Bethel Area History

Bethel, a community of nearly 2,500 was founded in 1774 as Sudbury Canada, after the original grantees from Sudbury, Massachusetts, who fought in the campaign to conquer Canada in 1690. Settlement was slowed by the American Revolution that there were but 10 families in town at the time of "New England's Last Indian Raid" in 1781, which resulted in three of Sudbury Canada's citizens being taken captive. Following the Revolution, settlement grew rapidly, and in 1796 the town was incorporated and given the name "Bethel," from the book of Genesis, meaning "House of God."

Dr. Moses Mason (1789 - 1866), a physician and businessman, was one of Bethel's most prominent citizens during the town's formative years in the first half of the 19th century, serving in many public offices, including two terms in Congress from 1833-1837. His home is the oldest surviving structure within Bethel's National Historic District.

Farming was the principle occupation of the earliest inhabitants who originally settled along the Androscoggin River on land cleared long ago by the Indians. A flood in 1785 drove the farmers to higher ground. Although many of the marginal hillside farms were abandoned by the turn of the century, agriculture is still important today.

The town also has been a significant educational center due largely to the generosity of William Bingham II to Gould Academy, which was founded in 1836. Moreover, Bethel was the site of Dr. John Gehring' s nationally famous clinic for treatment of persons with nervous disorders, later the town became internationally knows for the the National Training Laboratory, which was established in 1947, and continues to hold seminars in human dynamics.

Finally, even a brief discussion of Bethel's history would be incomplete without mentioning William Rogers Chapman (1855-1935) impresario, conductor, organist, and composer, who founded and directed the Maine Music Festivals (1897-1926.) For many years, he was director of the Rubenstein and Apollo Clubs of New York City. Like Dr. Gehring, but for different reasons, Chapman brought many to Bethel, including some of the nation's greatest musicians and performers. They came to visit him during summer vacations and to attend picnics given for the members of the Maine Music Festival at Chapman residences in the Mayville section of town (now the Norseman Inn) and on the common at Bethel Hill (currently the Chapman Inn.)

With the arrival of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad in 1851, connecting Bethel to Portland and later Montreal, manufacturing and tourism began to become major factors in the town's economy. The wood products industry grew rapidly after the Civil War and remains a significant factor in Bethel's economic life. The railroad's arrival meant that visitors to Bethel could travel conveniently from Boston and New York to enjoy the town's extraordinary natural setting and tour the nearby White Mountains.

 

 

Site photography by M. Dirk MacKnight and others