About Saco Museum

Saco Museum

Located on Saco’s historic Main Street, the Saco Museum is a regional museum of history and fine and decorative arts. Open year-round, the museum offers several changing exhibitions per year. It is the third oldest museum in Maine. The Saco Museum was founded in March of 1866 as the York Institute by a group of men from widely different backgrounds who shared an interest in the pursuit of knowledge. The stated purpose of the organization was “to promote the study of Natural History; encourage Science and Art; also to collect and preserve whatever relates to the Natural and Civic history of York County.”

The first president of the Institute was John Johnson, an early pioneer in the science of photography. Other founding members included the artist Charles Henry Granger, author and publisher John S. Locke, and the noted historian John Wingate Thornton, as well as prominent doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. By the 1880s the Institute could boast of members from across the United States and corresponding members from all over the world. In 1891 the Institute accepted women as members, and soon welcomed the celebrated author Sarah Orne Jewett to the membership.

Saco Museum

The museum’s collections began as a repository of curiosities brought in by members to educate and amuse the other members. The fine arts collection was established in 1867 when the Institute librarian George Emery donated a pair of full-length portraits of his great-grandparents, Thomas and Elizabeth Cutts, by the deaf artist John Brewster, Jr.  The natural history collections included a bald eagle caught in Saco in 1870.

The course of the Institute changed in 1926, when Josephine Pierce, Orestes Pierce, and Henrietta Pierce Watkinson donated the museum’s present building. The museum’s distinctive red brick Colonial Revival building was designed by the noted Maine architect John Calvin Stevens in 1926 as fire-proof gallery space for the Institute’s extensive collections.  In the 1970s, the York Institute merged with the Dyer Library Association to provide an integrated cultural experience for visitors and the local community. The library’s special collections contain thousands of books and documents relating to Maine history and genealogy. In 2000 the York Institute changed its name to the Saco Museum.

The museum’s galleries are set up to allow changing exhibitions showcasing the extraordinary collections, special interpretive exhibits, and work by contemporary Maine artists. Permanent exhibits include paintings, furnishings, and household objects with documented histories of ownership in the Saco valley in the 18th and 19th centuries. The second floor includes a room furnished to reflect a mill girl’s boarding house bedroom from the 1840s. The museum also has a display of antique natural history specimens, including birds of New England.