'Uncle Tom's Cabin' Will Open to Visitors

(Hamil R. Harris - Twp)
By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 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, an 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 cabin 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 narrated his life story, "The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave."

After June 25, the property will be open to the public only on rare occasions while the county decides on its future use, said Gwen Wright, acting chief of the county's planning department 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 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 Road. 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. For information about the Josiah Henson cabin, call 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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