Text Box: Text Box: A Brief History of Sunday River
Schools –Riley, Newry and Bethel
March 10, 2009

When Bethel and Newry were incorporated in the state of Massachusetts, they became obligated to implement a public school system.  The town selectmen were responsible for insuring that qualified teachers were hired.

At the time  John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, he included provisions that guaranteed public education to all citizens. In 1789 Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to pass a comprehensive education law. In updating the colony's 1647 law, the legislature required all teachers in grammar schools to "provide satisfactory evidence" that they had received a formal education in a college or university and, equally important, were of good moral character. Even women who taught neighborhood dame schools were to be certified by the selectmen.

Bethel, incorporated in 1796, appointed its first school committee at the 1798 annual town meeting; members were Nathaniel Segar, Jonathan Bartlett, Amos Gage, Eleazer Twitchell, Amos Hastings, Josiah Bean and Walter Mason. This committee was instructed to divide the town into two districts.  And a month later at another meeting, the town voted to build three school houses and three hundred dollars were raised.   Eli Twitchell, Josiah Bean and John Holt were made a committee to take charge of building the school houses. 

In the next few years, the number of school districts multiplied rapidly. In 1808, Samuel B. Locke, Ebenezer Eames, Amos Hastings, Nathaniel Swan and John Merrill were reassigned to the fourth school district from the third.  (The fourth district school house was located near Swan’s Corner on the road now called Martin’s Lane; see 1858 map.) With the exception of John Merrill, these families lived along the Sunday River.  Merrill lived about where the Sunday River Road joins Route 2 (Bethel-Rumford).  In 1809, $250. was voted for schools. 

Newry, incorporated in 1805, appointed Lt. Asa Foster, Capt. Benjamin Barker, E. Lincoln, Esa Barker, Isaac  Powers a committee to decide on the locations for school houses at the first town meeting.  By 1810 the town had established two school districts, North and South, Sunday River being the South District.  School funding was to be based on the proportion of the scholars (in the town’s two districts) between ages three and twenty-one.  Students would have to attend the school in their respective district.

In 1811 it was decided that Sunday River should get 1/5 more money than Bear River for the completion of school houses that year.  By 1825, school money was divided equally between the two rivers’ districts.  In 1817, the town voted to allow districts to employ teachers selected by a district committee or “any other way they may think best”. In 1822, it was voted  that school money could be paid in grain– wheat at $1.25 per bushel and rye at $.83. 

The Sunday River town school attendance was similar to colonial Massachusetts school situation—families depended on agriculture for their livelihood.  Once children became old enough to work they usually attended school when not needed at home.  Raising money for schools was a difficult job for all concerned. 

Bethel, Newry and Riley employed a system of school district agents.  Although selectmen and/or the town school committees were responsible for inspecting schools and teacher qualifications and performance, the district agent could hire teachers for their districts. 

In 1827, Newry divided the town into four school districts.  In Sunday River, District 1 was the lower district and District 3 was the upper school district. (Numbers 2 and 4 were Bear River districts.)  Sunday River’s dividing line was set between Joel Foster and Joseph Jackson—approximately at the Monkey Brook Road junction with the road to Riley. 

Debates on public education at town meetings from 1800 to 1965  reflected largely the same questions as today:  cost of schools, how to organize and administer, district school versus centralized schools, capability of hiring qualified teachers and selection and cost of text books and supplies. 

Newry eventually operated six district schools and Bethel by 1840 had twenty-four school districts.  Schools normally held three eight week terms of instruction.  Students might find a different teacher each time a new term began.  Combining just Newry and Bethel school districts meant that each term would require 30 teachers and in the course of year, 90 new teaching contracts had to be let not counting the need for substitutes.  There was no telephone communications and travel was by horse drawn carriages over roads that were little more than cart tracks.

Town school committees were filled with citizens whom were most likely the best qualified in the minds of voters, and would accept the committee responsibilities.  Combined with making a livelihood and looking after their families, the committee member was responsible for evaluating new teacher applicants and visiting all classes to determine how well teachers taught, what material they were teaching, level of discipline they could maintain and how well they took care of janitorial duties.  Committee member inspections also had to record the school building’s adequacy in term of heating, safe water supply, toilet facilities, reasonable comfort, particularly in the winter, items needing repair.

In the Bethel, Greenwood, Albany and Newry area, there was a pool of experienced teachers that were in much demand.  It was up to the school committees to see if their new and inexperienced teachers were up to the job.   The school district agent was responsible for hiring a teacher during the district school era, but the town selectmen and school committee had overall responsibility for a competent educational program.

