© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

200-Year-Old Ellsworth Estate Frozen in Time

Jennifer Mitchell

This summer, we're taking a road tour, looking at some of the museums, attractions, and hidden gems around the state.  Today we travel to Ellsworth, where an historic house stands virtually untouched since its last occupant passed away in the 1920s. 

George Nixon Black left no descendants, but he worked all his life to preserve his family's Woodlawn Estate - the gardens, the home and its top-notch furnishings. Here, you can see a nearly 200-year-old home frozen in time through three generations of an Ellsworth lumber family. 

A hand-cranked barrel organ - like this one (barrel organ music) - was pretty much the must-have stereo system of the period. It's 1828. Dance hits by John Field and Frederic Chopin would have echoed through the halls of this Federal-style home built from Philadelphia brick, set high on a hill, overlooking Ellsworth.

The home's clean, straight lines and flat facade pre-date the more familiar ruffles and flourishes of the Victorian age. A grand colonnade hints at the builder's fondness for Greek architecture. It took four years, but the lord of the manor, an Englishman named John Black, built this regal home after amassing a small fortune in Maine lumber.

"Ellsworth at one point was the second largest lumber port in the world, a tremendous amount of lumber coming down the Union River," says Joshua Torrance, director of the Woodlawn Museum and Gardens. He says Black took advantage of Ellsworth's position on the map by selling land to lumber interests and then getting into it himself.

"He had sawmills, he had sailing ships where he was exporting his wood," Torrance says. "He was probably the wealthiest person in eastern Maine."

After John Black's death 28 years after finishing the house, the home passed to his son George, who didn't spend much time there, choosing instead to live in Boston. The last family member to occupy the house regularly was John Black's grandson, George Nixon Black, who died in 1928 at the age of 86.

Known affectionately as Nixon, he preserved many of his family's rare and pricey Federal period furnishings, while adding his own pieces that reflected his interest in world travel - and Edwardian excess.  Torrance shows visitors some of them.

Credit Jennifer Mitchell
Joshua Torrance shows some of the paintings on display at the historic Black House in Ellsworth.

"There's a wonderful painting of the Garden of Eden by George Loring Brown;  this is the English barrel organ; the Canton china on the first shelf was used for breakfast; here is a Japanese scroll painting; examples of School Girl Art; one of the very few surviving Fiske tables in America; the Blue Staffordshire was used for lunch; a piano forte; we have the ping pong table; and the Mason's polychrome china on the third row was used for dinner."

But one of the most popular stops in the house for visitors, says Torrance, is the bathroom, which has been frozen in time.

"It has a wonderful German tin tub," Torrance says, "and in the sink, you can see Nixon's shaving kit, and the soap that he used, almost as if he just stepped out for the afternoon."

Jennifer Mitchell: "So...this was his soap?"

Joshua Torrance: "That was his soap."

His badger shaving brush is sitting at attention where he left it, accompanied by a couple of old china mugs, and toiletries, including something labeled Comfort Powder.

Jennifer Mitchell: "What, pray tell, is Comfort Powder?"

Joshua Torrance: (laughs) "I don't know - I think it's like a talcum powder."

But it's John and Mary Black's bedroom just down that hall that contains what is perhaps the home's most priceless treasure.

"This is the only known bed that survives with its original bed hangings intact from this time period," Torrance says.

In addition to the nearly 200-year-old bedspread and sheets, the mattress is also original, right down to the bed bug stains. And if you hurry, you might have a chance to see those stains; the mattress is currently bare, because the bed clothes are undergoing a $60,000 restoration.

Unlike most other historic homes, which are more often recreations of how a period house might have looked, Torrance says this is the real thing;  a poignant snapshot of one family's brief time on earth.

The Woodlawn Museum and Black House in Ellsworth are open Tuesday through Saturday. It will take them three days to make their historic bed; visitors are welcome to come witness the process on June 24 and 25.