Bethel and the National Training Laboratories (NTL): 1947 to 2005
March 26, 2006
The Bethel Journals
By Donald G. Bennett
The National Training Laboratories, later NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, arrived in Bethel in the summer of 1947. Gould Academy hosted the conferences with administrative support, meeting facilities and lodgings. For a number of years NTL came as the client and Gould Academy (Bethel) was the patron. Sometime between 1948 and 1980 roles of the two parties reversed – NTL became the Patron and Bethel became the Client.
“In 1947, NTL Institute was founded in Bethel, Maine as the National Training Laboratories for Group Development, when NTL offered its first experiential human relations laboratory and pioneered the technologies of group dynamics. Bethel was the "cultural island" chosen by NTL's founders to develop, refine, and practice the T-Group methodology, which serves as the foundation for much organization development and group learning practiced today. (Funding was secured from the Office of Naval Research and the National Education Association (NEA) where Leland Bradford was serving as Director of Adult Education. The planning group was named the National Training Laboratory for GROUP development, later shortened to NTL, and eventually to NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science.)
How did NTL find Bethel? Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) a major figure then and now in the field of action research in social psychology, died just before he was to come here to launch a new method of group dynamics study. Lewin had selected Bethel, a “cultural island” in the mountains of Maine as the ideal launch site for this group. Why did Lewin choose Bethel? He had recently (1944) come to MIT in Boston from the University of Iowa but we do not know if he had ever visited Bethel. Speculation would be that either from research papers about the Gehring clinic or learning about the Gehring clinic from people who had been to it or knew Gehring was the reason. That it turned out was not the case at all - see comment below.
NTL’s 21st Century Bethel HQ
The former home of Dr. John G. Gehring, founder of a clinic to treat nervous breakdowns and return patients to being capable of productive careers, seemed a fine home for an modern “clinic” aimed at enhancing group productivity.
NTL (National Training Laboratories) was given birth in Bethel at Gould Academy in 1947.
NTL acquired the former Gehring home in 1955 after the death of William Bingham II.
Some of the ways NTL helped and changed Bethel:
In the summer of 1947, Bethel people woke up to the fact that a whole new event was unfolding on the Gould Academy campus. Many NTL participants stayed in Gould dorms while staff rented houses or rooms in town. Leland Bradford, Ronald Lippit and Kenneth Benne the founders who had been picked by Lewin (and who survived him to carry on his work) became regular summer residents in Bethel.
I was 12 years old in 1947. So I was one of the 200 to 300 locals who became daily NTL watchers. Participants had come from all over the United States and many foreign countries. Church Street was filled with a line of parked cars. (For kids, counting all the states on NTL cars was a major pastime.) “T-Groups”* scattered themselves under the trees shading the main campus. Many of the overseas participants wore their native dress or as we thought, costumes. New people were all over the place up and down Main Street and when not meeting they beat it quickly to the swimming holes from Frenchman’s Hole and Artist’s Bridge to Songo Pond. NTL was everywhere. The town’s closet peeping toms were having a field day keeping up with what was obviously to them a lot of “immoral” activity. Gossip in the restaurants became priceless. * What was a T-group?
From the beginning, NTL was an economic boon to many local businesses. My family delivered milk throughout town and to Gould Academy. Normally, in the summer the academy was closed and the dorms were empty. Gould served regular meals in the dining room of the girl’s dormitory and our milk business reflected that as a new benefit. Almost every storekeeper on Main Street prospered from NTL business. Yet, it is possible that Bethel lost more than $100,000 in profits because it was a “dry” town from 1947 to 1955. Bethel was a “dry cultural island”; maybe a surprise to NTL’s planners?
NTL’s need for summer housing was the “ bean seed” that grew into “Jack’s (Bethel’s) beanstalk” . Staff and some students/participants needed houses for the summer and the rental business took off. Residents moved out of their homes to campgrounds - NTL staff moved in. (This was happening from 1950 to 1980.) Most of the rental administration was handled through NTL staff and Wilbur Myers at Gould Academy; there were no real estate or rental agents involved at the beginning because Bethel had no such agents.
In 1947 Bethel was served by the Maine Central Bus Line and the Grand Trunk Railroad. A fair number of NTL participants came to Bethel without a car – coming by rail or bus. Edith Seashore has told funny stories about her arrival by Maine Central bus that stopped at Cotton’s Restaurant and Store near the junction of Main and Church Streets. It is a story of the outside worldly person meeting a Bethel-ite – with some culture shock involved.
In 1952, I graduated from Gould Academy, had my driver’s license and was able to drive to town in the evening. A number of the NTL staff brought their kids with them for the summer. For the town kids that mingled with the NTL families, and enjoyed the Friday night dances at the Bingham Gymnasium, it was a chance to meet some really nice, different people. My best friends that summer were twins, Janet and Jim Fleet. Their mother, Beulah Fleet, was a staff member who had come with her kids from the University of Denver. That summer we sampled everything that Bethel had to offer – swimming at Sunday River, dancing at the Top Hat in Hanover on Saturday nights, NTL parties on Friday nights and raiding the kitchen for left over pies. The Fleets left Bethel at the end of the summer. In 1988, I was retired from the Army and working as front desk manager at the Bethel Inn. Home having lunch at noontime, I got a telephone call from the front desk. There was a Mrs. Beulah Fleet asking for me; she was touring with a group that had stopped for lunch at the inn. For about 30 minutes I had a chance to catch up on 25 years. My 1952 summer “girl friend”, Janet, had married a doctor and was living in Georgia. All of this came to me through the auspices of NTL.
