If Woodrow Wilson could return to Cabin John today, he would find that "progress" has immensely changed one of his favorite Maryland spots. Reports describe Wilson's earlier enthusiasm for country drives out ot the elegant Cabin John Bridge Hotel, in its heyday a gathering place for the cream of Washington, who came by carriage, barge, trolley, or touring car.
Until recently Cabin John had remained in a virtual time capsule that dates back to the turn of the century, when many of the town's homes were nothing more than rustic summer cottages. Now bulldozers are leveling land for townhouses.
Just up the road by the fire house, a small office-and-shop complex awaits renters. Around the corner on 79th Street, however, is Helen Blandford, 82, who has been rooted in Cabin John for 54 years.
"Before we came here in 1927," she reflected, "there were only about three other houses near here. The Touheys had a large frame house and store just across on the other side of MacArthur Boulevard, but they are gone now. My husband and some other men organized the first volunteer fire department around 1930. My son Richard is now a captain but will be retiring soon.
"Before I moved here I lived on Goldmine Farm out in Potomac, where my father tended the land. Some of us used to go down to Great Falls Tavern and cook for the guests who came out by barge."
At Cabin John there is no town hall (the citizen's association meets in the Clara Barton school building), and no main street. The principal thoroughfare indentified with Cabin John is the C & O Canal; some of the older villagers recall when the barges ran day and night.
Cabin John's sense of community goes beyond fighting National Airport's noisy jets. If you drive through on a national holiday, the citizen's association makes sure your route is marked by American flags fluttering from almost every utility pole. Other community-sponsored activities include a spring flea market and auction benefitting the local preschool, and late-summer crab feast that grows in popularity each year. Residents keep up with community issues through a free monthly newsletter, The Village News.
Located about midway between downtown and Great Falls Park, Cabin John lies on MacArthur Boulevard, originally called Conduit Road. Most of the thousands who pass through the town each year enroute to Old Angler's Inn or the park are unaware of the area's earlier glitter or of the legends behind the town's name.
There are several versions, but the one most widely accepted, according to a Montgomery County Historical Society report, is of a hermit named John who was said to have buried treasure along the Potomac.
He supposedly dressed in raccoon skins and liived secluded on a cliff near where Cabin John Creek and Seven Locks Road pass under the Beltway. His mysterious disappearance theories, but no leads to any buried treasure. Susan Vogt, an active citizen's association member who lives on 76th Street, says her 1917 deed states that if treasure is found on her property it must be turned over to the development company that built her house.
There are two points of referene for meandering sightseers. One is the firehouse at the corner of Seven Locks Road, a comparative newcomer since it only goes back to the early 1930s. An older landmark is the 118-year-old "Union Arch" bridge, a single-span structure originally built carry the main that carries Washington's water over Cabin John Creek, some 100 feet below.
It is on the west side of Union Arch that the lavish Cabin John Hotel stood from the early 1860s until fire destroyed it in 1930. Once a preferred recreational spot for Washington's elite, the elegant hotel and gardens grew from the lunch stand where Rosa Bobinger, wife of a stonemason from Alsace-Lorraine, sold homemade food to her husband's coworkers on the bridge. They began to acquire property on the west side of the bridge after it was finished in 1863.
According to an anecdotal history written by Elizabeth Kytle in Time Was, A Cagin John Memory Book, the Bobinger's hotel looked Victorian from the front but resembled a German castle from the rear.
The Bobingers apparently recognized how vitally the bridge linked their hotel to downtown clientele; a picture of it appeared on the fine Bavarian china that complemented their Belgian crystal stemware. The hotel's guest list is supposed to have included presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, besides Wilson.
At the rear of the lavish hotel in a special two-story, glass-enclosed room stood a German orchestrion, a super-sized music box whose booming organ-like tines could be heard for miles around. Live music also was provided when John Philip Sousa conducted band concerts in an outdoor pavilion. Dancing was not permitted.
Although a chef was hired to oversee the kitchen, it is said that Rosa's fried chicken was ordered frequently and became the forerunner for the now-famous Maryland Fried Chicken recipe. Her version, however, called for white gravy and bacon curls.
The Bobingers are buried behind Hermon Presbyterian Church, among names that figure prominently in Montgomery County's early history. The picturesque little church is on Persimmon Tree Lane, which intersects Persimmon Tree Road near the Beltway overpass. The church has stood in its tranquil rural setting next to the Congressional Club's golf course since 1874 and is worth a detour for those who enjoy pretty country churches.
Another nearby point of interest is a 1920s one-room schoolhouse, used by Cabin John children until a larger one was built on Wilon Lane. It has since been converted into a charming private residence, with the big bell still in the yard.
It is due east from these two points that hermet John is said to have squatted along the creek, but so far, the closest thing to buried treasure that has been unearthed in are some Indian relics now on display at American University.