Dr. Moses Mason and His House

by Stanley Russell Howe

With drawings by Sue Wight

Dr. Moses Mason (1789-1866)           Agnes Straw Mason (1793-1869)

Circa 1835 portraits by Chester Harding

Dr. Moses Mason's life spans a particularly significant period of Bethel's history and development.  Although he did not settle in the town until he was ten years old (three years after incorporation in 1796), he became its leading citizen.  Born in Dublin, New Hampshire, in 1789, the son of a soldier of the American Revolution and the fifth of eleven children, he began his career in 1813 practicing medicine, having earlier apprenticed under the guidance of his brother-in-law, Dr. James Ayer of Newfield, Maine.  However, after 1832, business and political pursuits claimed far more of his attention than the healing arts.

In 1815, he became the first postmaster of Bethel, serving in that capacity until 1833 when he departed for Washington, D.C.  Dr. Mason later admitted that not even the arrival of the railroad in 1851 could equal the excitement he felt when he heard the sound of the postal rider's horn for the first time in 1815.

Dr. Mason's arrival in Washington as a member of Maine's eight-man delegation in the House of Representatives marked the high point of his life.  He was elected as a Jacksonian Democrat from the Second District (then made up of Oxford County, plus a few towns in Cumberland, Kennebec and Lincoln counties).  The Doctor was re-elected in 1834 and knew all his more illustrious contemporaries in Andrew Jackson's Washington, including John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.  In fact, Dr. Mason was so proud of being in Congress that he collected the autographs of all those who served with him, plus the signatures of Presidents John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.  His autograph book and another with the autographs of Mrs. Mason's associates have survived and are in the collection of the Bethel Historical Society.

Prior to his Washington experience, Dr. Mason had served on the Board of County Commissioners from 1831 to 1833, and the Bethel Board of Selectmen.  Soon after he returned from Congress in 1837, he again entered local and state affairs, becoming a member of the Governor's Executive Council (1843-1845) and a trustee of the State Insane Hospital (1844), president of the Gould Academy Board of Trustees (1854-1866) and a Selectman for several additional terms.  He remained a Justice of the Peace from 1821 until his death in 1866, marrying some forty-three couples and always returning the fee to the bride.

The year after young Moses Mason came to Bethel, the population, according to the first federal census, numbered 616.  Most of the settlement existed in the eastern part of town (East Parish) where families were largely engaged in farming.  On Bethel Hill (West Parish) there were few houses and little commerce until after the arrival of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, which passed through as part of the Portland to Montreal Route in 1851.  By the end of Dr. Mason's life, Bethel Hill had become the center of a town whose inhabitants numbered over 2600.

Dr. Moses Mason brought many of the rudiments of refinement to the frontier inland Maine community.  A Baptist, he also reflected the agrarian Democratic sentiment that dominated interior Maine through most of the first half of the nineteenth century.  Although he could not be classed as a learned man, he had access to more knowledge and wealth (the latter derived from his business ventures in the neighboring township named in his honor in 1843 and the holding of several thousand acres of timberland) than his neighbors, and the circle of his acquaintances was considerably greater.  These fortunate circumstances enabled him to assume a rather patriarchal role in the town, exerting an influence upon nearly every Bethel development.

Dr. Mason was a man of good taste, discerning eye, gregarious temperament, sterling honesty and unusual wisdom.  He was always fond of collecting statistics and facts relating to the town.  Very adept in mechanical ways as well, he built his own carriage, a pictorial bookcase, and a moose antler chair; the latter two can be seen in the house today.  Always interested in the material progress of the town, he supported many projects designed to enhance these ends.  In cooperation with F. O. J. Smith of Portland and others, he proposed and planned an extension of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal by diverting the waters of the Androscoggin down to meet Sebago Lake.  This project did not succeed, as the railroad came to Bethel about this time and Dr. Mason's plan went unfilled—the only noteworthy failure in a life so rich with success.

In June of 1813, he had married Agnes Straw of Newfield, and she came to Bethel six months later by sleigh.  The couple subsequently moved into a white clapboard house gracing the east side of the common.  The fourth dwelling to be built in the vicinity, it was certainly the most elegant, standing two stories with a graceful entrance doorway complete with fanlight and side windows.  The delicacy of the Federal style was soon modified by dark shutters, double in front and single on the ell.

According to Dr. Nathaniel T. True, Bethel's eminent historian, Dr. Mason's house was the first residence on the Common to be painted white, the first on a high granite foundation and the first with shutters.  Early in its construction, some of the leading citizens, seeing the sills blocked so high, chose a committee to prevail upon the Doctor to lower them, thinking the building would, in their opinion, blow over.  But Dr. Mason was not dissuaded, and construction proceeded as planned.

The front portion of the house is a single room in depth and contains a parlor and dining room downstairs, and two bedroom chambers above, divided by a full depth hall, upstairs and down, with a formal stairway.  It is in the hall that the most intriguing feature of the house is found, for the walls are decorated with "Rufus Porter School" murals depicting distant seascapes and engaging landscapes with lush foliage; these unique works of art were likely painted by the itinerant artist Jonathan D. Poor, a nephew of Rufus Porter.  The murals are unique in Bethel and have been the subject of much attention through the years.  They remain in a state of preservation that belies their years, and required only a careful cleaning and slight repair during the restoration of the building in 1972-1973.  Jean Lipman has written of them in her book, Rufus Porter: Yankee Pioneer, published in 1968.

Visitors to the Moses Mason House will appreciate the unobtrusive manner in which the renovation and restoration has been carried out.  The house has been adapted to present amenities, but in ways that preserve its authentic character.  Interior colors were selected after laboratory analysis of paint samples to determine the color schemes chosen by Dr. Moses Mason and his bride in 1813.  In each room a patch has been left to reveal the original color.

The furnishings in the house are appropriate to the period of the Masons' lives and have been acquired by many generous donations and bequests.  The attached barn, once used by Dr. Mason for farm animals and hay storage and by later residents as a workshop, now houses a meeting room/exhibit hall and modern kitchen on the first floor and the Historical Society's Research Library on the second.

Any account dealing with the Moses Mason House would be incomplete without mention of the later owners of the property.  Dr. and Mrs. Mason, having no children of their own, willed their home to a favorite niece, Cyrene S. Ayer, who married Daniel Twitchell and occupied the premises.  After Mr. Twitchell's death, she married O. C. Littlehale.  Cyrene Littlehale's daughter by her first marriage, Ada, succeeded to her mother's house and lived there for many years with her husband, Tristram Durell.  Their only child, Daniel, and his wife, Ada Everett, were the fourth and last family to make their home there.

In 1972 the property was purchased by the William Bingham II Trust for Charity.  Through the generosity of the Bingham trustees, the Moses Mason House was brought to its present restored state, and in January of 1974, the title for the property passed to the Bethel Historical Society.  The facility now contains a house museum, the Society's extensive library collections, and space for lectures and short-term exhibitions.  This is a fitting tribute to Dr. Mason, whose long life and many activities contributed to the evolution of Bethel as a town and Maine as a state, and to the Durells, who through their long occupancy of the House, held back the tide of modernization and preserved the murals and other irreplaceable features.  The Moses Mason House is on the National Register in its own right, as well as part of the Broad Street Historic District.

Dr. Moses Mason and His House was originally published as a booklet in 1981 by the Bethel Historical Society.
It has been slightly edited and updated for presentation here.

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