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Western Maine Foothills Region

Rumford

A Brief History of Rumford, Maine

Text by Jane Welch Peterson, Nghia Ha, and Dave Gawtry
Images provided by Rumford Area Historical Society

The Town of Rumford owes its settlement, financial growth, and social development to its location on the Androscoggin River, and its tributaries of the Ellis River on the west, the Swift River on the east, and the Concord River on the south. These rivers provided the opportunities for small mills to produce lumber and shingles, shovel handles, grains from the grist mills, cheese and starch making facilities, and wool carding products.

Rumford (first known as New Pennacook Township) was visited by the Anasagunticook Indians for the purposes of fishing salmon at the “Great Falls.” There is little evidence that there was any permanent settlement in this area, but rather up river at Bethel and down river at Canton. Two of the last remaining tribal members were Molly Ockett, who died and is buried in Andover, and Metalluc, who subsequently resided and died in Stewartstown, New Hampshire.

The township of New Pennacook was created as the result of a Massachusetts grant in 1779 to Timothy Walker, Jr., and his associates, to settle a land controversy in Concord, New Hampshire. The first settlers to the region were Jonathan Keyes and his sons, Ebenezer and Francis, who came from Massachusetts in June, 1782. Other settlers soon followed, with surnames including Stevens, Virgin, Abbott, Kimball, Rolfe, Farnum, and Lufkin. Many of their descendants remain in the River Valley at this time.

The Town of Rumford was incorporated by act of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1800, at which time the name of New Pennacook was changed to “Rumford,” although the residents of the township had requested the name of "China." No reason was given for the substitution of the name Rumford. Some felt it had some relationship with Count Rumford, but this has no substantiation in fact; rather, it may be related to the town of Rumford in England, from which some settlers’ ancestors had come.

Until 1882, when Hugh J. Chisholm, a paper-producing entrepreneur of the time, first came to Rumford’s Falls on a cold winter day, the region was largely an agrarian society. The farming region existed above the Falls, especially in the East Rumford area. For 10 years after Chisholm’s first visit to the area the region remained a farming community. During those years he engaged the most well-to-do farmer of the area, Waldo Pettengill of Rumford Center, as his business agent to procure the riparian rights along the Androscoggin River above and below the Rumford Falls.

The forward thinking Hugh J. Chisholm was responsible for investing in several businesses to develop the Town of Rumford. These included the building of the Rumford Falls Light and Water Company, which subdivided into the subsequent Rumford/Mexico Water District (with its Mt. Zircon Reservoir); the International Paper Company; the Rumford Falls Sulphite Company; the Continental Paper Bag Company; and finally, the Oxford Paper Company.

Workers from Europe, especially Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, England, came to build the dams, canals, brick structures, and other buildings on the Island, and manage the mills. Their arrival increased the need for low-cost, reliable housing, which Mr. Chisholm addressed in his plans for a model town, expressed in a letter to Charles A. Mixer, resident engineer with the Rumford Falls Power Company. The culmination of Chisholm’s awareness of housing needs was the construction of Strathglass Park, a series of brick, duplex homes for the workers.

The Chisholm influences spanned the years from 1882 under Hugh J. Chisholm; his son Hugh J. Chisholm II, and grandson, William H Chisholm until the sale of the Oxford Paper Company to the Ethyl Corporation in 1966. The Oxford Story published in 1958 by the Oxford Paper Company is a detailed story of the Chisholm family and the growth of the company.

Pride in the community grew with its prosperity and diversity. Many residents felt strongly about their town, as Ethel West, a resident of South Rumford whose home was on the bank of the Mt. Zircon Stream, expressed in her poem “A Town in Maine”.

Educational facilities grew along with the burgeoning population. Small peripheral villages (often ethnic in nature) developed outside the Rumford Falls area. Each of these areas had their own small, community schools where students could walk to and from home.

Smith Crossing, with its predominantly Italian population, had the MacDonald School. The Polish, Lithuanian, and Irish folks in the Spruce Street/Knox Street Penobscot Street areas had the Pettengill School. The Strathglass residence children attended Chisholm School (the former high school). Those living in the Virginia section of town had the Virginia School. Those who lived in the Swain Road and Eaton Hill section of Woodrowville had their own local facility. South Rumford had the Thurston’s or “winter" School on the shore of the Androscoggin River near the Aaron Graham/Bartlett/Welch farm, which the south-side children attended when the river was insufficiently frozen for them to walk across to the Rumford Center School. This was the Lufkin School, later to become the Rumford Historical Society’s museum. The 10 mile distance from Rumford Point to Rumford Falls led to the building of the Kimball School at the Point. The Bisbee School served those families living in the Hancock Street/Waldo Street/”flats”areas. Other schools existing in 1895 included Rumford Corner, Abbotts Mills, North Rumford, East Side Ellis River, No. 9 East Rumford, No. 12 Red Hill, and No. 13 Isthmus.

