BETHEL – Saturday’s summer-like weather, trees ripening with autumnal color and gallons of chowder attracted hundreds of people of all ages to the ninth annual Bethel Harvest Fest on the town common.

Parking spaces nearby were hard to find, with a simultaneous reception ongoing at the adjacent Bethel Inn Conference Center for friends and family of Cynthia Beatson.

Beatson, 43, was one of four area people found slain Labor Day weekend in Upton and Newry. The others were Black Bear Bed and Breakfast owner Julie Bullard, 65, her daughter Selby Bullard, 30, both of Newry; and James Whitehurst, 50, of Batesville, Ark.

While men and women dressed in black suits or outfits walked arm-in-arm somberly toward the center off Church Street following Beatson’s morning funeral service and burial, more than 250 festively dressed people stood patiently in line across the street. They were waiting to sample chowder from 11 Bethel-area restaurants participating in the festival’s main event – the Chowdah Cook-Off.

Hundreds of others flocked to several canopy-covered booths of artisans selling everything from wood carvings and paintings to coffee brandy and clothing made from alpaca fibers.

Out of respect for the Beatson reception, Robin Zinchuk, harvest fest co-organizer and executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, said Steve Stone’s chain saw carving demonstration was moved from its traditional place opposite the center farther up the street to the corner of Mason Street.

In some ways, Zinchuk said, the harvest festival is a tribute to the Bullards and Beatson. Some performing musicians, who knew the homicide victims, even dedicated music and songs to them. “We’re taking a collection for their families, because a lot of visitors today don’t even know that we’re celebrating the lives of the women. Selby and Cindy, they would have been here today,” she said.

“We are truly respecting the magnitude of the loss, but we all have to get on to the business of living,” Zinchuk added.

Newry Board of Selectmen Chairman Steve Wight concurred.

“I think people want to be together here,” he said.

“I think, if anything, it’s made people want to participate more. The weather is perfect, we’ve got a wonderful crowd, and there’s a big tribute to Cindy Beatson going on across the way,” Wight added.

In addition to locals, the harvest fest attracted early leaf peepers, chowder lovers and tourists.

“Look at the line for chowder! It’s only 20-of-12 and people are chomping at the bit!” crafter Ginger Kelly of Red Gate Farm in Bethel said.

Chowder and the festival were what drew Barry W. Hamilton and his wife, Ginny, up from Portland, for a first time visit.

“The chowders, so far, from what I’ve tasted, are very good. It’s going to be hard to judge,” Barry Hamilton said, sampling chowder from nine cups on his tray.

Chowder is ranked both by judges, and the public, who pay for small sampling cups tagged with numbers representing which restaurant made it.

“I’m not eating this No. 11, I’m vacuuming it! Oh, is that good!” Ginny Hamilton said of Rebel Family Restaurant’s haddock chowder.

“Boy, this looks like fun!” said Dave Miles of Rumford, R.I., and Bethel, after walking away from the chowder tents carrying a tray loaded with chowder samples.

Alice Peters said she and her husband, and two of their friends, flew out from Grand Junction, Colo., to enjoy the changing foliage between Bar Harbor and their timeshare condominium in the Bethel area, and take in the festival.

“This is awesome,” Peters said of the event, which Zinchuk called “The essence of Bethel.”

Sande Parker of Bethel, a Bethel Chamber director, agreed.

“It’s a ton of fun,” she added.

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