Sitting on the scenic Paris Hill village green is a stout stone building that houses the Hamlin Memorial Library and Museum. It was originally built as the county jail in 1822 when Paris Hill was the seat of Oxford County. It was one of the many county buildings that sprung up in this hilltop community during the early 1800s.
Eventually, a new jail and courthouse were built in South Paris and the old jail was sold to Dr. Augustus C. Hamlin. Dr. Hamlin converted the building and then deeded it to the Ladies of the Paris Hill Library Association. It has served as a library ever since.
Birth as a Jail
The first Oxford County jail was built in 1805, the year Oxford County was created while Maine was still a part of Massachusetts. The original jail was a single story, 36’ x 21’, and built of 2 foot square hand-hewn wood with iron windows.
A stronger jail was needed so in 1822, the old jail was torn down and a new jail was built in its place. It was constructed of granite blocks that were quarried at Horse Hill in Oxford and then dragged 15 miles by oxen over frozen ground. The building was two stories high and was 33’ x 21’. The second floor was just a granite slab and there was no internal staircase. So the 2nd floor was accessible only via a door from the outside using a staircase.
Downstairs, there were 4 cells – 2 cells on each side of a hallway and there was a jailer’s desk at the end of the hallway. Upstairs, there were two larger cells.
The walls were two feet thick and the small 7 by 9 inch windows were to be “sufficiently grated with iron bars.”
The jail was surrounded by a picket fence and a rectangular sign on the front of the fence read “All persons are positively forbidden talking with the prisoners.”
The prison largely served as a holding prison for prisoners who were attending court next door. They were typically moved from town jails and were moved to the state prison in Thomaston if found guilty. The prisoners in the back cells likely had gorgeous views of the White Mountains to the West and the front cells got to look out over the town green.
Next to the jail was the Jailer’s House and next to that was the County Courthouse. Across the small street was the Registry of Deeds. All of these buildings are still standing as of 2021.
According to records, there were at least 2 attempted jailbreaks. The first was when a group of inmates tried to burn down the wooden front door which led to that door being replaced with the steel door still there today. The 2nd jailbreak occurred in 1840 when inmates chiseled out the mortar from a small stone on the right side and pushed it out.
3 of the 4 downstairs inmates got out but one got stuck and was found in the morning by the jailer (who lived next door).
The Jail Becomes a Library
The train came to South Paris around 1850 and South Paris became the commercial hub of the town. It was logical for the county seat to move. By 1896, all county functions had moved, a new jail was built in South Paris, and the Paris Hill jail was sold to a local man, Dr. Augustus C. Hamlin.
Dr. Hamlin was quite a distinguished Mainer. He was a Bowdoin and Harvard graduate who served in the Civil War as a Lieutenant Colonel and Medical Inspector of the Union Army. After the war, he moved back to Bangor to practice surgery ultimately becoming the Surgeon General of Maine and the twice elected Mayor of Bangor. His uncle, Hannibal H. Hamlin, was Vice President under President Abraham Lincoln. Not a bad resume.
After Dr. Hamlin purchased the jail on Paris Hill, he had the granite slabs for the 2nd floor removed completely. He also removed the downstairs cells so the building became one large room. He replaced the roof with one featuring a bronze dome fashioned after the Tomb of Salim Chisti of India. He also outfit the single room with rows of shelves and filled them with his own books and treasures from his travels and from his gem collection (he owned the Mt. Mica tourmaline mine up the road from Paris Hill).
He then “sold” the building to the the Paris Hill Library Association for $1 turning it into the Hamlin Memorial Hall and stipulated that it be used forever as a library for the residents of Paris Hill. The new Hamlin hall opened in 1902 under the watchful eye of its first librarian, Una P. Taylor.
In 1962, the leaks around the bronze dome had gotten so bad that the entire roof was replaced with one that was similar to the original jail roof. At the same time, a second floor was once again added which allowed the library to hold more books and showcase various exhibits. The building was then renamed the Hamlin Memorial Hall and Museum.
Additional improvements were made in 2015 and 2017, consisting of new ceilings, floors, lighting and shelves and the attached building out back held a year-round book sale.
Currently, the library and museum holds a small public library along with a number of exhibits including the Hamlin collections and an exhibit about Paris Hill’s Harry Lyon & the Flight of the Southern Cross – the first trans-Pacific flight that Harry Lyon served as navigator on.