The need for these small, local schools diminished with the advent of school buses and a new concept of school consolidation. By the early 1950s most of these small, independent schools had disappeared. Some were demolished; others were used for other purposes in the community.

Hugh J. Chisholm was instrumental in encouraging and helping to fund the building of the first high school, Chisholm School, located on York Street. Higher education was later provided at Stephens High School on York Street. It was built in 1911, with additions being made in 1915, 1917 and 1931. Due to the rising population, a new high school was erected on Hancock Street in 1969, to be called the Rumford High School. By 1989 the population had begun to dwindle, and Rumford High School merged with Mexico High School to form the Mountain Valley High School. Many athletic teams reached the state finals, bringing recognition to the skills of the area’s athlethes.

Expanded educational opportunities were available from the Rumford Public Library. This building was constructed in 1903 with an Andrew Carnegie Foundation. It was enlarged in 1969 by the addition of a new extension on the rear of the facility.

The ethnic composition of the Town of Rumford was also evident in its religious life as well. The earliest settlers were of the Protestant faith, represented by Congregationalists, who established itself in 1803, with a facility at Rumford Center and in 1864 at Rumford Point. The Methodists also were also active by 1798, and built an impressive church on Franklin Street, and a subsequent Chapel on Linnel Street in the Virginia Section of Town. The Universalists had a facility at the corner of Franklin Street and Plymouth Avenue. The Baptist Church is located just down Plymouth Avenue hill. The English-speaking Anglicans from England constructed a unique structure from stones taken from the Swift River; St. Barnabas Episcopal Church is located on Rumford Avenue.

The many workers from Europe and Canada brought with them their Catholic heritages. The first Catholic Church was the St. Athanasius Church on Maine Avenue, constructed in 1896, which was replaced by a larger, more modern building in 1928. It served the Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, and Irish of the community. By 1905, the French-speaking Catholics, primarily from Canada, formed their own St. John’s Church. They completed construction of an impressive Gothic-styled church on Maine Avenue, in 1928. These two congregations were merged in 1970 to become St. Athanasius-St. John’s Parish.

Medical needs of Rumford were addressed as early as 1841 when Dr. Thomas Roberts began practicing in Rumford Center; Dr. Hiram F. Abbott came in 1865, and Dr. Charles M. Bisbee in 1895. Dr. Laura F. Noyes, a female physician and her two physician daughters, Dr. Sarah E. Noyes (Brooks) and Dr. H. Louella Noyes, and Dr. Eugene M. McCarty established small hospitals in the Strathglass Park area. Dr. McCarty subsequently moved his hospital to Maine Avenue, but by 1926 the region had grown so much that a larger facility was needed, and 57-bed hospital was built on Franklin Street at a cost of $265,200. The hospital is currently a 25-bed facility, with 24-hour emergency services and outpatient specialty clinics. It is part of the Central Maine Medical Center’s Regional Health Care System and referrals are made to that facility for diagnostic and treatment programs not available locally.

Fun and recreational needs of the town were also planned and encouraged by Hugh J. Chisholm. The Rumford Mechanics Institute, his final creation for his “model town” was intended for educational and recreational activities, and provided opportunities for the youth and adults of the community to engage in athletics, lectures, and movies, and initially featured a bowling alley in its basement. It is now known as “The Greater Rumford Community Center” and continues to be a site for recreational events.

The Chisholm Ski Club, founded in the early 1920s, offered winter Nordic and Cross Country skiing, and hosted an annual winter carnival, first at its ski jump location on Spruce Street, then at its Scotty’s Mountain location on Route 120, and finally at its present facility on Glover Road. The Black Mountain Ski Resort now features skiing for the family at affordable rates, a tubing hill for the non-skier, and a modern, up-to-date lodge for dining and après-ski events.

The mountains surrounding Rumford, including Black Mountain, White Cap, and Glassface offer summertime blueberry picking and hiking. The Androscoggin River and its tributaries are now relatively free of pollution and are suitable for swimming, boating, and fishing in the Rumford area as a result of the efforts of United States Senator Edmund S. Muskie, born and raised in Rumford, to enact the 1972 Clean Water Act at the federal level.

