The Old Gaol, established 1656 (construction date of the original prison), is a National Historic Landmark that sits prominently on a hill at the center of York Village. Photo courtesy of Old York Historical Society

Only time for a quick stop back in time? Hankering to spend a few hours there? Want to make a day of it? Old York has you covered.

Most buildings that make up the Old York Historical Society museum are clustered in picturesque York Village. The town of York, which also comprises York Harbor and York Beach, incorporated in 1652 and was one of Maine’s – and the nation’s – first English settlements. The early commercial and maritime center was the provincial seat before Massachusetts usurped Maine, which remained part of that state until 1820.

That past makes for an arresting outing — pun intended when talking about the visitor-favorite Old Gaol, which occupies the hilltop site of a 1656 Province of Maine wood prison. It was torn down and replaced with a stone prison in 1720, part of the amalgamation of construction, additions and renovations that became the present-day Old Gaol. Barn-like, with a gambrel roof and red painted wood siding around the stone, the facility operated until the 1860s, becoming the York County jail and later the “local lockup.”

Kids and adults can’t get enough of the National Historic Landmark’s dungeon and cells and replica yard pillory. Guides answer questions and share prison lore. Writeups about prisoners’ dire fates are posted about. Exhibit cases include items like animal jaw bones (an ingredient in the head soup served to inmates) and a broken wine glass (the gaoler resided here, too) from archaeological digs.

Old York has two admission choices: one building (usually that’s Old Gaol) or all. The latter is good for 24 hours, a help if you’re staying in the area overnight. Tickets are sold at staffed buildings and the Museum Center. The 1750 Federal-style Jefferds Tavern visually anchors this group of buildings along Lindsay Road. Moved from Wells in 1941, it’s used for programming, but visitors check out the first floor, with a tavern hearth that’s fired up for events like off-season dinners. Next door at York Corner Schoolhouse, built in 1745 and relocated here in 1931, student graffiti and carvings from back in the day adorn the wainscoting.

Crewel-embroidered bed hangings made by Mary Bulman in the 1730s are the centerpiece of “The Best of York,” an exhibition featuring treasures from Old York’s collection, currently on display in the Remick Gallery. Photograph by David Bohl, courtesy of Old York Historical Society.

On the tavern’s opposite side, in the “barn” (built to look like one from outside), the Remick Gallery displays items from the society’s vast collection (folk art, furniture, part of an apple tree planted in the 1630s). Vibrantly colored, recently conserved Bulman Bed Hangings, made by a local woman in the 1730s, are likely the nation’s most complete extant colonial-era set — and a museum highlight.


From the Museum Center, it’s a short walk to Old Gaol. Along the way on York Street, you’ll pass the Old Burying Ground, replete with skull and crossbones headstones (nab a cemetery pamphlet before heading over) and the museum’s rambling yellow Emerson-Wilcox House. Built in the mid-1700s, it’s been a tavern, post office and commercial space. Guided tours show 10 period rooms. The parlor gallery exhibit, “New Englanders Abroad: Souvenirs from the Grand Tour, 1830-1880,” was held over for this season.

Old York’s abundantly gabled Perkins House is about a mile away on the York River. Reopened this year after renovations, the red dwelling built around 1730 showcases its later life as a summer home in the early 1900s. Near here are adjacent riverfront museum buildings: Donnell-Hancock Warehouse, which isn’t open but has signage, and George Marshall Store Gallery. Visitors are advised to drive to the museum’s riverside sites.

For a full day, break for lunch and stroll Old York’s 17-acre Steedman Woods. Park on Route 103 and cross Wiggly Bridge (pedestrians only) to the loop path. Returning on the bridge, Fisherman’s Walk leads to York Harbor. 

Mary Ruoff is a freelance writer in Belfast.

Archeological finds from the Old Gaol reveal, among other things, that early Maine prisoners ate lobster. These items (not all are from digs) will go on display this summer. Yes, those on the right would set the table in the gaoler’s home that was part of the prison complex. Photograph by Joel Lefever, courtesy of Old York Historical Society

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