In 1918, "Professor" Chapman sold the Mayville Property and what remained of the fairgrounds to Newell Stowe Godwin. Chapman then purchased the W. K. Aston property in nearby Shelburne, N.H., where he resided summers until 1924, when he purchased his last Bethel home, the "Chapman House" on the Bethel Common. As one final note to Chapman's ownership of the Mason homestead, the "Professor" several times allowed Bethel townspeople to use his "picnic grounds" for such things as Fourth of July gatherings. He also permitted Gould Academy's baseball and football teams to use the old fairgrounds for sporting events until he sold out and moved his summer residence to New Hampshire. As an additional note, it should be pointed out that although the Riverside Park Association seems to have ended its existence soon after the 1908 fair, local fairs continued to be held in neighboring villages, most notably West Bethel and Newry Corner, which were successful gatherings sponsored by Granges in each place.
Harry King, the former manager of the Prospect Hotel on the village common, purchased the old Mason farm in January 1928 from Godwin. It appears, however, that Godwin retained ownership of the former fairgrounds and track, for in early September of 1929, the Citizen announced that Bethel would have its first fair in over twenty years on September 21st. In this newer version of the Bethel town fair were some of the same attractions that had made Riverside Park so popular in its heyday period between 1890 and 1908. There was a large collection of "fakers" as usual, and various livestock exhibits. As well, there were ball games, exhibits of farm produce and band music. This all appeared fortuitous, for as one individual wrote in the Citizen: "Although several times it has appeared that a local fair might be put on in the last ten years, it never progressed beyond the talking stage, and this year's successful attempt of Mr. Godwin was certainly deserving of the patronage it received." The writer concluded with word of expected improvements of the fairgrounds, including the addition of new buildings.
The fair of 1930 was labeled the "First Annual Bethel Agricultural Fair" and, as one person explained, it was the first fair in twenty-two years that had races "and everything." Ball games were held during the September 30th event, as well as the usual displays and pulling matches. Newspaper accounts indicate that the fairgrounds had been purchased late in 1930 from Godwin by Henry Boyker, who also served as president of a reconstituted fair association. Meanwhile, the old Mason homestead had been sold by Harry King to Paul Clemens (Seigfried Paul Clemens Schultz). An actor and marionette craftsman, Clemens held shows in the barn of the farmer Mason property during the fair's operation. Clemens also served as the secretary treasurer of the new fair association, and Hugh Thurston held the position of vice-president.
The published schedule for the fair of 1930 reveals a well-organized event which included a parade of old automobiles, pulling events, and bicycle and saddle horse races in the morning, and athletic events, trotting races and ball games in the afternoon. Advertised also were a "local stunt circus," a pet show, and the usual music provided by the Bethel and Dixfield bands. Admission for the fair in 1930 was thirty-five cents for individuals and the same for automobiles parked on the grounds. In the spring of 1931, Henry Boyker moved the large barn built by "Professor" Chapman a short distance up the Northwest Bethel road to its present site (it had not been included in the sale of the Mason house by Newell Stowe Godwin to Harry King). Boyker also built a high board fence around the fairgrounds, constructed new bleachers and laid out an outdoor dance floor for the upcoming fair. While extra stalls were being built in the relocated barn (for the large number of horses entered in the track events), improvements were going on at the track itself, and a new baseball diamond was being developed. Indeed, Henry Boyker had major plans for "Old Riverside Park."
Harness racing at Riverside Park, ca. 1930
Held over a two-day period during the first week of September, the fair drew large crowds—probably about two thousand. Paul Clemens (who would eventually sell the old Mason house to Boyker who, in turn, ran it again as a hotel under the name "Bethaven") operated his "Marionette Theatre" during the fair, while a race featuring the "World's Smallest Race Horses" took place a short distance away (years earlier, another race was held on the Riverside Park track which featured local work horses).
In late September of 1932 "a few interested citizens" of Bethel gathered to discuss the advisability of holding a fair at Riverside Park. Officers elected were president, Henry Boyker (the owner of the fairgrounds); vice-president, D. Grover Brooks; secretary, Clarence W. Hall; and treasurer, Tom I. Brown. At this same meeting it was decided to adopt the name "Riverside Park Association," which, of course, was the name of the original organization to hold fairs here. Held on October 14th and 15th, the 1932 fair featured exhibits by local 4-H groups, as well as large showings by area poultry and cattle owners. In a special edition of the Citizen published on October 15th, articles highlighted the major attractions of the event. According to later editions of the same paper, the races, contests and exhibits were well-balanced, although the same could not be said for the receipts and expenditures.
While the agricultural fair of 1932 was mostly seen by the Bethel Citizen's reporters as a success, the fact that meetings of the newly formed association held during the following winter had to be postponed several times for lack of interest foreboded the fair's future. In addition, the patterns of people's lives had changed drastically over the past few years, so much so that a town-sponsored fair may have been too large an effort for Bethelites attempting to survive the nation's worst economic crises—the Great Depression. In any case, during February of 1933 Henry Boyker was faced with two obstacles: the Androscoggin was progressively eating away at the grove of trees nearest the fair grounds (as well as the nearby cemetery), and the roof of the new exhibition hall, a "temporary structure," had collapsed due to heavy snows. As soon as the weather had improved, Boyker rebuilt the hall; new officers for the association did not surface, however, and the old ones were re-elected.
The fair of 1933, originally planned for August 23-24, was postponed until September 15-16. Though Henry Boyker promised a huge variety of concessions (mainly those that had recently been at the county fair at Norway/South Paris), as well as rides, horse racing and pulling events, many of the expected attractions did not surface for various reasons. One person wrote in the September 21st Citizen of the "small attendance at the "Bethel Fair" where "a few stood around to watch the races, a few more stood or sat in cars to watch the ball game [and] the midway had little to offer—kiddy rides, fruit dealers, fortune tellers, and three or four eating stands comprised the attractions." Some shows apparently set up tents but didn't open for business, apparently "due to the small crowd."
When the time came for the 1934 event, the newness of the affair, combined with a general lack of spending money, probably did much to influence the outcome. Twelve horses booked for the races were in the Riverside Park stables early on the morning of October 13th when a large snowstorm began. When, by the following Monday, the snow had changed over to rain, the fate of the local agricultural fair had been decided and a Bethel tradition had come to an end.
There are those whose memories still return, now and again, to the time when colorful fairs were held in Bethel's Mayville. For many years, the remnants of the revived fair grounds stood idly by, waiting for the encroachment of weeds and general neglect. The judges stand, located not far from the grandstand, was later moved to Paradise Hill to be used as an observation post during World War II. Today little remains, except "Professor" Chapman's barn and the much-remodeled Mason homestead to recall the days when hooves thundered and crowds cheered at Bethel's Riverside Park.