Public to Glimpse 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'

James Henson, the great-great-great-nephew of Josiah Henson, at the cabin where his ancestor lived while enslaved on a Montgomery County plantation.
James Henson, the great-great-great-nephew of Josiah Henson, at the cabin where his ancestor lived while enslaved on a Montgomery County plantation. (By Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)

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By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

The historic "Uncle Tom's Cabin" on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, recently purchased by Montgomery County, will be open to the public for the first time, for limited hours the weekend of June 24-25.

The special opening during Montgomery County's Heritage Days event will provide an opportunity to walk through the 13-by-17-foot 18th century cabin that is the former home of slave Josiah Henson, whose autobiography was the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

The Montgomery County Planning Board purchased the $1 million property -- the cabin, the adjacent three-bedroom house and an acre of land -- in January from the estate of Hildegarde Mallet-Prevost, who died in September at 100.

Guides will lead people in groups of 10 through the cabin and rooms on the first floor of the house during Heritage Days, said Peggy Erickson, executive director of the Heritage Tourism Alliance of Montgomery County. Tours will be offered from noon to 4 p.m. on June 24 and June 25.

"It's got to be right up there in the realm of historically significant" places in the country, Erickson said. "I fully expect we're going to have to be doing crowd control."

Three dozen other historic sites, including many that are rarely open to the public, are on the self-guided route of this year's Heritage Days, an annual celebration of the county's history. The rarely seen sites include St. Paul's Community Church in Poolesville, Warren Church and Historic Site in Martinsburg, Davis House in Hyattstown, Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory in Gaithersburg, and the Latvian Museum in Rockville.

Also on the tour is Montgomery's oldest church, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, built as a chapel for the Carroll family in 1774, and Montgomery's only winery, Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, which was established on a restored 85-acre farm in Dickerson.

Many sites will feature music and dance performances. English tea will be served on both days of the tour at Woodlawn Manor Living History Museum in Sandy Spring and at the Gaithersburg Inn.

The cabin in Bethesda is expected to be the weekend's biggest attraction, offering people the chance to be among the first to step inside and walk where Henson walked.

"Not too many people have been in," Erickson said.

Henson, who was born a slave on a plantation in Charles County in 1789, was sold to a Montgomery plantation owned by Isaac Riley that operated at the site of the present day cabin. Henson rose to become superintendent of farm operations and later escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad. He learned to read and wrote his life story, "The life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave."

After June 25, the property will only be open to the public on rare occasions while the county decides on its future use, said Gwen Wright, acting chief of the county's planning division and its historic preservation supervisor. The county has just received $50,000 from Maryland's bond program to conduct an inventory of the property and to plan its restoration.

The property could be turned into a "traditional house museum," Wright said, or it could become a scholarly research center for African American studies and the history of slavery.

"Right now, we are just at the very beginning of looking at it," she said.

The Henson cabin is at 11420 Old Georgetown Rd., just south of Tilden Lane, in Bethesda. People visiting the cabin on June 24-25 are asked to park at the Montgomery County Aquatic Center, at the corner of Tilden and Old Georgetown roads. Limited parking at the site is available for handicapped drivers. Visitors are asked to avoid wearing footwear with hard heels that could scratch the floor. Photographs will be allowed.

Admission is free at all 37 sites, including the cabin, on the tour. All sites will be open noon to 4 p.m. on June 24-25. Reservations and a $20 fee are required for tea.

For a tour schedule and other information about Heritage Days, contact the Heritage Tourism Alliance at 301-515-0753 or look online at http://www.heritagemontgomery.org .

For information about the Josiah Henson's cabin, contact the Montgomery County Planning Department's historic preservation section at 301-563-3400, or look online at http://www.mc-mncppc.org/historic/ .


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