“Bethel is a town where the common is uncommon; where Brooks Bros. sells pliers and wrenches, Victoria's Secret is a chocolate raspberry dessert and the Timberland Outlet is an exit for logging trucks. Astride the Androscoggin River, nestled at the base of Paradise Hill, Bethel is truly ‘just this side of Paradise.’ Most rural villages are one-industry towns. Bethel is a rare blend of farming, forestry, woods product manufacturing, education and tourism. In the past decade, the community has become home to active retirees and professionals who have chosen the small lifestyle over that of the megalopolis.”
Situated in the fertile Androscoggin River valley in Oxford County and surrounded by some of the highest mountains in Maine, Bethel was first settled by people of European descent in 1774. Farming and timber cutting were the principal occupations of these first inhabitants, who settled near the rich intervales alongside the Androscoggin River. Today, agriculture and forest-related activities are still important in Bethel, although the marginal hillside farms of the nineteenth century long ago turned back to woods.
Manufacturing and tourism became major factors in the town's economy with the arrival of the railroad in 1851. Tourism remains a major economic driver, especially in winter, with two nearby ski areas, and the town is popular for its beautiful natural setting and historic charm.
Bethel has long been a significant educational center for the region. Founded in 1836, Gould Academy continues to function as one of the Northeast's premier college-preparatory schools. In the late nineteenth century, Bethel became the site of Dr. John Gehring's pioneering clinic for the treatment of persons with nervous disorders.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, Bethel has experienced an unusual number of outside influences for a town of its size and inland location. These have caused Bethel to be somewhat different in character from other towns. For example, both Outward Bound and National Training Laboratories (NTL) have had profound and long-lasting influences on the open-mindedness of the communities. Many active retirees have settled here to enjoy the outdoor activities available throughout the year, and many of the Gould Academy faculty stay after they finish their teaching careers. Along with the many families who have lived here for generations, these additions to the population add to the vibrancy of the cultural and social scene.
With a total area of 65.91 square miles, and an estimated 2014 population of 2615, Bethel has a population density of roughly 40 people per square mile. The population has stayed above the 2000 mark since the 1930s, with only a slight gradual increase over the years. Though retirees continue to settle in the community, the lack of good jobs in the region frequently results in younger people just starting careers or families to move to other states, keeping the population stable, but increasingly older. For example, the median age given in the 2010 census was 42.9 years, but the estimate for 2014 is 45.3. Residents 55 and older make up 43.7% of the total population; those 65 and older are 16.75% of the total.