Text Box: Text Box: A Brief History of Sunday River
Farming
March 6, 2009

For at least the first one hundred years of its settlement, the population of Sunday River depended on the family garden which expanded to a farm—the garden for their food and the farm for their livelihood.

  Away from the intervale land near a river,  farming land was only marginal at best— better suited for pasturing and orchards—maples for syrup in the spring and apples in the fall.  Winter fruit was an important crop for the family and for sale.

A visitor to the valley  a hundred years ago would have seen three times the amount of land cleared of trees for pasturing and farming than one sees today.

Farming had three stages of development in the valley: (1) pre-railroad, (2) railroad depot in Bethel and (3) the automobile age.  The railroad made distant markets readily available and a means for all the valley farmers to convert crops to cash.  The automobile led to even greater change by dissolving the old style market place of general stores and ultimately allowing inhabitants to shop in distant towns with supermarkets. 

Until the invention of automobiles, trucks, tractors and gas engines, hay was probably the valley’s most important crop.  Family motive power was based on horses and oxen.  Hay was fuel for these animals.  When large scale lumbering developed, more and more hay was needed to feed horses employed by the numerous lumber camps.

Besides hay, oats, wheat and rye were grains in demand for families and for market.  Being Maine, potatoes probably ranked second to hay for food and for sale.  The rail depot in Bethel provided an active potato market place at almost every time of year.

Farm size depended a lot on the path Sunday River carved from the landscape as it meandered toward its joining with the Androscoggin.  Farms occupying the large tracts of intervale land were more profitable—supporting both the owning family plus supplying extra produce for market and much needed cash income.  In the valley’s farming evolution, hill side farms were often the first to be abandoned.  However, apple orchards thrived on land bordering intervales  and cider mills became plentiful very soon after initial settlement. 

In fact, an old Williamson family cider mill was still standing beside the road used by Sunday River Ski Area’s founders to reach the base area of Barker Mountain’s slope in 1959.

If fall was the time for cider, spring was the time for maple syrup.  Almost every family that had even a few maple trees, did not pass up gathering sap and making syrup for their own use. 

Farming depended on seasonal weather.  News reports often  told of loss of crops or rotting potatoes that resulted from drought or too much rain.

Two notable, neighboring but quite different farms in the Sunday River valley at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries were those of John Philbrook (1840-1923) and St. John Hastings (1832-1904). 

John Philbrook Livestock Dealer:  The Eames/Philbrook farm was a large farm bordering the Sunday and Androscoggin rivers.  Philbrook who was originally  from Shelburne, NH, was partnered with his brother Samuel in buying and selling livestock in Bethel during the 1880’s.  At the end of the ‘80’s, John Philbrook had turned mostly to buying cattle, calves and sheep for shipment to the huge cattle market and  slaughter houses located along the Charles River in Brighton, Mass.  Philbrook’s  business volume was so significant that the Grand Trunk Railway Co. built small stockyard pens in West Bethel and at Bethel Hill to accommodate livestock shipment to Boston by rail cars. 

 

 

St. John Hastings Farm:  As a farmer, Hastings had the reputation of being one of the best in the Androscoggin/Sunday River valley.  He devoted his entire to farming and improving his farming methods. He was one of the first to build a silo, a new feed storage technique in New England, which he considered the most important feature in his farming.  Hastings took advantage of the sweet corn canning business in Bethel during the 1880’s and 1890’s—he made money from

Hill pasture behind Williamson farm (vicinity of Grand Summit Hotel)—note clearing of Mt. Will in background. Photo: Doris Williamson Fraser collection.

Google Earth image of Sunday River valley with the premium quality intervale farm land marked in red.  Amount of cleared farm land matched the capacity of horse drawn equipment to cultivate for a typical growing season.  Most farms were operated by family members and only one or two extra laborers.  

Herbert Kendall and his haying team on the Sunday River Road —taken while in front of his house in 1919 by Martha Fifield Wilkins.

Rounded Rectangular Callout: Philbrook Farm
Rounded Rectangular Callout: Hastings Farm
Rounded Rectangular Callout: Locke Farm
Rounded Rectangular Callout: Williamson Farm

selling the corn and chopped the corn stalks for the silo for feeding his cattle.  When the Bethel creamery opened its butter manufacturing business in 1892, Hastings was undoubtedly one of the suppliers of cream. 

Some of the former Hastings farm acres are used for raising hay and corn in 2009 by John Carter’s Middle Interval  Farm.

Other farm families included the Lockes,  the Swans, the Kendalls, Robert Bean, Bakers, Eames and Walter Emery.