Maine’s Wild West
The surprisingly cosmopolitan town of Bethel sits at the center of one of the state’s great natural wonders.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Sara Gray
Bethel is tucked in the mountains of sparsely settled western Maine, yet it is far from isolated. “This town has attracted all kinds of outside influences, which makes it unusual for an inland community,” says Stanley Howe, associate director of the Bethel Historical Society and something of a rare species in the snug village — a native. “There are all kinds of new people coming in all the time. Bethel is reinventing itself, and it has reinvented itself many times.”
Most of the shop owners, restaurateurs, and innkeepers doing business on and around Main and Broad streets are a well-traveled bunch who were lured to Bethel (population: 2,411) for various reasons and ended up staying to weave their own experiences into the area’s tranquil fabric. “Bethel is a very cool town with a lot of fresh things going on,” says Cathi DiCocco, who grew up in New York and Florida and was introduced to New England by her husband, a Massachusetts native. Petite and wearing short dark hair, DiCocco is chatting with me in the kitchen of DiCocoa’s Café, Marketplace & Bakery as she squeezes water out of blanched escarole and rolls it into balls for freezing, a preservation technique she learned in Italy. Bethel, DiCocco continues, owes its sophistication in part to Gould Academy, a private boarding school that draws scholars from all over the world and hosts cultural events like Music Without Borders, a summer performance series by students of Russia’s foremost pianist, Tamara Poddubnaya.
Likewise, Sunday River resort, a once strictly local ski area that expanded by leaps and bounds under the ownership of Les Otten in the 1980s, draws thousands of visitors every year. “A lot of the people who live here first came to ski, then bought vacation homes, and have since retired here,” DiCocco says. “And they are very active retirees. They’re the reason we have a theater group and an arts council. This is not a stagnant community. It’s very fluid. You have a steady influx of skiers who bring the culture in.”
Among them is John Amann, who took his son skiing at Sunday River in the late 1990s and bought a condominium the next day. “I’d never been to Maine before and in less than twenty-four hours I became a property owner,” Amann, then a labor negotiator for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in Manhattan, recalls. Not long after, he purchased a vacant Greek Revival opposite Bethel’s town common and spent several years restoring the building — now home to the Gideon Hastings House and 22 Broad Street, a fine Italian restaurant. “The tragedy of 9/11 was the impetus that got me out of New York permanently,” Amann says. “On the one-year anniversary of the attack, I resigned and moved here full-time. I haven’t looked back.”
Stanley Howe traces Bethel’s inherent malleability and openness to the railroad’s arrival in 1857. Suddenly, rusticators and artists of the White Mountain School were flocking to the town that until then owed its existence to farming and lumbering. As hotels and other businesses sprang up to serve them, the commercial center shifted from the flat, wide Androscoggin intervale to Bethel Hill, defined today by its beautifully preserved historic homes and the common whose trees are now ablaze with red, orange, and gold leaves.
The most prominent artifact of Bethel’s development as an artistic and intellectual crossroads is the rambling Bethel Inn, built in 1913 by some grateful patients of Dr. John George Gehring. A Cincinnati native who retreated here to heal from a physical and mental breakdown, Gehring went on to share the restorative powers of country living with others struggling under the pressures of modern life. So many well-educated “guests” of Gehring came to Bethel to chop wood, weed gardens, and otherwise labor in the crisp mountain air that Bethel was dubbed “the resting place of Harvard University.”
Thirty-four years later, social psychologist Kurt Lewin took note of Bethel’s reputation as a “cultural island” and chose it for the setting of his National Training Laboratories, a pioneer in group dynamics theory. “Bethel became the best-known small town in the world for people interested in behavioral science,” Howe says. The institute, renamed NTL and headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, still offers a slew of programs in Bethel on topics like organization development and leadership training for companies and individuals.
Sunday River’s “tremendous impact,” Howe adds, is now felt year-round as the resort has added recreation like golf, mountain biking, and, most recently, a zipline. European visitors to the historical society’s two museums on Broad Street often have made their way to Bethel directly from Bar Harbor, lured in part by Sunday River’s marketing. “More and more, we find Bethel is their second stop in Maine,” he says. “It’s Bar Harbor, then Bethel.”
Residents prize the small-town pace and the fact that the White Mountain wilderness, where black bears and moose are routinely spotted, is minutes away. “It’s peaceful, and we enjoy that,” says Cindy Siebert, who with husband Fred took the reins of the Briar Lea Inn a year ago after long corporate careers in Colorado. Ever since they have been introducing neighbors and visitors alike to Brit-Indi cuisine at the Jolly Drayman, the inn’s English-style pub. “If we lived in the big city we’d go crazy with the hours we’re working now, but here we just step outside and the mountains are in our backyard. Bethel also has a real sense of community. For a town to be able to court tourism and still retain its own unique character is quite impressive.”
