Charles Everett Adams was born in Bangor, Maine, on September 3, 1863. His father, James Adams (d. 1907), was in the mercantile business with an uncle, Sprague Adams, and had interest in land and lumber. James Adams became president of the local Kenduskeog Bank. Charles had at least two siblings, Edward R. (1860-1915) and Madeline "Maddie" (b. August 6, 1873). The family spent many summer months at a home on an island in Maine.
Charles Adams attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, from 1880 to 1886, where he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon. His courses at Bowdoin included French, Italian, German, zoology, physics, chemistry, and rhetoric. In addition, he played the flute and read books of all kinds.
After obtaining his Master's degree, he helped out at the family office until a Bowdoin classmate found him a job teaching young girls gymnastics in Worcester, Massachusetts. He earned an M.D. degree from the Medical School of Maine (now defunct) in Brunswick in 1888, though he never practiced as a physician. His primary focus was on athletics of all kinds, including gymnastics, tennis, rowing, handball, canoeing, baseball, boxing, bicycling, running, hiking, and fencing. He was considered for the post of Gymnastics Director at the University of Michigan but funding was not available.
In 1891, Adams took a position as a gymnastics teacher at Rutgers, where he became increasingly unhappy with the small attendance in his voluntary classes and with a begrudging administration. In 1894, he could not teach for a semester, because a new gymnasium was being constructed. During this time, he took swimming classes in New York City.
In 1896, he persuaded the university President to hire one of his Bowdoin classmates to teach his classes, while he spent time from January to August in Europe.
He took a second trip to Europe in 1896 to attend the revival of the Olympic games in Greece, ending with a jaunt in the Black Forest of Germany. During this trip, he became interested in European forestry methods. In 1897, Charles gave up teaching gymnastics at Rutgers and returned to his home in Bangor to live with his parents and to practice forestry. He got married on August 10, 1904, at age 40, to Carrie Dyer, one of his private fencing students in Bangor. For the remainder of his life, he purchased and sold forest land and wood products, was a director of the local bank, and managed the family's enterprises. He became wealthy and was a contributor to many causes, including his alma mater.