A bookcase in the Dr. Moses Mason house, one of two buildings at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society, features old photos from the period. The house was built in 1813 and restored for the museums in 1973. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on historical societies in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties. The story on the Androscoggin Historical Society can be found at sunjournal.com.

BETHEL — Nestled right next to downtown in this picturesque western Maine town, the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society feature an array of eye-catching and historic artifacts that illustrate how Mainers once lived.

A job press used for specialty printing by owners of the area’s first newspaper is on display at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Its artifacts cover the history of Bethel, western Maine, and the White Mountain Region of New Hampshire, featuring more than a dozen exhibit galleries spread through two buildings.

On a recent day, Will Chapman, the librarian and archivist at the society, navigated the maze-like archives with impressive ease, offering highlights of the museums.

The first thing he pointed out was a job press, a metal and wood structure placed in its own corner.

The small press was owned by the Bethel News, forerunner to today’s Bethel Citizen newspaper, and was used to print items such as menus, flyers, etc. It was donated by Danna Brown Nickerson, whose family owned the Citizen for many years.

Archives of newspapers produced in the area are also stored at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The artifact, though a fraction of the size of modern printing press machinery, illustrates the ways in which businesses in the town collaborated at the time.

“They did smaller things like brochures and menus for the local people,” Chapman said.

Along with the job press, the archives include past editions of the Bethel Newswhich in 1908 combined with the Rumford Citizen to form the Oxford County Citizen, later renamed the Bethel Oxford County Citizen in 1935 and then the Bethel Citizen in 1995.

The job press was in Nickerson’s barn before it was in the museum. In fact, many items currently on display were in someone’s barn or storage at one time; the society wasn’t founded until 1966, and museum supporters have worked hard over the years to gather the items now occupying the two buildings.

Post office windows and doors constructed in 1952 for the Bethel Post Office are now on display at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

One of the largest features in the research room is a bank teller-style booth that, according to Chapman, comes from the Bethel Post Office. While the counter and walls are stamped 1952, the building the Bethel Post Office is in was built in 1922 and the post office moved into it in 1942. The counter and walls were removed in the 1980s and now rest in the museums as a reminder of the way post office business was once transacted.

Will Chapman, librarian and archivist, looks through the archives at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The research area, where the vault doors and the job press are located, is where Chapman mainly spends his time. He fills his days archiving and collecting various artifacts while simultaneously assisting those who come in for document requests.

“The biggest (request) is genealogy, or family history,” he said. “People want to know about the history of their families. We also get a lot of people that come in and they’ve just purchased a house and they want the history of it.”

In addition, he said, occasionally graduate students, professors, or authors looking to do research come in to request documents, though “it’s usually not about Bethel specifically.”

Chapman started at the museums in 2015. He detailed the long process of organizing the thousands of documents and artifacts overseen by the museums, which has proven challenging because of the volume of material the society accepts.

Items from as recently as 2020 are accepted. The oldest artifact with a known date,

A book published in 1672 once owned by the Rev. Daniel Gould is now housed at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society and is believed to be the oldest dated object in the collection. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Chapman believes, is a book published in 1672 called “Roma Restituta,” owned by the Rev. Daniel Gould, a prominent area minister for whom Gould Academy was later named. The book is stored in a special low-humidity room.

The hallway between the research room and the main exhibit rooms features a display sponsored by the Maine Ski and Snowboard Museum, which oftentimes fills up space in the building. Currently on display is a history of Mount Abraham, which is a captivating collection about the mountain. On the porch is an exhibit also by the Maine Ski and Snowboard Museum that covers the history of skiing in Oxford County.

The Molly Ockett Room is in honor of the well-known Abenaki woman known by that name. Molly Ockett, which is believed to be a derivative of her English given name Mary Agatha, was believed to be born in 1740 and died in 1816, and was known, according to a plaque in the museum, as a “pigawacket healer (of the Pequaket tribe), artisan, hunter, storyteller, and stalwart friend of the settlers of this region and this town.”

Molly Ockett was said to have married a Revolutionary War soldier by the name of Edward Marden, had two children and was well-known for her healing skills, craft skills and sense of humor. The town of Bethel annually celebrates Molly Ockett Day, and the room at the museum dedicated to her displays many pieces made by her.

This basket was created by famed area resident and Abenaki native Molly Ockett. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

One of Chapman’s favorite artifacts is a birchbark box made by Molly Ockett. Decorated with dyed porcupine quills, the box was “made for the family of Israel Kimball of Middle Intervale, a small hamlet in Bethel,” according to its description. The delicate yet sturdy box is adorned with a flowerlike design on top.

As for her healing abilities, local legend says she saved the life of a future vice president of the United States. “She supposedly saved the life of a young Hannibal Hamlin, who was Lincoln’s first vice president,” Chapman said. Hamlin was raised not far from Bethel in Paris, Maine.

Moving on in his tour of the highlights, Chapman pointed to a small, unfinished theater space, where museum supporters hope to show a short documentary on the history of Bethel and its surrounding areas.

A chair made from antlers sits in the house of Dr. Moses Mason, which is one of two buildings at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Another building on the property is a re-creation of Dr. Moses Mason’s house. Originally built in 1813 and restored for the museums in 1973, this building provides attendees with a more interactive look into the 19th century.

Home to Dr. Moses Mason and his wife, Agnes M. Straw, the house demonstrates many old-fashioned ways of living.

“Here is how they would cook in the summers,” Chapman said, pointing to a large bowl-like metal object in a closed-off room called an arch kettle, which was primarily used for heating water.

The building features contrasting bathrooms; two modern ones for museum guests, and a re-creation of a 19th century-style privy. The differences are jarring and illustrate what a difference two centuries can make.

The house also has an ornate bookcase built by Mason himself when he was about 70 years old that features doors and places displaying daguerreotype photographs.

“You can see the drawers where they could store stuff, but it was mainly used for books,” Chapman said. “This is a pretty intricate shelf with the pictures.”

The stairwell in the house features a mural attributed to Jonathan D. Poor, a nephew of Rufus Porter. At the landing sits a chair made of moose antlers, a symbol of status because of its unusual nature, according to Chapman. It was built by Mason from antlers he acquired from Metallak, a Native American hunter and guide who was friendly with people in the area.

Once past the mural and up the stairs, the master bedroom provides an especially interesting glance into the past, featuring two gowns worn by Straw to President Andrew Jackson’s inauguration and ball in 1829.

A peek into a room in the Dr. Moses Mason house at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. The house transports visitors back to life in the early 1800s. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Currently, the museum is open Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. through 1 p.m. It offers exhibits, lectures, events, children’s programs and publications.

Exhibits on display currently include: Celebrating 60 years of Mt. Abram; the Dr. Moses Mason House Period Rooms; Oxford County Skiing History: From Jockey Cap to Jordan Bowl; and a showcase from the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame.

The museums are situated off Route 2, at 10 Broad St. in Bethel. For more information and to make an appointment, call 207-824-2908 or email [email protected]

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