Mason House in Winter

Wall murals attributed to Jonathan D. Poor

BETHEL — Fifty years ago, the former Broad Street home of Dr. Moses and Agnes Straw Mason opened to the world as a historic house museum.

“It all started when Sidney Davidson walked out of a meeting of the Gould Academy Board of Trustees at the Bethel Inn,” recalls Museums of the Bethel Historical Society executive director Emeritus Randall Bennett. “He saw the ‘For Sale’ sign on the house, and thought, that should be restored as the headquarters for the Bethel Historical Society.”

That was 1972. Over the next two years, the William Bingham 2nd Trust for Charity, of which Davidson was a trustee, restored the house, and in 1974 it was presented to the Bethel Historical Society. The Society had been formed eight years earlier by Eva Bean and other interested citizens, and until that point had been holding meetings at the Bethel Library.

Now, at the half-century mark, the staff and trustees of the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society have set their sights on the building’s future. The most pressing task this year is raising funds for critical maintenance work. Because the roof put on during the 1972-74 renovations utilized asbestos-containing materials, the removal and replacement will require an expensive abatement process. This part of the project alone is expected to cost over $81,000.

Additional work that needs to be carried out in short order includes scraping and painting the window sashes and shutters, replacing clapboards, and repairs to the front door, frame, and sills. In total, MBHS’s Development Committee expects to set a goal of $150,000 for a capital campaign that will be formally launched within the next few months.

Engaging community


These repairs are urgently needed to preserve the structural integrity of the house for generations of visitors to come. But MBHS’s plans do not stop there. The anniversary has prompted discussion among staff and trustees about the role of a historic house museum in the 21st century – a conversation that  Chapman hopes can be extended to the broader public.

“We want to engage the entire community in a discussion of what Bethel wants and needs, and how our historic building might fit into that,” said Chapman.

For the first 25 years that the Mason House was owned by the Society, it was the Society’s only property, and so it served a multiplicity of functions: house, museum, exhibit space, meeting space, offices, and research library.

In the years since the acquisition of the Robinson House (formerly the ‘Elms’ of the Bethel Inn), many parts of the operation have moved next door. The Mason House is still open for tours as well as programs and exhibits that are held in the Howe Exhibit Hall, on the first floor of the renovated barn.

But Chapman said there are many spaces within the building that he feels have been underutilized and present exciting opportunities.

This winter, the Maine Valentine Project, a local initiative that collects warm clothing and necessities and creates handmade Valentine packages for Mainers experiencing homelessness, has been gathering material at the Museums and storing it in a section of the former research library in the Mason House.


The group searched for several years for a place to store their donations, before the Museums were suggested to them. Trustee Rosemary Bunn Laban made the connection, and the Board quickly welcomed the project.

“Right now, we’re very interested in hearing any ideas that people have, big or small,” Chapman said. “For example, we have some local musicians who are practicing in our space and are developing plans for regular jam sessions at our facilities. A group of local bridge players has started meeting here, and during the summer we frequently welcome a plein air painting group onto our grounds. These are exactly the kinds of things we would all love to see more of.”

Deepening connections with other community groups is one of three key areas where MBHS’s trustees, staff, and volunteers will be focusing their efforts. A second objective is creating opportunities for more people to visit the house while making the overall experience feel more immersive.

This will mean more holiday-themed events and more events featuring live music, demonstrations, and workshops within the house. Citing the popular annual “Christmas with the Masons” event as a successful model to build upon, Chapman said that it was important to provide opportunities to “lower the ropes” and let people touch certain things.

Broader story

The final area of focus is researching and presenting a wider range of stories connected with the house and with Bethel during the time of the Masons’ occupancy. The Mason House is interpreted as lived in by the Masons from 1813, when it was constructed, to 1869, when Mrs. Mason died.


‘The rise of the Jacksonian movement (which Dr. Mason identified with) and his party’s eventual eclipse in mid-nineteenth century Maine by the newly formed Republican Party, the founding of Gould Academy, the abolitionist and temperance movements, the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement, the founding of the Bethel Farmer’s Club (a predecessor to the Grange), and the coming of the Civil War – these are all things that the Masons lived through,” said Chapman.

“Their level of involvement with each of them varies, but no matter what, they are part of the broader story of the era, and present interesting opportunities.”

The Abenaki healer Mali Agat (better known as Molly Ockett) was one of the house’s well-known visitors, a fact which is recalled by a plaque in the adjacent garden installed by the Molly Ockett Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2016. Keeping her memory alive – in a more accurate and contextualized manner than her story has been told in the past – is a priority for the Museums.

Another little-known fact is that abolitionist speakers visited Bethel during the Masons’ time. There was no coverage in the county newspaper at the time, but Chapman recently visited the Maine Historical Society in Portland to obtain descriptions of the public lectures that were printed in an anti-slavery newspaper, The Advocate of Freedom.

This past fall, historian and MBHS trustee David Jones taught a seminar for Gould Academy students entitled “Maine History: Macro and Micro,” which met at the Museums.

The students also worked hands-on with trustee Donna Gillis, who leads sewing groups and classes at the Museums and works on MBHS’s extensive textile collection.


Discussing possible projects that students might take up, they hit upon one notable gap in the collection: there were few articles of clothing representative of what people would have worn while performing labor.

It was the best articles of clothing people owned that they saved for rare occasions, prized, and passed on to their children while working garments tended to wear out and became rags. One of the students decided to run with the idea, sewing a replica working garment that the Museums intend to display as a representation of what the Masons’ hired help might have worn.

New Name

The Mason House will be entering its next phase of life as a museum with a new name. The home, formerly known as the Dr. Moses Mason House, will now be formally referred to as the Dr. Moses and Agnes Straw Mason House.

A complementary change will be made to the Museum’s other property, the Robinson House next door, which will be renamed from the O’Neil Robinson House to the O’Neil and Betsey Straw Robinson House. The name changes were suggested by Executive Director Chapman, and approved by the Board of Trustees.

‘This is a small change, but an important one,’ said Chapman. ‘The new name embodies our focus and vision for what the Mason House can be during the next half-century.’


In proposing the change, Chapman emphasized that there are three distinct benefits to the new names. Most evidently, the inclusion of Agnes Straw Mason’s name emphasizes the important role women played in shaping our local history, which has been overlooked in much of what has been published in older history books.

But, just as importantly, Chapman said, the new name highlights the essence of the Mason House as a family home – a place where gatherings were held, and where friendships were nurtured.

Although the Masons had no children, their favorite niece and eventual heir to the home, Cyrene Ayer, often stayed with them and is listed as part of their household on the 1860 census, as are two boarding students who were attending Gould Academy.

It’s believed that after they returned from Washington the Masons likely relied on the services of a hired boy or girl to run their household. The name Dr. Moses and Agnes Straw Mason House lends itself to a more comprehensive view of the household dynamics and the social fabric of the time of the Masons’ occupancy.

Finally, Chapman said the new names taken together create a ‘narrative bridge’ connecting the two residences and underscoring the familial relationship between Agnes Straw Mason and Betsey Straw Robinson, sisters whose lives intertwined in the two neighboring homes.

Overall, the names are intended to convey both an expanded focus and the spirit of the Mason House as a ‘living and breathing’ space for the community to gather – a role which the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society believes the home can continue to serve throughout the next half century and beyond.

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