For the people living in Sunday River valley before the ski era, “sporting” meant hunting and fishing. Old time residents hunted and fished mostly to feed their families. Some hunted or fished for personal recreation. Some opened their homes to “city folks” who had heard of Sunday River and visited for a sporting vacation. Sunday River Sketches tells of a group of men who visited Alonzo Fifield in Riley for a vacation of fishing and hunting in 1863. In this case Mr. Fifield was the group’s guide and host.
Unlike the more popular lake fishing in the Rangeley Lakes chain to the north, Sunday River sporting vacations were usually the result of word-of-mouth referrals between residents and friends or relatives in Massachusetts. Others learned of the valley’s fishing and hunting potential through Locke Mountain House summer boarders.
Social sporting in the valley also included mountain climbing, climbing to pick blue berries and picnicking.
Sporting clubs were relatively common for about fifty years from about 1875. Before the automobile age, rail and stage coach or mountain wagon travel made the trip to Sunday River from Boston, Connecticut and New York points quite easy. Steam boat connections to Portland, Maine from Boston and New York were often used for vacation travel. Two of the sporting clubs mentioned in Sunday River Sketches are Camp Brockton and the Demeritt place – both were located near the Bull Branch in Riley.
Camp Brockton is typical of private hunting camps even today. The clubs were a mixture of part social club and part hunting and fishing club. Accommodations were primitive, rustic, simple and definitely camp-like. Guiding visitors usually involved the host showing visitors good fishing holes and in the case of one story, salting a spot in the edge of a field so that deer would be attracted to it. However, guiding a hunting party was risky business; many a local guide has been accidentally killed guiding deer hunters.
Camp Brockton was located about a five minutes walk from Stillman Littlehale’s house (which was also the post office in Riley). The camp building was between Bull Branch and Sunday River. Mail sent to anyone staying at the camp was addressed to Camp Brockton, Bethel, Maine.
The camp was owned by club members from Brockton, Mass., who each owned a share of the property. According to the account printed in Sunday River Sketches, the members used the camp often and it was in a “flourishing condition”. After some years went by interested flagged, the camp deteriorated and it was eventually abandoned. A letter mailed from the camp in 1914 by Stillman Littlehale helps put a date of the camp’s later use.
Another sport for the backwoodsman was avoiding game wardens. Mrs. Fifield writes about how fishermen never talked or moved as quietly as possible to remain concealed on fishing trips. One fishing party was described as having caught over 300 trout in one day and grew tired of fishing.
Fishing and hunting helped feed many families who lived frugally and depended on game for their food. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Earl Williamson could catch “ a mess of trout” after coming home from work by fishing Barker Brook from the Penley’s camp which was near the White Cap Lodge in the Sunday River Ski Resort to his home near the bank of Barker Brook. On other days he would start where Barker Brook crossed under its Sunday River Road bridge and fish up stream to his house to catch enough trout for his family of four. (It is now a camp owned by Steve and Peggy Wight called the Farm Cottage. It is rented to area visitors throughout the year.)
Austin Aldrich ran a logging camp and lumbering operation in Riley around 1905. He is shown in this photo taken in 1905 fishing in Sunday River. Note how he is dressed. This was well before the days when style and marketing had much influence on sporting apparel. Mountain climbing, fishing or going hunting might find men in their older clothes which included a jacket, white shirt and trousers.
Farmers had to deal with three major pests: bears versus livestock, crows in the corn and deer in kitchen gardens and/or ruining crops that were planted for market. Shoot a bear or a crow and the shooter could collect a state bounty award. So mill owners closed their mill to let their employees have a crow bagging holiday with prizes given to the person with the most crow heads.
Many backwoods communities like Riley had at least one or two “professional” bear hunters. Alonzo Fifield held the record at one hundred bears shot or trapped in the valley and his nearest competition Leonard Leavitt, bagged ninety-eight in his lifetime. The number of bears trapped probably was equal to the number shot.
