By Amy Reinink
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 14, 2011; 9:47 AM
Ellen Wilner saw the character of Cabin John embodied in a tomato stand one summer afternoon.
The stand, set up outside a resident's home on one of the community's narrow, winding streets, had loads of tomatoes, a scale, a calculator and a cash box, but no one watching over the stand.
"I thought, 'This must be the last bastion of the honor system,' " said Wilner, a real estate agent and Cabin John resident. "Tell me where else in the D.C. area you can find this."
Scenes like that abound in Cabin John, a small Montgomery County community prized by residents for its history, sense of community, and proximity to downtown Washington and the Potomac River.
Resident Joanne Hirsh remembers seeing a young boy leaving the Captain's Market with a bucket of bait over one shoulder and a fishing pole over the other, ready to bike over to the river or the C&O Canal.
"It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting," said Hirsh, a 65-year-old retiree who moved to the neighborhood with her husband, Richard, 15 years ago. "I just thought, 'That's Cabin John.' "
Cabin John, which has its own post office and Zip code, is rife with history, including the mystical and uncertain origins of its name.
Judith Welles, who wrote "Cabin John: Legends and Life of an Uncommon Place," said legends range from a man named John who mourned his dead lover in a cabin to a variation of Capt. John Smith's name.
The community grew up around the construction of the C&O Canal in the early 1800s and the Washington Aqueduct in the 1850s and 1860s. By 1870, a grand Victorian hotel served as the center of what had become a tourist destination. The hotel, which burned in 1931, hosted Washington dignitaries including three presidents, Welles said.
Remnants of the community's history abound, from the Cabin John Firehouse, built in 1931 and now home to a tailor and cleaners, to the single-lane stone bridge that carries the Washington Aqueduct, built from 1857 to 1863, over Cabin John Creek. The businesses in the Firehouse are among several local shops and restaurants within walking distance for most residents.
A sense of history permeates the neighborhood's eclectic housing stock, too, with several Sears-catalogue homes still standing.
"This is not Avenel," said Wilner, whose husband, 40-year Cabin John resident Jim Wilner, is one of several architects in the community. "You'll have a little, tiny, modest home right next to a larger, recently renovated home. There's nothing cookie-cutter here."
Residents say the mix has changed a bit in recent decades, as new residents have torn down old houses and built sprawling new mansions.
"A big part of what makes Cabin John unique is that you have all sorts of different types of people in all sorts of different types of homes," said Burr Gray, 53, a lawyer with the National Guard Bureau and longtime president of the Cabin John Citizens Association. "It has certainly become a lot more expensive than it was 30 years ago, so that diversity may be disappearing over time."
The lowest-price house sale in the community over the past 12 months was for $695,000, Wilner said.
Residents say it's worth it to live walking distance from the Potomac River and the C&O Canal National Historical Park. Many residents own kayaks or canoes and consider the C&O Canal Towpath their neighborhood running trail.
"It's just so beautiful to be able to get away into what feels like the middle of the wilderness, but also have it be so easy to get downtown," said Jennifer Jordan, 44, a nurse practitioner who moved to the neighborhood with her husband, Skip Brown, six years ago.
Downtown Washington is about a 20-minute drive away.
"If we have tickets at the Kennedy Center, we can leave at 7:15 p.m. and be in our seats by 7:45 p.m.," Hirsh said.
Downsides are few, and mostly relate to transportation.
The single-lane bridge often backs up with cut-through traffic during rush hour.
Ride-On buses bring residents to the Bethesda Metro station in the morning and evening, but "if you need to get someplace without a car during the day, you're walking to Glen Echo or taking a cab," said resident Stephanie Smart.
But neighborhood programs aim to fill that gap. A resident-run group called Neighbor 2 Neighbor connects a cadre of volunteers with elderly Cabin John residents who need rides to appointments, meals, help with household tasks and other assistance.
That sense of community remains Cabin John's most attractive feature, residents said.
Hundreds gather at the Clara Barton Community Center for the Crab Fest held by the Cabin John Citizens Association every summer, residents tackle environmental initiatives through a Green Neighbors program, and the Village News, a community newspaper, is mailed to residents free every month.
Residents gather informally, too, at potluck dinners, multiple book clubs and a regular Wednesday-morning kaffeeklatsch at the Market on the Boulevard, an upscale shop and deli.
"There's a spirit of humanity that seems to get lost in cities," Hirsh said.
"We have that spirit of humanity here."