In 1790, the year of the first federal census, Sunday River was flowing through what would become three townships or plantations: Riley in the north, Newry in the middle and Bethel in the south— all part of Massachusetts until 1820. At the time of our Declaration of Independence in 1776, the area’s Indian inhabitants still claimed the lands of the upper Androscoggin River, and continued to do so, but overall they received new white settlers hospitably.
In 1977, Randy Bennett published a detailed personal history of life in the Sunday River valley compiled by Martha Fifield Wilkins—a native of Methuen, Mass—but a woman with close family ties to Riley and Newry. After two years of expert editing and assembly of notes, photos and old public documents, Sunday River Sketches, A New England Chronicle by Martha Fifield Wilkins was printed to become an immediate favorite of hundreds of readers. They were people who had lived in, visited or had ties to valley families, homes and camps.
In 1980 Paula Wight, a Newry native, compiled the Newry Profiles 1805-1980, which brings up to date events in the Sunday River valley including the advent of the Sunday River Ski area in 1960. Wight’s book complements the Sketches with details beyond Martha Wilkens’ scope.
Historian William Lapham covers the history of Bethel from conditions existing during the French and Indian War and King Philips War through the so-called Canada Grants and Bethel’s formation up to 1890 in the History of Bethel, Maine, published in 1891.
In 1991, Randy Bennett brought the history of Bethel up to date with Bethel, Maine: An Illustrated History. History is presented from the Indian era to “modern times” in chronological order. The book has far more photos, maps and etchings than any previous work. It gives readers a graphical story in motion— social and economic growth, style changes and arrival of automobiles. This book includes glimpses of 20th Century North Bethel, Bethel’s Sunday River covered bridge, the Locke Mountain House and the Roberts/Harrington poultry farm—custodians of lower Sunday River.
From 1895 until the present day, Bethel’s weekly newspapers—The Bethel News, The Oxford County Citizen, and The Bethel Citizen have become the
journals of record containing news from village correspondents. Along with news, advertisements have helped researchers looking for developments in commerce. For instance, the Bethel Citizen has been the main source of information for enterprises such as the Vernon Street Ski Tow, steps leading to the Sunday River Ski Area and in the 1990’s, the Victoria Station/Bethel Station project.
Annual town reports and minutes of town meetings generated in Bethel and Newry plus since 1948 planning board minutes have continued to be important history sources just as were the earliest town meeting minutes from Riley, Newry and Bethel. Probably the most important source records are property and tax collector records. In the last few decades, building permit records have joined the ranks of town records important to future historians.
Oxford County weekly newspapers, the Democrat and the Advertiser, have proven to be extremely valuable sources for information about the Sunday River area during the last half of the 19th Century.
Personal records collected by descendants of long ago residents may be difficult to find but have proven invaluable in settling questions of accuracy plus adding details and photographs that confirm “a photograph is worth a thousand words”. Martha Fifield Wilkens tells about Riley records that were saved by an old resident after the plantation charter had been dissolved.
So the bottom line of this foreword is:
Those interested in Sunday River history must stitch our three pieces of Sunday River’s history into one package.
It is never too late to make contributions to the chapters of this river valley’s story. Readers who happen on this story about Sunday River history and have photos, documents or recollections about an event, a family or a business that was part of the Sunday River scene are urged to pass this information on to the Bethel Historical Society or the Town of Newry.