Tontine Building

Our story began during the Revolutionary War when the founding fathers of Bethel offered 550 acres and a mill site on the 3rd Branch of the White River to a Colonel named Joel Marsh. The conditions of this offer stated that Col. Marsh was to build a saw and grist mill by the fall of 1780 in order to provide employment and supplies for the new town. The building of the mill was delayed a bit when most of the villagers fled as a neighboring town was being raided and burned by Indians. When the threat of attack diminished, construction resumed and by 1781 Bethel Mills was open for business. A good business it was, often grinding corn and sawing timber into the night to meet the local demand.

For nearly the next 100 years the mill was operated continuously by the Marsh family; continuously except for the flood of 1830 that destroyed all but the Tontine building (shown above). After rebuilding, the mill continued as both a social and economic hub of Bethel, with the upstairs of the Tontine used as Bethel’s community hall.


The Flood of 1927

The Bethel bridge after the flood of 1927

The great flood of 1927 is legendary throughout Vermont, and again Bethel Mills was hard hit. When the waters of the third branch finally subsided, the dams, the saw mill, the grain mill, the land, the railroad siding, and much of the inventory was lost. The then-current owner of Bethel Mills, Mr. A.N. Washburn, immediately started to rebuild the sawmill on a site 1/4 mile upstream. By 1928 the mill was once again in operation.

In 1933, Raymond Durfee came to Bethel looking for employment to support his family. Mr. Washburn agreed to give Ray a job as a salesman for grain & lumber. It was in the midst of the depression, and Bethel Mills, like so many other businesses, was struggling just to keep its doors open. As fate had it, Mr. Washburn died the following week of spinal meningitis and his widow, Lydia, relied heavily on Raymond’s good judgment, hard work, and management skills to guide the business through these troubled times. In appreciation, Mrs. Washburn offered to incorporate the company with Ray in 1937.


Ray checks the electrical meters

Raymond’s wife, Gladys, came to work in the billing office in 1942. As Gladys stated – “I was just going in to help out for a short time” – and yet she retired nearly 30 years later. Gladys was known for her accuracy with numbers (to the penny!), and her no-nonsense business style. Tight control over the accounting was truly an asset for this struggling business.

Gladys and Ray made a good management team, and it got even stronger when their son John joined them after college. John was instrumental in growing the two divisions, lumber and grain, to new levels.


Employees of Bethel Mills

While business was still good, John could see more opportunity supplying a broader range of building materials to the quality-conscious contractor. His philosophy was to provide better quality materials for competitive prices. This sounds so simple, but the emphasis on supplying the best value instead of selling the cheapest grade of product proved wise and continues to be entrenched in our philosophy today.

In 1964, Raymond suffered his second heart attack and realized it was time to step back. Although still involved, the business was turned over to John for day-to-day operations. In 1968, John built a warehouse to house the growing number of lumber and building material items. By 1970 the sawmill was shut down in favor of purchasing lumber from select western and Canadian mills. Just as it was hard for John to close the sawmill, an even harder personal decision had to be made in the late 70?s. It was in this period that the number of farms in Vermont was declining rapidly, and John decided to sell the grain mill that he and his father had built. John realized that it was in the company’s best interest to focus all their energies on selling lumber and building materials, as this seemed to have the brightest future. It was in this 10 year period that John redirected the company from manufacturing and production to retail and distribution.


Bethel Mills Sawmill- 1950's

By the late 1930?s business was starting to pick up again – the saw mill especially. It was during this time Bethel Mills entered the business of generating electricity. Unable to reach a fair agreement with the Central Vermont Power Company over electric rates they were charging Bethel Mills compared to other local saw mills, Raymond was inspired to build a small hydroelectric plant at the site where the old mill dams had stood before the flood. Mr. Durfee withstood much ridicule from both the power company and the local folks as to the feasibility of such a task; however, in less than two years, with mostly second hand equipment and using his own employees, Ray was producing more than enough power to supply the mill. Ray even had the last laugh as during WWII, the power company came to him with hat in hand asking to purchase his excess generation; this arrangement continues to this day.


Hard Times, Smart Business

Governor Douglas

However, the local market was changing rapidly, and careful planning would be essential. Large competitors were becoming very aggressive and the big box stores that had been common in the urban areas for decades were now springing up in and around Vermont. “This market shift encouraged us to refocus our business,” said veteran salesman, Tim Branstetter. “Like many small businesses, we were trying to be all things to all people from the same store and it was becoming inefficient.” This realization helped the company to make its first acquisition in 2000 by purchasing the nearest competitor, Central Supplies, in Randolph, Vermont. “Lang’s decision to make this purchase allowed Bethel Mills to focus on the building professional and Central Supplies to focus on the consumer market,” says Branstetter.
The formula worked well. With a talented staff and a strong economy, Bethel Mills grew dramatically over the decade. In fact, double digit record growth over 5 straight years made Bethel Mills one of the fastest growing companies in Vermont and was recognized by Governor Douglas with the “5x5x5” award for exceptional growth in the retail sector.


