ELLSWORTH, Maine — Mistletoe and holly berries, garland and crimson candles have transformed the middle kitchen into a festive tearoom at Woodlawn Museum, a historic estate at the heart of Ellsworth. China clinked softly on Wednesday afternoon as guests examined their delicate cups and saucers, waiting for the teapot to be passed at tables draped in red cloths.
“People give us the teacups,” said Woodlawn Executive Director Joshua Campbell Torrance as he filled his cup with freshly brewed tea, a special blend with a hint of peach. “They’ve been collected over the years. We have more than we’ll ever use.”
Woodlawn is the 180-acre estate formerly owned by the prestigious Black family, once movers and shakers of business in coastal Maine. Today, it’s a 19th century museum, a center for public workshops, the host of the country’s longest running summer antique show and the town’s most popular sledding destination.
The high tea tradition began with Mrs. Irma Eliason, who arrived in Camden in 1916 to work as caretaker of the Black household. She served hot cocoa and cookies to the children who would often sled on the property, and frequently she would serve visitors tea each afternoon.
Several years ago, the museum revived the tradition in the summertime, and now they carry it through the holiday season.
On Wednesday, The Scarlet Dames Chapter of the Red Hat Society traveled from Newport to attend the first high tea of the season. With their fancy red hats and elaborate fascinators, the enthusiastic group made up the majority of the tea party.
“This is the first time most of us have been here,” said The Scarlet Dames Queen Mum Rebecca Johnson. Most of the women arrived early to explore the beautiful brick house, admiring the marble fireplaces and gold-framed paintings of members of the Black family.
“Each cup is bone china, I checked,” said Jean Beckmann of Ellsworth, who was invited to high tea as a guest of The Scarlet Dames.
Beckman first visited Woodlawn in 1949. The holiday high tea was her 25th time visiting the estate.
“My aunt, who owned a hotel in town, told me to go to the Black House because there’s a woman there every day who serves tea and crumpets,” recalls Beckmann, who remembers meeting Elaison. “They stopped serving tea here for quite a while. That they brought it back is wonderful. It’s like coming home.”
George Nixon Black Jr. was the last of three generations of the Black family to occupy the household. He willed the estate to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations in 1928, and they have maintained it for public use ever since.
Elaison remained. Living in the house, she cared for the estate, guided visitors on tours and continued to serve afternoon tea. Many people in Ellsworth still remember her thick Swedish accent and kind demeanor.
In he 1950s, she gave a tour of the house on public radio. The interview was recorded, and now visitors to Woodlawn can listen to her voice on a handheld device as they walk through the house.
Though not as famous as Portland’s Victoria Mansion for its Christmas decorations, Woodlawn is one of the holiday highlights of Ellsworth.
The first Monday of November is the estate’s “Decorating Day,” when all the organizations and companies who have volunteered to decorate arrive at the museum with holiday trees, sparkling table arrangements, poinsettias and wreaths, and split up to deck the halls.
“We love it and hate it at the same time,” said Torrance. “It’s organized chaos.”
This year’s decorators were the garden clubs of Bar Harbor, Bucksport, Ellsworth, Franklin and Surry, as well as M.M. Julz Christmas Shop and Wallace Interiors.
Each group is designated a room and the healthy competition begins.
“It’s the first time we’ve had every single room decorated,” Torrance said. “Before, the upstairs rooms weren’t decorated — we didn’t have enough groups.”
Christmas Day wasn’t special to Col. John Black and his wife Mary, who built Woodlawn in the 1820s. Records show the colonel worked in his office writing business letters on one Christmas, and their son wasn’t expected to travel home from his studies. But this is no surprise, since Christmas wasn’t officially recognized in Maine until 1858. Before that time, Thanksgiving was considered the more important holiday.
Starting in the mid-19th century, during the Victorian Period, people in America started to celebrate Christmas with gusto, exchanging gifts, gathering as families and feasting. The Christmas tree, a German tradition, became popular at that time as well, after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain brought one into the palace for the holidays.
That is the era that Woodlawn celebrates during the holidays — a time when Christmas became associated with elaborate displays and joyous gatherings.
The high teas are an intimate way to experience the Victorian decorations and have earned such a reputation that they have already been sold out this year, though Woodlawn is always hoping for more people to come on the daily tours.
“The ambiance was beautiful, very good service, tasty goodies and nice company,” said Scarlet Dame Pauly Michaud of Newport, critiquing the tea. She sat at a round table with four other ladies in red hats, sharing the last lemon squares and finger sandwiches.
The teapots were empty, and the room quieted as guests rose from their seats and wandered down the main hall to admire the Victorian decorations once more in the darkening rooms of Woodlawn.
Woodlawn Museum is open for Victorian Christmas tours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily through Dec. 23. The main house will then be closed through April, though the grounds are open throughout the year for recreational use. For information about Woodlawn’s programs, visit woodlawnmuseum.com or call 667-8671.