Then & Now

The Friendly City

Ellsworth is the city you pass through to get to almost any point in Down East Maine.

Located at the junction of U.S. Routes 1 and 1A, Hancock County’s historic shire town is also served by state routes 3, 172, 179, 180, 184 and 230. At summer’s peak, experienced drivers can navigate High Street’s Bar Harbor-bound traffic and the tree-lined arteries that slice through downtown.

Things slow down a bit in December, a good month to linger and experience Ellsworth at its best. Brimming with history, music, food, and some of the finest shopping this side of Freeport, the city of 7,800 rolls out the welcome mat with a Christmas parade, house tours, theater productions, and downtown decorations.

“Ellsworth was the first city I ever visited,” said historian and author Sanford Phippen. “Growing up down the road in Hancock Point, it was where I saw my first circus, attended carnivals, basketball games at City Hall, enjoyed takeout food at Jasper’s, and saw my first movie, ‘Dumbo,’ at the Grand Theatre.”

Phippen included his memories of the city in the books “The Police Know Everything,” “People Trying To Be Good,” and “Sturge,” a memoir that he edited of his late friend, Sturgis Haskins, with whom he spent much time in Ellsworth. Today, he teaches Maine literature at the city’s Hancock County Higher Education, affiliated with the University of Maine at Augusta. He said that, with all it has to offer, Ellsworth has grown in a good way.

“Certainly, this place has changed, like all cities,” said Darlene Springer, an Ellsworth native and town historian. “For the past decade or so, our slogan has been ‘Ellsworth: Business, Leisure, Life.’”

Springer has amassed a photographic collection of the Union River town’s churches, businesses, fire hose company and schools. Many are for sale at Tim Torrey’s Old Creamery Art and Antique Mall at 13 Hancock St. She put together a book chronicling the city’s worst disaster, the fire of May 7, 1933. Started by an arsonist, it destroyed much of downtown. Firemen ran for their lives, leaving hoses attached to hydrants still running.

Ellsworth survived that inferno, rebuilding much of downtown, as it had after the great 1923 flood. It also weathered the 19th century lumber center’s decline, erecting in its place a thriving commercial, arts and retail hub. L.L. Bean, Renys and Courthouse Gallery Fine Art, established in 2006 by Michael and Karin Wilkes, draw visitors. Maine Coast Memorial Hospital continues to expand, and the Jackson Lab has converted a former Lowe’s home supply center into research space where it will employ hundreds.

The Ellsworth Historical Society offers a December open house, with the sheriff’s house, located at 40 State St., decorated in a Victorian style. Be sure to ask about the town’s founding in 1763 by Benjamin Milliken and Benjamin Joy, lured by the region’s timber and water power. Dams and sawmills were built, along with the first schooner in 1773. Union River Settlement later became Ellsworth, and celebrated in 1838 when the county seat was moved there from Castine, and in 1869, when the Legislature made the town a city.

There is also history and culture to explore in the Ellsworth Public Library, 20 State St., based in a historic 19th century mansion. Public events are scheduled throughout the month.

High tea and tours are December highlights at Woodlawn museum, the 1820s-era home of wealthy land agent Col. John Black. The Grand Theatre hosts the Nutcracker ballet and other productions during the holiday season. And on Dec. 3, the Christmas parade returns for children of all ages. Hungry shoppers have a choice of downtown restaurants, including The Mex, Finn’s Irish Public House, Riverside Café and Cellar Bistro.

Your first visit to Ellsworth likely will not be your last. A return visit next summer may include rides on the Down East Scenic Railroad, a visit to the Telephone Museum and Birdsacre, outdoor concerts in Harbor Park, and lobster rolls at Jordan’s Snack Bar. There is no end of places to explore in this welcoming community.

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