Little is known about the artists who lived and worked in the Rumford area. Dr. J. E. Martin wrote a comprehensive book on the life and work of Jonathan Adams Bartlett, 1817-1902, who was a folk artist living on the south side of the Androscoggin River in what was the Aaron Graham farm. The interior of the Congregational Church in Rumford Point is adorned with trompe l’oeil (trick the eye) paintings, but the artist is not conclusively identified. It could be Bartlett, or Charles J. Schumacher of Portland, who is known to have painted similar murals in a now demolished church in Mayville, near Bethel.

Other 20th century Rumford artists are Oscar and Laura Legere, Robert Soucy, and Christine Wing, an art teacher at the Rumford/Mountain Valley High School for 37 years. Currently the New Pennacook Arts Center, with rotating exhibits in the Tech Building in Rumford, is the focal point for local artists wishing to display and sell their creative works.

Linda Farr Macgregor, in her Rumford Stories, interviewed other artists and musicians, including Naomi Davis Robertson, a quilter with the Lady of the Lake Quilters; Burt DeFrees (now deceased), teacher and theatrical director; Mark Belanger, organist for St. Anthanasius-St. John’s Parish; and Judith Davis Kuhn, teacher and musical director for RAPPA (Rumford Association for the Performing Arts).

The creative talents of the citizens of Rumford are shown at the many craft fairs during the holiday season, and summer festivals. Jewelry makers, painters, photographers, wood-carvers, knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers all offer their wares at these events.

Many of Rumford’s buildings are on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. These include the Rumford Public Library; the Municipal Building; The Strathglass Building (Hotel Harris); and the Strathglass Park. All of these buildings are works of art in themselves.

The history of Rumford also has its share of tragedies, such as fires, floods, shipwrecks, and wars. The most notable fire occurred on Waldo Street in August, 1923 at the rear of the Majestic Theatre. Within 24 hours, 20 business facilities and dwellings burned, and 100 families were made homeless. The mysterious shipwreck of The Don, off the coast of Harpswell, on June 29, 1941, took the lives of 34 men and women from the Rumford/Mexico/Dixfield areas. Over the years, the mighty Androscoggin and its in-coming rivers flooded the area. The most notorious flood happened in March, 1936, when the Business Island was flooded; the Morse bridge, the steel Rumford Falls Bridge, the Rangeley Lakes Railroad bridge, and the Ridlonville bridge were washed away. Other significant floods along the River happened in 1953, 1972, and 1987.

No community in Maine escaped the onslaught of the wars of the United States. Lapham states in War of the Rebellion: The Civil War of 1861-1865, that there were “Rumford men in nearly every Maine regiment raised down to the close of the war... It is believed that no other town in the county furnished a larger number of native born citizens, in proportion to its population, than Rumford, and none had more men killed in action or died from wounds.” Rumford sent men to World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Other residents of the area have served in the more contemporary wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In summary, Rumford poet, Thomas Fallon’s poem “Pennacook Falls”, tells the story of our great Androscoggin, without which there would be no Rumford:

PENNACOOK FALLS

in the spring, sun high in the sky,
water rushing over granite rock,
the Androscoggin River flowing high
with melting winter snows
from fields, from dark forests,
water crashing to granite rock,
spray leaping high in the air, rainbow
rising in the spray – a sight to behold! –
unbelievable
the power of the water, the great river crashing
to granite rock,
white water exploding from granite rock –
unbelievable,
the power of life!

Tom Fallon

Sources for Summary of the History of Rumford:

A Gazeteer of the State of Maine with Numerous Illustrations, by George Jones Varney, 1836-1901, B. B. Russell, 57 Cornhill, Boston, MA., 1881;

History of Rumford, Oxford County, Maine From Its First Settlement in 1779 to the Present Time, by William B. Lapham, Press of the Maine Farmer, Boston, MA. 1890;

Hugh J. Chisholm’s Magic Town, 1882-1912, by Peter McKenna (Master’s Thesis);

The Oxford Story, A History of the Oxford Paper Company, 1847-1958 by John J. Leane and Elliott E. “Bud” Burns, The Oxford Paper Company, 1958;

A History of Rumford, Maine 1774-1972 by John J. Leane and 1972-2000 by Elliott E. “Bud” Burns, Rumford Historical Society, Rumford Publishing Co, Inc., 1972 and Josten’s Printing and Publishing, Topeka, KS, 2000;

Rumford Stories, by Linda Farr Macgregor and Photo Portraits by Mark Silber, Rumford Public Library and Rumford Historical Society, Rumford, ME., 2000;

Historic Rumford Falls, Illustrated Walking Tour, by Curtis Rice, 2011.

A Poem, “A Town in Maine” by Ethel West, with permission from her daughters, Elizabeth West Poland and Marilyn West Curtis;

A Poem, “Pennacook Falls” by Tom Fallon, with permission by author, copyright 2007 TC Fallon.