Attendance counts barely met the state minimums for separate schools: in 1898 Newry’s town report showed that in the two Sunday River schools’ attendance was  7 at the Lower School and 9 at the Upper District for the Spring term; Fall term 8 and 7 and Winter was 9 and 6. 

In 1890, three years after Bethel adopted the town

school system, a move to revert back to district schools was defeated.  That same year, after two resignations, the school committee consisted of Dr. John G. Gehring and Horatio Upton. Their end of year report which opened with this paragraph might make amusing reading today but reflected the conditions of the times in Bethel and Newry.

The condition of the school houses, as we found them, was, and still is deplorable. The past committees have had but inadequate or no appropriations for their repairs, and the buildings, in fully half the districts, are nearly ruined for the lack of a few dollars expenditure at the proper time. The leaking roofs, unsafe floors, falling plastering, unsanitary outbuildings, — and in some cases no outbuildings at all,—testify to a lack of thought for the children of the community that but few of our thrifty farmers would be guilty of in connection with their choice stock.  Read the full report

The report of individual schools which included the North Bethel/Swan’s Corner school said this:

District 3:  Summer and fall terms taught by Miss Cora Hastings. The school was small but good advancement was made in the several classes.

For the winter term we were so fortunate as to secure the services of Miss Edith A. Philbrook, a teacher of experience and ability; the only regret being that the term was necessarily so short.

(In these two instances, the teachers were Sunday River natives.)

Bethel’s school report for 1891 showed that the Swan’s Corner school had only five scholars.  That year, Han Jewett taught two terms and Fred Atherton taught the winter term.  (Again the teachers were local people.)

Clockwise from upper left: the Lower Sunday River School,  built in 1895.  From the Newry Profiles we learn that it probably cost $550.  In 1978, this school house was named to the National Society of Historic Places - results of Newry’s bicentennial committee effort to restore and preserve it.

Classroom view of the Lower Sunday River School.

Earl Sherman Williamson and his sister Helen ready for walk to the Lower Sunday River School, January 1935—standing in front of their home, about one-half mile walk from the school.

Upper Sunday River School—in 2008 its shape and windows basically match its sister building that was restored.

Photos:  School house exteriors—2008.  Classroom view—1978, courtesy of Doris Williamson Fraser. Williamson photo taken Jan 1935, Daisy Crosby family history. 


Earl Sherman Williamson, Jr., (1923-2007, and the boy in the above photo) is a just one  example of how good students could profit from schooling in a tiny district Sunday River school. While attending the Lower Sunday River School, was able to cover two grades in one year by doing extra work, enter Gould Academy and graduated in the class of 1940.  He served in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy Seabees during World War II, graduated from the University of Maine at Orono then began a successful career with International Paper Co, first at Livermore Falls and then in New York.  Note:  single classroom schools, which most district schools were, were usually graded ( first though eighth grades); teachers might  be faced with teaching a total of eight pupils, one in each grade or some similar combination of grades and scholars. 

Charles Hastings (1867-1951) who was born on the St. John Hastings farm near the mouth of Sunday River is a fine example of how a Sunday River district school grad went on to a notably successful lifework.  He attended Gould Academy and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1891.  As time permitted he also taught school in the Bethel district.  Mr. Hastings completed a distinguished 40 years career with the Library of Congress.  He was chief of the card division.

Above: The log school house in Riley built by C. Owen Demeritt and located on the former Owen Demerit (1866-1952) property.  It is just short of one mile north of the Twin Bridges. This photo was taken by Martha Fifield Wilkins in 1922 and appears in the Sunday River Sketches, page 195. 

Since Ketchum was not part of a town school system, the state supplied a teacher (circa 1905) for the Demeritt and Littlehale children plus any others living nearby. The teacher boarded with the Demeritts but the cabin also had bunks where guests could put up for overnight.

The property is currently owned by the Morrison family (2009), who have used the school house as a residence.   Alva Morrison who is best known for leading a voter referendum in 1987 to close Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant  lived here in the 1980’s.

Sources:  Sunday River Sketches, I Was a Summer Boarder, Ruth Crosby, and New York Times, October 4, 1987.


Rounded Rectangular Callout: 1
Rounded Rectangular Callout: 2
Rounded Rectangular Callout: 3
Rounded Rectangular Callout: 4


1. 1858 Swan’s Corner School (Bethel)

2. 1880 –1930 Swan’s Corner/North Bethel School (Bethel).

3. Lower Sunday River School ( Newry)

4. Upper Sunday River School (Newry)