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9 Must-See Exhibits at The Museums of Old York Maine

Do you consider yourself a history buff? Do you like visiting historical places where history comes alive? When you visit the Museums of Old York Maine, you’ll take a step back in time and see one-of-a-kind pieces of early American history.

This settlement in the heart of York Village, which is among the earliest colonies in the country, has a unique collection of early American history, architecture, art, and artifacts.

At Old York, you will see and hear what life was like three centuries ago, so take time to visit and soak in the rich history of these magnificent museums.

The Old Gaol-York
The Old Gaol | photo via mjkent

Getting to Know the Museums of Old York

The Museums of Old York exist because of the merger of three historical societies — The Old York Historical and Improvement Society, the Old Gaol Museum Committee, and the Society for the Preservation of Historic Landmarks in York County.

An Early Trading Center

York was once a prosperous provincial capital and the site of one of the early trading center hubs in colonial America. In America’s early years, merchants shipped lumber and other agricultural products in exchange for spices, sugar, and more.

A Tourist Destination

After the Civil War, York Maine transformed into a seaside tourist town, and the buildings that came to comprise the Museums of Old York became relics of older times in the city.

Museums of Old York Hours

The Old York Historical Society has both summer and fall hours.

Each new season begins in May, with the summer season lasting from the end of May through the beginning of September, Tuesday through Saturday. The fall hours extend from early September to the end of October, Thursday through Sunday.

The Old Gaol-York
The Old Gaol | photo via mjkent

Exploring the Historic Museum Buildings of Old York

The Museums of Old York consist of nine historic buildings. Here’s a look at what you can expect at each.

Old York Museum Center

Any visit to the Museums of Old York starts with a stop at the Old York Museum Center. It connects to the Remick Gallery and Jefferds Tavern, so if this is your first time here, it is a good place to get started.

The Old Gaol

Have you ever wondered what prison was like even before the formation of the United States? The Old Gaol is the perfect place to find out.

Gaol Hill is the site of the first royal prison in Maine, which was built in 1656. Today, it stands as one of the oldest buildings in Maine and the nation.

The largely wooden building that visitors see today is the result of more than two centuries of prison construction campaigns, which included building prison cells, a kitchen, and a storage cellar.

The Old Gaol was designated a national landmark in 1968, and you can see the jail as it was in 1789. Depending on who you ask, it is one of visitors’ favorite buildings because of the tales that have been told of the former jailkeeper’s family, who used to live right above the prison dungeon.

Remick Gallery

This gallery is the main gallery for the Old York Historical Society and is named for a farm family from Eliot Maine. It is teeming with history and has several ongoing collections on display.

The Best of York: Treasures from the Collection is a permanent installation that features dozens of items used or crafted in Southern Maine and parts of New Hampshire between 1690 and 1850.

As a collection, these items showcase the story of York and its place in history as an outpost, and eventually, as a cultural hub in New England.

The Bulman Bed Hangings is a set of bed linings hand-woven by Mary Swett Bulman. This set of curtains and cloth is said to be one of the most complete sets of early American bed hangings, and the designs feature flowers, fruit trees, and poetry.

Jefferds Tavern

The Jefferds Tavern was built in 1750 in Wells Maine, just a bit north of York, and was located on King’s Highway. It was relocated to York in 1941 and was restored to a colonial tavern. In 1959, the building was moved again, kept intact, and placed right next to the Old Schoolhouse.

Step inside to see for yourself the interpretation of a colonial tavern, which includes plaster walls, Georgian-style doors, polished wood paneling, high ceiling beams, and upstairs murals in the style of Rufus Porter.

Also, there’s still a bar cage in the taproom that’s reminiscent of old-style New England inns. There are a fireplace and a beehive brick oven in the keeping room, and they are used for cooking demonstrations too.

York Corner Schoolhouse-York
York Corner Schoolhouse | photo via mymainemuse

York Corner Schoolhouse

If you love Maine history (or just history in general), you’ll love the York Corner Schoolhouse, which is one of the earliest surviving New England schoolhouses.

It was built in 1745 near York Corner and was used for more than 100 years to teach local schoolchildren. In the 1930s, it was relocated to become part of the Old York group of museums.

Today, the schoolhouse is used for educational programs and special events, including the popular Children’s Summer Program. The programs run during the summer months and make history come alive to help kids learn about life in New England.

While you’re here, you can sit at one of the schoolhouse desks, take a few moments to soak in the scene, and try to imagine what life was like in the 18th century.

Emerson Wilcox House-York
Emerson Wilcox House | photo via dmollyross

Emerson-Wilcox Museum

Believe it or not, the Emerson-Wilcox House was a community hub, serving as a post office, general store, tailor shop, stage tavern, and even a home.

Nowadays, it’s a museum that offers a chance to wander through 10 period rooms ranging from 1750 to 1850. The iconic L-shaped building has been interpreted to tell the history and stories of the people who came through, showcasing their attempts to make a living in early American civilization.

Also, the museum is home to the New Englanders Abroad: Souvenirs from the Grand Tour, 1830-1880. This exhibit features photographs, art, scrapbooks, journals, and more from wealthy American tourists who traveled in the early to mid-19th century.

Donnell-Hancock Warehouse-York
Donnell-Hancock Warehouse | photo via alexxxstrykr

Donnell-Hancock Warehouse

This building is the last commercial building from America’s colonial period on the York River. It was built in the mid-1700s by John Donnell.

In the 1780s, John Hancock, one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, acquired an interest in the property when the York River was a major shopping center in colonial America.

George Marshall Store

This historic building was acquired in 1867 by George Marshall, who also bought the Donnell-Hancock Warehouse.

Located next to the warehouse, the store specialized in selling coal, wood, and building materials. In later years, it was the headquarters of the York Art Association. It was home to a gift shop and the Old York Historical Society’s research library as well.

In the mid-1990s, the store was transformed into a contemporary art gallery, which opens for the season in April and features fantastic exhibits.

Perkins House Museum and Administration

Once upon a time, the Perkins House Museum housed sea captains and sailors on the York River. Today, it stands as a testament to the history of the Perkins family, including Elizabeth Perkins, who transformed the house into a scenic New England summer home.

The museum preserves the family’s belongings and décor, and it is open to the public from June through October.

Make Plans to Visit the Museums of Old York

Whether you’re a native Mainer or an out-of-town history fanatic, the Museums of Old York offers a little bit of everything to anyone who visits. From awe-inspiring historic buildings to historic artifacts to eye-popping art to webinars about Maine history, there’s something for everyone here.

Take a trip back in time, and immerse yourself in the fascinating history that is hiding around every corner. Explore an old colonial prison, a tavern, historic homes, and so much more. If you’re looking for the perfect slice of colonial Maine history, the Museums of Old New York are perfect to visit.

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