John Durfee and grandson Matthew

The boom years came to an abrupt halt in 2006 as parts of the country became over developed and over speculated. With over extended credit, the housing market crashed, which eventually grew into the great financial crisis of 2008. In 2 years, the economy went from the best of times to the worst of times since the Great Depression. Fortunately, with solid conservative management philosophies ingrained from his father and grandfather, Lang, with the support of his dedicated colleagues, managed Bethel Mills through these extremely difficult times, even when companies like General Motors, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and many other large businesses were going bankrupt right and left. During the height of the economic panic, Bethel Mills made the risky decisions to acquire Brandon Lumber and Millwork & Hancock Building Supply from Robert Read in 2008, and Britton’s Lumber and Hardware in Taftsville/Hartland from Len Britton in 2010. The philosophy was simple and straightforward: Add neighborhood lumberyards in good markets and give them the staffing, the inventory, and the equipment to provide good old fashion service, but with relatively low overhead in order to survive the predictable cycles that our industry goes through.


Devastation Turned Into Opportunity

Lang Durfee in the destroyed storefront

Bethel Mills didn’t have to wait long before disaster struck again. In August of 2011, yet another flood slammed the business. Hurricane Irene filled Bethel Mills with 7 feet of water, loading the store with sand, mud, and debris. Inventory floated off the shelves and was destroyed, and the warehouses were torn apart. Irene caused utter devastation throughout Vermont, and Bethel Mills was not an exception.

After the storm passed, Lang and his team surveyed the damage and then began the rebuild. With the help of friends, family, and volunteers, employees shoveled hundreds of pounds of clay-like mud from the store and warehouses. Inventory was removed, cleaned, and examined for salvage. Walls were torn apart, buildings were re-evaluated, and a refurbished Bethel Mills emerged. The team at Bethel Mills handled the disaster in stride, once again proving the strength and teamwork within the company.

The employees and management of Bethel Mills have worked hard to earn their customers’ business and are fortunate enough to enjoy a very favorable relationship with both suppliers and competitors. “We are proud of our long history and proud of our current business of being the area’s premier supplier of quality lumber, hardwoods plywood , building materials, hardware, tools, paint, lawn and garden products, as well as home and farm supplies, all right around the corner!”

Bethel Mills: A company that respects the past, is focused on the present, and is looking forward to the future!


Hydroelectric Since 1941

When Colonel Joel Marsh established Bethel Mills in 1781, he built his mill next to the waterfalls of the third branch of the White River, taking advantage of the water’s energy by building a log dam to power his saw and grist mills. Though the water offered its power freely, it occasionally wreaked havoc on the very mills that relied on it, and more than one owner was forced to rebuild after the destruction caused by flood waters. The most notorious washout of the mills was created by the Great Flood of 1927, when the saw mill and grist mill were destroyed along with the dam. Consequently, the river was both appreciated for its abundant gift of power and feared for its destructive potential.

Almost 160 years after Colonel Marsh first built his log dam, Raymond Durfee, a minority owner of Bethel Mills, had a new vision for harnessing the power of the river to supply electricity to the sawmill. His efforts began with a simple disagreement over the price that Central Vermont Public Service Company (CVPS) charged Bethel Mills for its electricity. CVPS was apparently unwilling to offer Ray the same electric rates it extended to other local saw mills, so Raymond decided to create electricity off the power grid and consequently built a small hydroelectric plant at his mill site in Bethel.

Raymond read manuals and books on the subject and engineered the plant using his own ingenuity and employees to build a concrete dam and powerhouse. Because the company could not afford new equipment, Raymond searched all over the northeast for used equipment to complete the project. The only affordable generator he could find was a General Electric unit built in 1888, which he bought for less than $500. The unit was affordable, but had a horizontal connection instead of the desired vertical shaft connection. Because of this constraint, he needed to engineer a system of belts and pulleys to make the system work. Raymond persevered despite the challenges, and by January of 1941 he was producing electricity at the mill. He produced so much electricity, in fact, that CVPS approached him with hat in hand to see if he would sell them his excess generation (an arrangement that still continues today).

In the mid-60s, Raymond’s son John took over the stewardship of the hydroelectric facilities. He was in the process of growing both the grain operation and the lumber and building material business and, over the next 30 years, upgraded the facilities as finances allowed. John replaced the old leaking wood penstock in the early 80s with a steel one, and added a second turbine in the late 80s to increase production and allow for more efficient use of the plant during times when the river was low. He added a mechanical rake to remove river debris for more consistent operation and updated the electrical equipment to comply with changing regulations.

In 1996, John’s son Lang took over the day to day operations of Bethel Mills, and like his father and grandfather before him, is committed to responsible stewardship of the facility. This commitment was tested early in his ownership of the mill, when an electrical short in the old 1888 General Electric generator caused a devastating fire in the powerhouse that destroyed much of the facility and equipment. Faced with a decision to scrap, repair, or replace the hydroelectric facility, Lang and his father made the financially and emotionally difficult decision to modernize the antiquated, but very ingenious, system Ray had pieced together.
Within a year of the fire, a new generator was installed, the powerhouse was completely renovated, and new computerized equipment was integrated to help manage the facility.

Starting in the summer of 2010, an ambitious 3-year upgrade plan was set in motion, which included a fish passage system, a more efficient turbine, new dam gates, intake racks, a flashboard system, and new operating software. When the project is complete, Bethel Mills will have substantially increased its ability to produce local, green, renewable energy.

At the current selling rate of approximately three cents per kilowatt hour, the Bethel Mills site does not generate significant revenues from sales of its electricity, but it is a real testament of Yankee ingenuity, hard work, perseverance, and a genuine respect of Bethel Mills history.



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