The old Hancock County Jail has been managed by the Ellsworth Historical Society since the late 1970s and owned by it since 1998. The 136 year-old building is crumbling and the society is trying to figure out how to save it. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The old Hancock County Jail is literally falling into disrepair and the Ellsworth Historical Society, which owns the building, has been at a loss about how to get it fixed with a budget stretched thin and a county that so far is unwilling to compromise.

Three tall poles with netting strung in between stand along the south-facing wall of the building to prevent bricks that might fall from the facade from hitting passing vehicles or pedestrians as they come and go from the county courthouse complex.

It’s estimated that it will cost between $700,000 and $800,000 to repair, according to Bill Fogle, president of the society. But the society has been struggling with declining membership, however, and to date has been unable to come up with the necessary funds. Attempts to get help — or compromise — from the county, which transferred ownership of the old jail to the society in 1998, have also been unsuccessful.

Last fall, the society proposed returning the old jail to the county — an idea that county commissioners have so far rejected — and now they are asking the county to amend the conditions of the deed to allow community groups to use the building, in order to raise awareness about the building’s plight.

“The building reflects the fate of the society itself,” Fogle said. “We cannot maintain the building.”

It is the second historic building in Ellsworth with a physical condition that has attracted public concern in recent years. In April 2019, the former Ticonic 4 firehouse on Rt. 1A was demolished by its owner after a group of residents were unable to rally enough public support to save the building.

On Wednesday, county commissioners considered the society’s request to allow other groups to use the former jail, but were reluctant to change the restrictions set forth in the deed, which requires the society preserve the building and its contents as exhibits and as a museum. Allowing other groups or organizations to use the old jail is not permitted, county officials said.

Commissioner Bill Clark, who served as the county’s sheriff for 34 years before being elected to his current position in 2016, noted that the society has had several decades to properly maintain the old jail, which was built in 1886. The group leased the old jail from the county for 20 years after the county built a new one in the 1970s then took ownership of the building 24 years ago.

“The intent was for you people to be the stewards,” Clark told Fogle and Terri Cormier, another historical society official. “If you can’t maintain it as a historical site and museum, then the county wants it back.”

But if the old jail is given back, the county is unlikely to raise the funds needed for the repairs, which include replacing the roof and rebuilding the south wall, commissioners acknowledged. Demolishing the building and removing the debris also would not be cheap.

“It’s a complicated problem,” said John Wombacher, chairman of the commission. “There’s no answer to it.”

A net stands along the south-facing wall of the old Hancock County Jail to catch bricks and other pieces of the building that might fall off. The Ellsworth Historical Society, which has suffered from declining membership, has struggled to figure out how raise the money for the needed repairs. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Fogle said that there has been more public awareness of the old jail’s dire situation in recent months. The society has applied for, and is optimistic about, a $200,000 grant from the Maine Downtown Center and Maine Historic Preservation Commission that would help pay for repairs.

The work could be done in phases, but the $200,000 is not enough to repair the slate roof, which is likely the first phase that would need to be done.

“I think it is getting off to a slow start,” Fogle said.

The jail has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2008, according to the Ellsworth Historical Society website. It is one of a few remaining old jails that were built both as a residence for the county sheriff and as a site to house inmates, according to the society.

“Rooms at the back of the residence also have ‘wicket’ openings, coverable by heavy metal fixtures, through which the jailer could monitor and communicate with the prisoners,” the website says.

Myles J. Connor is recorded by a documentary film crew in the old Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth in this 2014 file photo. Connor, an infamous art thief, revisited the jail to recount how he used a bar of soap carved into the shape of a gun to escape from the jail in 1965. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

The jail also is known as where Myles Connor, an infamous thief linked to the notorious 1990 art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, made a daring escape in 1965, after he was arrested for stealing antiques from a neighbor’s house while visiting relatives in Sullivan.

Connor escaped with the help of a bar of soap he had carved into the shape of a gun and blackened with shoe polish. He surprised a jail guard with the fake gun when his cell door was opened, knocked him down, and ran out, evading capture for a few days while he hid in and around Ellsworth until police caught him again.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....