In 1957, Bethel’s industrial economy, wood product mills, was in the doldrums. The chamber of commerce had formed an industrial search committee. Looking for some practical ideas in their quest for new jobs, the committee asked NTL for help.
The Oxford County Bethel Citizen, August 15, 1957 reported the following:
Recently an interesting meeting was held at Gould Academy for the purpose of discussing ideas that might help Bethel industrially and economically. NTL personnel included Dr. Leland Bradford and Dr. Ronald Lippitt (two of NTL’s founders) plus Dr. Priess, Dr. Pitkin and several members of a training group. Bethel people were members of the original Industrial Survey Committee started by the Chamber of Commerce. One comment noted was that NTL people showed genuine concern for the town while only a short time before they had been considered complete strangers. All agreed that Bethel needed to be more progressive. Priority should be given to completing the (industrial) survey and getting it to Augusta so that the state would be aware of Bethel’s interest to create local industrial development.
It was agreed that Bethel should go on record as interested in industry, dispelling the myth that we are a closed corporation unfriendly to progress.
Discussion about “what does Bethel have” that would attract an industrialist didn’t result in overwhelming odds in our favor. Bethel’s assets were listed as land, railroad, electricity, etc, but the tax rate was followed by (no comment).
From 1954 through the 1970’s while I was pursing my Army career and seemingly forever going to school at night, I found how much of NTL’s programs and scholarship had seeped into the world of academia and military personnel relations training. The Army in its staff colleges used the NTL created “T-Groups” for its human relations training. Practically any book or journal on behavioral psychology published after 1949 had “Bethel” in its index. Bethel had become known worldwide due to the NTL Institute.
In 1979, the Greater Bethel Chamber of Commerce established a new annual award to recognize outstanding business achievements. The first year that this award was presented, NTL Institute was the recipient.
In the 1980’s, the times began to change for NTL in Bethel. Bill Clough had become Gould Academy’s new headmaster and Dr. Harry “Dutch” Dresser, his assistant. The academy planned for a summer school on campus and passed the word to NTL. In 1979 Richard Rasor saved The Bethel Inn from oblivion when he became the new owner. Looking to at first shore-up the inn’s creaks and groans then modernize its facilities, Rasor worked out a deal with NTL for off-season (spring and fall) labs based at the inn and a contract to hold summer labs in a new conference center to be built by the inn. In the 1980’s, nearly one-third of the inn’s summer guests were NTL participants. Every innkeeper in town competed mightily for NTL guests.
During this period Nancie Coan was NTL’s Bethel Administrator. I mention this because by the 1980’s keeping up with NTL’s summer requirements had become a very demanding job. From both a chamber of commerce experience and a Bethel Inn experience I can say that NTL really did dominate Bethel summer business activity. A lot of tracking of people and coordination of lodging facilities was required.
Dick Rasor and his architect, Larry Litchfield from New York, came up with a daring plan to build a new complex of modern guest rooms, recreational facilities with an indoor swimming pool and a conference center – all under one roof. This became Plan A. Almost as soon as rumor’s of the new project hit Broad Street, the “Victorian militia” mustered against it. The old guard and the town planning board must not have been party to the 1957 agreement which came from the joint committee of NTL and Bethel people that Bethel needed to show signs of being progressive. The Bethel Inn had already started taking reservations for the twelve new rooms when the inn’s “Titanic” hit its Victorian iceberg. Larry Litchfield came up with Plan B which was the conference center building that exists (2006) on real estate joined by the Bethel Library, Northeast Bank and the Bethel Historical Society. When the new conference center opened in the last half of the 1980’s NTL was already making preparations to expand their center on the south end of Broad Street, the former Gehring homestead.
In the 1990’s NTL terrified the Bethel tourist community by whispering that NTL was planning to withdraw from Bethel. Gasps of dismay were heard all over town. Meetings were held, old IOU’s waved in the air. Eventually, the pro-Bethel faction of NTL’s board prevailed and NTL continued its Bethel presence. As the 21st Century began things were calm from the Bethel perspective at first. In 2005, new tremors of NTL rumor floated down Main Street. NTL spokespeople, noting that the cost of maintaining permanent facilities in Bethel and the concept of keeping real estate was counter to the idea of running T-groups. As this is being posted, Bethel’s tourist community expects to see a new form of NTL presence in the town taking shape in the post 2006 period.
Comment: Lewin’s choice of Gould Academy’s campus in Bethel did not come from his being familiar with the town but from a recommendation from a former Gould headmaster. The story is that as a result of phone calls from Boston it was learned that Gould Academy’s facilities were available in the summer and besides being available, the rent would be “cheap”.