How do you fix a problem like the old jail? The former jail and sheriff’s residence on State Street next to the courthouse is an unrealized opportunity decades in the making. It’s a cool place. The interior of the residence is worn, but intact, home to exhibits of Ellsworth history. But the real prize is the old cellblock. Poorly lit and lined with peeling paint, with netting overhead protecting those below from falling debris, it still begs to be explored. One can envision Halloween tours there or displays showing how inmates lived and interacted with their keepers next door.
The pièce de résistance of the museum’s collection may well be a bar of soap – one that was carved into the shape of a gun, blackened with shoe polish and used in a 1965 jailbreak. Myles J. Connor Jr., aged 22, was being held on charges stemming from a Sullivan theft when he overpowered the guard, made his escape and led area law enforcement on a manhunt that ended with him being found curled behind a rock on Route 1. Tied to numerous art thefts in the ensuing years, Connor also was suspected of involvement in the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery in Boston, although he was in prison at the time. Who wouldn’t pay a few bucks to hear that story? Think of the Tripadvisor entries!
The old jail occupies a prime downtown location within walking distance of Main Street. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is well-loved. Properly maintained and marketed and with regular public hours, it could become an anchor attraction. Unfortunately, the building is underused and in serious disrepair. That’s despite the best efforts and intentions of the Ellsworth Historical Society, to whom the county deeded the old jail in 1998. Nets on the 1886 building’s exterior catch tumbling bricks. A new roof is in order. The south wall needs replacing. Repairs could top $800,000 just for the necessities.
In a letter this past fall, the Historical Society regretfully acknowledged that the group cannot care for the property and indicated it would be returned to the county. County officials are leery of taking it on. It would be expensive (and unpopular) to tear down and even pricier to restore. There have been many years of community discussions, assessments, grant appeals and wishful thinking. The problem remains. Time to set a deadline. The Historical Society is unable to fulfill the conditions of the deed. If the renewed flurry of appeals does not generate enough money to secure the building within, say, a year, the county should reclaim the property and tear it down. If that prospect won’t ignite support to save the jail, then nothing will.
Even if a donor miraculously steps up with all the necessary repair funds, the Historical Society still faces the twin challenges of shrinking enrollment and ongoing financial support.
They say where there’s a will, there’s a way, but that will must be great enough. Otherwise, it’s time to walk away.