The Bethel Common in the 19th century. Museums of the Bethel Historical Society

The Moses Mason House of the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Bethel Citizen

Located in the heart of the Broad Street Historic District in Bethel —established in 1768 and incorporated in 1796 — the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society provide visitors with a doorway to the region’s colorful past.

Founded in 1966, the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society collect, preserve, display and share the history of Western Maine and the White Mountain region of Maine and New Hampshire through exhibits, lectures, special events and publications.

The museums feature over a dozen exhibit galleries, craft activity spaces, and period rooms spread throughout three buildings: the 1821 O’Neil Robinson House, the 1813 Dr. Moses Mason House, and a replica of Dr. Mason’s private library (completed in 2019). Also on site is an extensive library and archives of books, manuscripts, photographs and maps — plus thousands of historic objects that tell the story of the town of Bethel and the surrounding region. Throughout the year, a full schedule of high quality events (many free) are offered for people of all ages.

Overlooking the Bethel Hill common, the O’Neil Robinson House was extensively remodeled in the Italianate style soon after the Civil War. Seasonal and permanent exhibits, a well-stocked museum shop, a small theater, the organization’s research facility, and extensive collection storage areas are located here. The exhibit galleries and museum shop at the Robinson House are open from Memorial Day to the third Friday in October, Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and also Saturdays 1 to 4 p.m. during July and August. The library and archives are open year-round by appointment. For information, contact: [email protected].

The oldest residence at Bethel Hill village, the Dr. Moses Mason House, features a series of fully-furnished period rooms (one with Rufus Porter School murals) that provide insight into how a prominent Bethel couple lived during the first half of the 19th century. Also located in this building is a large exhibit hall used for summer and fall displays and special programs at other times. Guided tours of the Mason House take place Thursday through Saturday afternoons (1 to 4 p.m.) during July and August, and by appointment during the remainder of the year.

The newly-completed Twitchell Education Center is a replica of Dr. Moses Mason’s private library, and provides a venue for craft demonstrations, children’s programs, lectures and community events.

For more information, visit bethelhistorical.org, call 207-824-2908 or 800-824-2910, or e-mail [email protected].

A rich history

For centuries prior to colonial settlement, western Maine was the home of Abenaki Indians and some of their descendants still reside in the region. After the War for Independence (Bethel was the site of “New England’s Last Indian Raid” in 1781), settlement of the Bethel area by people of European descent increased dramatically.

Following the arrival of the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad (later “Grand Trunk Railway”) in 1851, artists, writers and scores of summer visitors found it easy to travel here to enjoy the outstanding scenery, which included breathtaking mountain vistas, as well as idyllic views of the broad intervales bordering the Androscoggin River.

By the turn of the 20th century, many Harvard University professors and members of New York’s high society journeyed to Bethel to undergo miraculous “cures” prescribed by the famed Dr. John G. Gehring to offset the stresses of life in an industrialized society. The presence of Gould Academy, founded in 1836, cemented Bethel’s reputation as “the Athens of Oxford County.”

Ernest Skinner, the internationally famous organ builder whose remarkable creations still exist at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., at Cleveland’s Severance Hall, and at Yale’s Woolsey Hall, married a Bethel woman and is interred beside her in Woodland Cemetery. Historical novelist Kenneth Roberts worked on his most famous book, “Northwest Passage,” in Riley Plantation (“Ketchum”), just north of Bethel.

William Rogers Chapman, whose family was instrumental in the founding and naming of Bethel, started the Maine Music Festivals in 1897 and brought some of the nation’s leading singers and musicians to Maine, and also to Bethel, including Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar. In 1911, philanthropist William Bingham II chose Bethel as his summer home and proceeded to give away his fortune to assist educational and medical causes throughout New England and the nation.

Information about these individuals, subjects and events, plus much more, is available at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society.

— Museums of the Bethel Historical Society

 

 

 

 

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