A Mexican-inspired fiesta might sound like an odd fundraiser for Old York Historical Society, best known for its colonial-era one-room schoolhouse, cemetery, tavern and jail.

The inspiration for the Summer Fiesta on the River at Perkins House Museum came from the journal of York philanthropist Elizabeth Perkins, who loved world travel, hosting parties and preserving history. In December 1943, when a voyage to war-torn Europe was out of the question, Perkins toured Mexico, where strangers welcomed her to an all-day family picnic where tequila poured freely.

Nearly eight decades later, Old York supporters toasted to Perkins’ legacy Aug. 27 as the sun set over the York River by Sewall’s Bridge. Guests enjoyed Mexican-inspired hors d’oeuvres by WabiCafe, margaritas by Wiggly Bridge Distilling and music by The Seasmoke Trio. And they donated to the preservation efforts that Perkins set in motion.

“Elizabeth would have loved this,” said Executive Director Joel Lefever.

When Perkins died in 1952, she left her fortune and her colonial-era home to what was then called The Society for the Preservation of Historical Landmarks in York County. Even then, the house was already a historical landmark – and not just because it was built in 1730 and was originally the home of ferrymen and sea captains. Mary Perkins and her daughter Elizabeth bought it in 1898 as a summer home and transformed it to evoke colonial New England. They hosted frequent parties and fundraisers, including a tea party for the delegates of the Russian-Japanese Peace Treaty negotiated in Kittery in 1905.

“Elizabeth Perkins and her mother were instrumental in the preservation of the village,” said trustee Cheryl Farley. “And we celebrate them.”

Funding is a continual challenge for Old York, which maintains 16 buildings, two wharves, Steedman Woods and some 70,000 objects and archival items. Under that strain, the Perkins House was in such disrepair that it was closed to the public by 2015. Four years later, Old York sold the yellow-brick administration building on York Street and invested those funds in renovating the Perkins House.

“This is our community jewel,” said trustee Nancy Gustad. “There are two reasons why people come to York: for the beaches and for the ambiance of these historic buildings.”

Once the restoration was complete, Old York hosted a lawn party in the summer of 2019. Then, nothing of the sort happened in 2020. By the time outdoor gatherings were deemed safe again, Lefever had drawn inspiration from Perkins’ journal entry titled “Mexican Pic-Nic, Dec. 8, 1943.” With visions of margaritas and tostadas and such, Old York enlisted event sponsors and sold tickets at $75 per person.

Volunteer Mary Harding, who used to curate the art gallery in Old York’s George C. Marshall Store, organized a silent auction of handmade objects.

“Over the past year and a half, people have been helping making things,” Harding said. “We have some very creative people in our midst. And we’ve got to keep roofs on, buildings painted and people employed.”

Altogether, the Fiesta netted approximately $14,000 for Old York.

Old York offers tours Thursdays through Sundays, through October.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected].

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