Fragments of Local History. Concerning the Bethel Common. Number 2. / By a Sudbury Native.


Fragments of Local History. Concerning the Bethel Common. Number 2. / By a Sudbury Native.


The Oxford County Citizen, Vol. 14, No. 43


March 18, 1909



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Concerning the Bethel Common.

Number 2.—By a Sudbury Native.

In the previous number we have endeavored to outline in a crude, unpolished manner, an upward growth in our Common’s physical condition; from an uncleared forest patch in 1797, to a fine level greensward, the focus of public assemblage prior to 1880.

As we continue in outlining the course of interesting data, it is safe to assert that the most spectacular event ever seen upon the well worn grass plot, was that Indian Sham Fight, realistic in every detail, given that third day of August, 1881. On this day, the citizens celebrated the 100th anniversary of a raid made a century before upon several clearings in Sudbury by a small band of St. Francois Indians, who captured a number of unprotected settlers, among whom was Capt. Twitchell, the owner of the land where the anniversary gathering was held.

The writer, then a youngster of nine summers, can clearly recall that beautiful August day, when several thousand excited spectators crowded about the low fence bordering this large open air stage and hundreds secured favorable vantage points on the hotel piazza or in open windows. Many of the spry ones even climbed nearby trees, where an unobstructed view could be obtained.

Through the inventive genius of Clinton Barker and others equally gifted, a genuine log fort had been built in a miniature forest of fir growth and stumps, making in all a most effective setting for the realistic scenes of early combats.

At a pre-arranged signal, the great pantomime opened. Those representing the settlers came from the log retreat, scattering to several sections of the clearing. Some wielded the heavy axe, others set to work tilling the soil with strange agricultural implements. None, however, were conscious of the large band of gaily attired Indians, silently skulking from tree to tree, their hideously painted faces peering through the low branches, at their unsuspecting victims. With blood curdling yells that must have awakened the echoes on Songo Pond, these Bethelites in their clever disguise, rushed from their concealment, causing a general stampede for the fort. The unfortunate worker who failed to reach and find shelter behind its protective walls quickly fell a victim to the savage tomahawk. The battle was now on. An attack would be made upon the block house, but the musket balls sent through many loopholes, seemingly hit the mark, causing the red skins to retreat in disorder. After several ineffectual attempts to close in and surround the brave defenders failed, one alert Indian gained the roof and quickly applied a fire brand. In five minutes the whole cabin was a roaring furnace and the defenders were forced to vacate. A general massacre seemed certain, but that of course would have spoiled the whole day. A fitting climax was introduced in this last chapter, which eliminated undue bloodshed. A party of rangers heavily mounted appeared suddenly and the vindictive savages were driven from the Common. This spectacle lasted fully two hours and the breathless thousands certainly received satisfaction from this great encounter, conceived in the minds of interested citizens. Only a few of the actors are now living in Bethel, but their clever performance still lingers in the memory of one at least who absorbed every move, while perched on the soft side of a rail fence under a boiling hot sun.

Our Common again figured advantageously when Bethel’s hospitality attracted another enormous crowd to aid in properly observing Independence Day in 1882. After the customary parade, the large assemblage flocked to the village square to witness a well prepared list of field events. A greased pig liberated in the center of the field led a lively chase in and out among that throng. Other popular contests were given, but climbing the greased pole caused the greatest sport for a spectator, but unpleasant conditions to those participating.

The following year ushered unexpected changes in the physical features of our public ground. How a party of village boys dare make a strenuous and destructive invasion into the sacred precinct; the very heart of a staid, quiet loving community, seems unthinkable to one familiar with conditions of those times. Let us out-line the interesting story which relates the early doings of many a now quiet and peaceable Bethel citizen. It was the night before July 4th, 1883 that a cosmopolitan party gathered to take active measures for adjusting a long smoldering grievance. Deep plans had been secretly made days before, each plotter took this solemn obligation, “The Common fence must go” and the oath soon became the uppermost thought in the mind of every base ball shriner. A tiny leak somewhere gave Sheriff Wormell, and other guardians of the peace, enough material for using more care in assigning positions during the fatal night, but the boys were not to be outwitted so easily. The time for business arrived, but the cunning officers were omnipresent so it looked as though a well planned scheme would fall through. A little strategy turned the trick. The mob started toward the station and divided, one division sneaked up High street, the rest kept on to their destination and cut up all kinds of pranks, keeping the guardians attention riveted on them. In the mean time that High street party gained the Common, and were reinforced by scores who came from their hiding places. But didn’t the boys just get busy! This crowd attacked that offending fence with a vengeance, pulling up length after length in the quickest possible time. When the officers returned, not a person could be seen. Only a row of cedar posts and painted rails lay in an irregular circle nearly around the Common’s boundary. Imagine the exclamations of horror when excited citizens viewed the wreck at daylight. So completely had the boys done their work, no effort was made by the town to rebuild. Therefore our young ball players secured a clear field for their sports, and the village a more becoming and attractive central spot.

In 1884 the Democratic party successfully checked a long run of Republican rule. Consequently the victorious adherents celebrated this rare event and used the common for their rendezvous, flaming torches and other illuminations gave the square its first real baptism from the politicians. Four years afterward, another sea of political flame surged over the surface, as an immense tidal wave. This time Republican contributions burned. Hissing sky rockets, Roman candles and red fire lighted up the November darkness, proclaiming Benjamin Harrison president elect.

When Bethel observed the 100th anniversary of its incorporation, June 10, 1896 the committee wisely chose the now historic Common as an appropriate gathering place. Two stands were erected opposite the residence of Hon. Enoch Foster, one being reserved for Chandler’s Band of Portland, the other was used for the literary part of the festivities. Probably only a few in that large gathering fully realized the changed conditions from a century before. Hundreds strolling on Broad street or standing around the speakers’ platform were unconsciously enjoying blessings never once dreamed one hundred years before, when the same spot was an uncleared hill top, choked with forest vegetation and boulders. Possibly Capt. Eleazar Twitchell with prophetic vision, scanned the eastern horizon, where a newer and grander civilization proclaimed its rising, thus anticipated a future generation’s needs when he set apart this wooded spot in 1797.

Probably the last public assembly to be held on this historic site was in 1900 when more than five hundred Gould’s Academy Alumni gathered to exchange fraternal greetings or once more revive memories of the long ago. That day a huge tent erected near Prospect Hotel served a two-fold purpose, namely a banquet hall and a public forum. Under this pavilion Gould’s Academy received the spoken and more substantial pledges, which have borne such healthy fruit in the last few years, placing our well organized school on a basis second to none in Maine.

The year following, public spirited citizens commenced to realize their opportunity for still farther perpetuating the memory of an early donor. A fountain basin was the first substantial addition, walks were improved and shrubbery planted. Thus Bethel can proudly boast of a genuine beauty spot, a well groomed historical site. Literally the fulfillment of a vision unfolded to a broad minded pioneer nearly a century and a quarter ago.

“A Sudbury Native.”