A bear’s pelt was a valued item - as late as the middle 1940’s my grandfather, Ed Bennett, used a bearskin to cover cases of bottled milk in his milk truck on cold winter days. In today’s economy, selling a bear pelt for five or ten dollars may not seem like much but in the 1890’s and early 1900’s when the economy was severely depressed, the price of a bear skin meant a lot to the seller.
In this photo from the Sunday River Sketches, Frank Littlehale (with pipe) and Lewis Eames stand behind a bear shot by Fred A. Fifield in the Lewis Eames pasture in 1905. Littlehale and Eames had helped drag the bear out of the pasture. In another photo Fred Fifield is shown standing with the lever action .38 or .45 caliber rifle he used to kill the bear. (The Lewis Eames farm was near the Letter S pool. Besides the farm a saw mill operated in the same general area.
For Sunday River residents deer hunting was more a necessity than a sport. Farmers could set their own schedules which meant fall hunting until a deer or two were hanging in their barn. Those who worked in mills were usually given extra time off during hunting season. The sportsman hunters made their presence known in the valley where visitors were easy to spot. With no restaurants or public lodging available, hunters usually would board with a friend or relative. Of course a number of hunters rented rooms in nearby Bethel inns that stayed open through the deer season just for hunters. Deer hunting was so common that it is not mentioned in the Sunday River Sketches other than to infer that old orchards in Riley would have attracted deer to them.
In the 1940’s during World War II, Harold Bennett invited friends from Arlington, Mass., to a week of hunting. The group stayed in Howell Crosby’s place and from all accounts social time and poker playing outweighed hunting time.
The so-called Sporting Syndicate that bought shares in the Owen Demeritt place around 1920 left very little record of their existence and activities. Owen Demeritt was a guide who lived in a remote part of Riley next to Bull Branch. This location was an ideal deer hunting location. Mr. Demeritt’s sister, Gertrude Demeritt, had for a long time been cook for the Locke Mountain House. Therefore, it is fairly safe to assume that the “syndicate” connection with Owen was at least started through his sister’s job and being well known by the farm’s guests.
Surprisingly, moose are not mentioned in Sunday River Sketches or
I Was a Summer Boarder. Moose were there. In the 1980’s and 90’s, the number of Sunday River moose sightings did not match those seen in Bear River valley or Grafton and Upton but they were seen. Sun Valley Sports located on Sunday River near Swan’s Corner includes organized moose viewing trips in its list of sporting activities. The most frequently asked question by summer vacationers and in the 21st Century has been, “Where can I see a moose”?
Possibly because women did not hunt, the “sporting” calendar at both the Locke Mountain House and the Poplar Tavern on Bear River included picnic trips, mountain climbing and blueberry picking. Picnic trips that were the most popular took guests by horse drawn mountain wagons and carriages to Ketchum, Screw Auger Falls and to Songo Pond. Mountain climbing groups were formed based on strength, skill, energy and age. The easy climbs were on Mt. Will and Locke Mountain trails. Barker Mountain, two miles away, was higher and more demanding. The hardiest climbers tackled Old Spec, Saddleback and Puzzle Mountains. Picnic baskets and transportation were furnished by the host.
In the 1954 photos above, locals and visitors get set for a hike up Barker Mt.
Sunday River Sketches – A New England Chronicle – by Martha Fifield Wilkins edited by Randall Bennett, 1977.
I Was a Summer Boarder, Ruth Crosby, 1966.
A Brief History, (unpublished), Daisy Crosby, 1916 and 1936
Ready for a trip up Barker Mt, 1954: Earl (Sherman) Williamson, Raymond Nowlin, Richard Knight, Donald Bennett and Kenneth Nowlin. Sherman wore a basket backpack for berries. On the way down we met a bear on a logging road near Barker Brook. We all stopped—after about a minute the bear galloped into the woods.
Frank Littlehale and Lewis Eames pose with the bear shot by Fred Fifield.
Just address my mail to Camp Brockton, Bethel, ME.
Austin Aldrich takes advantage of excellent fishing country.