ELLSWORTH — The Old Jail appears headed for the hands of the County Commissioners, after members of the Ellsworth Historical Society unanimously voted to let the historic but crumbling building revert to county responsibility.
Historical Society President Bill Fogle notified County Commissioners on Sept. 10, writing, “With sincere regret, the Ellsworth Historical Society is no longer able to maintain the old Hancock County sheriff’s home and jail to the standards set forth in our deed of 1998 — an era when the Society enjoyed a more robust membership and assistance from the different organizations, schools, churches and clubs within the city.”
The 1998 quitclaim deed from the county granted the 1886 building to the Historical Society with the condition that it use the premises for the Historical Society and “keep, use and maintain the premises in a good and reasonable condition…; otherwise the premises and land shall revert to the Grantor.”
The county owns the property around the Old Jail on State Street, which it mainly uses for overflow parking for the courthouse and current county jail. Upkeep of the Old Jail, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, has been the responsibility of the society.
In May, the society had received a $695,885 estimate for masonry work from Knox Masonry of Bucksport for exterior repairs based on a 2014 assessment recommended by the Maine Historical Preservation Commission.
Along with the building’s exterior, the interior is also in need of repairs, especially the jail section itself.
“This has been an agonizing and lengthy decision process, with hopefulness intermittently (but always briefly) entering the picture,” Fogle wrote the commissioners.
Fogle had attacked the restoration of the historic building with vigor, including suggesting the sale of the donated Whitney House on State Street to jumpstart funding the repairs. But Society members did not align with that idea, and Fogle, after speaking with the Society’s former president, decided to step back from his efforts to preserve the Old Jail.
“We admitted that we can’t save the building,” Fogle said. “We don’t have the money [and] we don’t have the people.”
The commissioners received the society’s letter on Sept. 13 and have not had time to discuss it, Hancock County Administrator Scott Adkins said. “But everyone’s been operating under the assumption that it was kind of their baby, as long as they could upkeep it.”
“At this point, they have the ball, they made the next play, and we were just informed of it. The next move by the county? We’re not sure at this point,” he continued.
According to the letter sent to the County Commissioners, the society is working with attorney Bill Ferm to draft a new deed “that clearly indicates the Historical Society has relinquished any interest it may have in the property.”
The society also plans to create a display “that will educate generations to come about the beauty and importance of the ‘Old Jail’” and hopes to salvage components of the building “that can testify to its significance in Ellsworth’s history.”
Of the collections currently housed in the Old Jail — the society also has collections at the historic Whitney House — Fogle said, “Some will be sold, some moved to the Chamberlain House [another name for the Whitney House], and some donated. All items with a qualified provenance or items on loan will be identified and the donors will be notified.”
Fogle has created a video on the history of the Old Jail that can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=Y9-rarhxxao.