The Bell Hill Meeting House
Updated Sept 2005
The building is on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Bell Hill Church 2000 Church August 2005 without Dome

Sept 2005

Dome Under Repair 2005

Sept 2005

 

The Bell Hill Dome was removed July 28, 2005 for repairs. The weather vane had sunk down to allow enough water to come in and rot it out, which alerted Association members. The 16-sided dome is supported by heavy rafters arranged "exactly like the spokes of a wagon wheel."Cables were attached to the dome before cutting through the upper half of the belfry and removing the dome and ceiling of the belfry with a crane. Reconstruction is expected to take about two months.

According to G. Howard Dyer, the dome had been struck by lightning in 1924. "We didn't know it for weeks," he said, as the building didn't catch fire when it was struck. "It knocked a hole out through the side," though, he said. "You could see where it come right down the weathervane."


Strangers sometimes express surprise that the Bell Hill Meeting House was built in what now seems to be an isolated spot. At the time of its founding, it was in the most populous part of Otisfield. Crops on the hilltop were safer from early frosts than those in the valley, and the neighboring area of Rayville, site of the present Baptist Church, had water power for sawmill and grist mill. Spiritual guidance was deemed essential by the early inhabitants. Even before the town was settled, the proprietors, meeting in Boston in 1773, set aside one lot for the use of the first settled minister and one for the Ministry. It was not until 1795, however, that an effective vote was taken to build the first meeting house in Otisfield on a piece of land provided by Lieutenant David Ray, the site slightly to the northwest of the present church.

This building, forty-five feet long, thirty-five feet wide, with posts twenty-two feet in height, twenty-four rectangular windows with twenty-four panes in each, a topped pulpit window, and two small round windows in the gables, appeared to be of two storeys, since there was a gallery for the singers: male on one side, female on the other. A porch with stairs to the gallery was added as the church neared completion. This first meet house, raised in 1795 but not finished until 1799, was dedicated for 'worship Nov. 7, 1797. Miss Estelle Knight, in her EARLY HISTORY OF THE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF (OTISFIELD, writes: "The dedication exercises were attended by a great concourse of people and by the pastors of the churches of the neighboring towns.  In order that the exercises might be conducted in the generous manner befitting the times, the proprietors and inhabitants had furnished one half barrel each of New England and West India Rum, and ten pounds of loaf sugar." The munificence of this celebration should not belie the fact that the church at its organization on Nov. 23, 1797, had only eight members: three Spurrs, two Hancocks, a Thurston, a Peirce, and a Turner.

The first building was truly a "meeting house" and served as the place for town meetings and political gatherings as well as for religious services. When it was taken down in 1845, the upper half was moved down the hill to be used as the Town House until 1905.  Later it stood as horse sheds behind the present Town House.

The erection of the present meeting house in 1838, with Mr. Nathan Nutting as the builder, marked a high point in interest and prosperity of the parish. Yet we read in the pastor's record only ten years later: "Dec 31, 1848.  The past year has been one of peculiar apathy on the subject of religion." This continued apathy is evident in the short duration of later pastorates and in the periods when the deacons supplied the services. In 1878, 1879, and again in 1885, the parish joined with the Free Will Baptist Society at Rayville in support of a pastor, and for a short time they had a minister jointly with Casco. In 1887, it was voted "that future meetings of the church shall be holden at Spurr's Corner until the church shall vote to have them elsewhere." For additional details of the church's history, one may read Chapter V of William Spurr's HISTORY OF OTISFIELD.

Among the ministers who served the parish, several should be remembered. The proprietors, who had agreed to settle a "Learned Minister" in Otisfield, together with the inhabitants chose as the first pastor a Harvard graduate of the class of 1779, Rev. Thomas Roby. Mr. Roby is remembered more for his besetting sin, addiction to ardent spirits, than for his eloquent sermons. By legend, the more tipsy his state as he was helped into his pulpit, the better his sermon. Though he was dismissed by a church council after thirteen years of service, he probably earned, in his first years at least, his annual salary of forty-five pounds, one third of which was paid in silver or gold, the rest in wheat, rye, or Indian corn.

The next settled pastor, Rev. Josiah Merrill, came to a flock of only ten persons; but by his intense personal concern for his people and by his true spirituality he added one hundred and seven persons to the Church. It is a sad commentary on his parish that in 1824, after a pastorate of seventeen years, he asked that an ecclesiastical council be called to consider his dismissal, since "the cause of Christ suffers by his being unable to pay his debts. He had worn out garments which he had not paid for."

To Rev. James P. Richardson, within whose pastorate the present meeting house was built, is credited the revival in religious fervor which resulted in the conversion of sixty or seventy persons in one month, February, 1839. A later pastor, Rev. William Davenport, died of illness while serving as an army chaplain during the civil War.

The church records, which still exist, reveal some "giants in the earth." They also indicate, in the cases of judgment passed on erring members of the flock, the same frailties of flesh and weaknesses of spirit that continue to beset every congregation. It is heartening to find, in general, a true Christian compassion in the judgments passed on penitent backsliders.

Since 1887, when the last regular meetings of the Bell Hill Congregational Church were held in the church, the preservation of the Meeting House has become the interest of the entire town and of friends outside it. Older inhabitants recall suppers and entertainments given in homes on the Hill in the nineties to raise money for repairing the church. Since 1927, the Bell Hill Association, with officers, an annual business meeting the first Saturday in August, and a limited endowment, has been in existence. New members among Otisfield people, and others who may be interested, are badly needed; dues are only a dollar a year or twenty-five dollars for life membership. Credit should be given to the late Mr. and Mrs. George Turner for their part in organizing and serving the Association, as well as to others who have kept interest in the church building alive. Since 1913, an annual Bell Hill Day Service has been held on the last Sunday in July. The benefits of this service are threefold: the collection is used for repair of the building, the occasion calls together the people of Otisfield and their friends to meet and visit on the old Bell Hill Common; and the service assures that at least once a year the Gospel of Christ is preached from the Meeting House on the hilltop.

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