Over at Bonnema Potters on Main Street, Tim Kavanaugh echoes those sentiments as he climbs atop a table to pour clay from a white plastic bucket into a metal vat. The Connecticut native moved to the area thirty years ago to work at a small, now-defunct ski area, then went on to teach visual arts at Bethel’s Telstar Regional High School, from which he recently retired. “My town in Connecticut was growing without any thought,” reflects Kavanaugh, a seasonal employee at Garret and Melody Dalessandro Bonnema’s pottery. “Bethel has stayed pretty much the same, even with the influx of people buying second homes and the area being recognized more and more as a four-season destination. It’s a beautiful little town, nice and peaceful. And the only thing you hear at night is the train.”
Base Camp: Bethel
Bethel has little in common with North Conway, New Hampshire, that other White Mountain leaf-peeper magnet. There are no factory outlets. No fast-food restaurants. No traffic congestion, either. What Bethel does have, besides peace, quiet, and a beautifully preserved historic New England village, are plenty of inns and restaurants. That makes it a perfect base camp for the following excursions into the countryside.
About a dozen scenic loops ranging from 65 to 175 miles through some of New England’s most colorful landscapes can be mapped out of Bethel. The travelers’ favorite, according to Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, is the sixty-seven-mile Andover loop: Route 5 north to Andover, East B Hill Road to Upton, and Route 26 back to Route 5 in Newry.
No wonder this loop is well-loved. Every mile is sublime. As you follow Route 5 north through Newry and Hanover, you’ll skirt first the Androscoggin River and then its tributary, the Ellis River, where you’ll feel like you’re traveling across the bottom of a bowl formed by the surrounding mountains. And the Route 26 roller coaster, with its views of Bald Pate and Old Speck mountains, will leave you speechless.
Allow time for stops at the Artist’s Covered Bridge in Newry, the Lovejoy Covered Bridge in Andover, and Andover village, where the homes date to the late eighteenth century. In addition, four waterfalls and a gorge beckon. The Cataracts, a series of three falls on Frye Brook, is located off the East B Hill Road in Andover North Surplus. Moose Cave Gorge, Mother Walker Falls, and Screw Auger Falls are in Grafton Notch State Park on Route 26, and Step Falls Preserve is just south of the state park. (The Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, 8 Station Place, Bethel, has free maps of this and other drives. 207-824-2282 or 800-442-5826. www.bethelmaine.com)
You don’t need much experience to paddle the Androscoggin River as it flows a languid ten miles from Gilead to Davis Park in Bethel. “It’s a gorgeous four- to five-hour float, and there is nothing to pose any danger whatsoever,” says Stephanie Percival, a guide with Sun Valley Sports in Newry (www.sunvalleysports.com), which rents canoes and kayaks and shuttles paddlers upstream to launch. “You’ll see eagles, osprey, and moose.
For a shorter trip, about four miles, you can put in at West Bethel. You pass two to three houses at most; the rest is pure Maine.”
“The fall colors are wonderful, the bald eagles are standard, and the loons are right there in the river channel,” says Eric Souther, describing the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, which sprawls over the Maine-New Hampshire border and encompasses Umbagog Lake and placid stretches of the Magalloway and Androscoggin rivers. “I’ve even had black bears swim right in front of me.” Souther is a guide for Saco Bound’s Northern Waters Outpost in Errol, New Hampshire (www.sacobound.com), whose services include paddling and pontoon trips and lakeside campsites. “This time of year you can count on cool nights and beautiful days,” Souther says, “and the likelihood that you’ll be the only ones out there is great.”
Feeling lazy? Sunday River’s Chondola (a lift with both gondolas and open chairs) totes leaf peepers to the top of North Peak, where the views of the White Mountains’ Mahoosuc Range and the Androscoggin River Valley are spectacular. Have lunch or a snack on the observation deck at Peak Lodge, then ride or hike back to South Ridge Base Lodge. Feeling athletic? Take the same Chondola and bring your mountain bike with you. North Peak provides access to thirty trails geared to different abilities. (www.sundayriver.com)
The hiking possibilities around Bethel are almost limitless. One of our all-time favorites is Caribou Mountain in Evans Notch, located between Stow and Gilead on a narrow stretch of Route 113 that is a tunnel of glorious color this time of year. You don’t need to be in tip-top shape to visit Kees Falls, a twenty-five-foot waterfall reached via a gradual two-mile climb on the Caribou Trail. If you’re more ambitious, continue to the treeless summit — the views of the uninterrupted Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness are expansive. Create a loop by descending via the Mud Brook Trail. The full round trip is about seven miles and somewhat rigorous.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Sara Gray