The vacant house outside Poolesville was slated for demolition. The windows were boarded up. The exterior was covered in tattered siding. And inside, the place was so crammed with junk it was hard to walk around.
But underneath the bedraggled carpet were handmade wooden steps worn smooth by generations of African Americans climbing the stairs to the novelty of a second floor.
And behind the walls were the pine, poplar and oak timbers that had been cut and notched in the Maryland woods and stacked two stories high in the days after slavery 130 years before.
Eight years ago, the Smithsonian Institution discovered the house, realized its role as a symbol of pride for former slaves fresh from bondage and had most of it rebuilt inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The house, constructed in rural Montgomery County around 1875, was cleaned out, stripped down to its original frame and disassembled “like an old Lincoln Log set,” as one curator said.
Reconstructed, it will be unveiled when the museum opens Sept. 24 on the Mall in Washington.
Its timbers still bear the adz marks of the builders. And the first floor still has the crude storage closet under the steps that was typical of the time.
Although humble, the four-room house marked the crucial transition from slavery to freedom, said George W. McDaniel, a scholar who has studied the old African American communities of Montgomery County.
Before the Civil War, the county had 5,400 slaves, about 40 percent of the population. In bondage, their typical dwelling was a one-story log slave cabin, he said.
With freedom came the ability to buy land and build their own houses.
“But not just a one-story house,” McDaniel said. “Since they owned land, they could build two-stories. To provide more room for their families, and also make a statement.”
“They’re out from slavery,” he said. “Now they have this second floor, so they can look out over their own land.”
The recent story of what is being called “Freedom House” began in late 2008, when museum curator Paul Gardullo got a call from a colleague in Montgomery. The museum had not yet started assembling its collection on a large scale, Gardullo said.
His friend and former graduate school classmate Scott Whipple, a county historic preservation officer, asked whether Gardullo might be interested in doing some kind of oral history project about the house before it was torn down.
Whipple said the house was in the county’s old African American enclave of Jonesville. It was being purchased by a couple who wanted to tear it down and build a new house, he said.
The old house, while historic, had been modified so much over the years that it didn’t qualify for preservation under county regulations, he said.
“Scott, I’m interested in the oral history,” Gardullo said he replied. “But I’m interested in the house.”
Whipple said he replied, “Are you kidding me?”
Gardullo wasn’t. The house project would supersede oral history.
“When you’re tasked with building a museum from the ground up . . . there’s an amazing amount of freedom — and possibility,” he said.
He said the museum was intent on finding a slave cabin to exhibit, and it eventually did so.
But he realized that the Jonesville house was “an incredible evocation of freedom” after slavery, he said.
“It’s a tangible symbol of this period . . . where there’s great aspiration and equal amounts of limitation,” he said. “I was convinced we needed to collect it.”
The era of Reconstruction after the Civil War, during which the house was built, was turbulent and complex, Gardullo said.
“It’s hard to understand what it meant for . . . African Americans to come out of slavery, to begin to pull themselves together,” he said. “This house, to me, epitomizes that in a single structure.”
The first time Kerry Shackelford, of Museum Resources Construction and Millwork, entered the house, “it was quite an adventure,” he said. The house had not been lived in for several years and “was absolutely full.”
“You had to climb over the top of the stuff to get in it,” said Shackelford, whose Virginia company had the job of dismantling the house.
“From clothing to furniture to everything you could think of,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “We took 10 40-yard dumpster-loads of stuff away before we ever started working on taking the building apart.”
“I’ve never seen as much stuff stuffed into a building,” he said. “We did our best to sort through . . . but it was phenomenal.”
There were some treasures: an old suitcase filled with Masonic regalia that seemed to be from the early 1900s, an empty blanket chest that seemed to be from the early 1800s, a weathered Bible, an old hurricane lamp.
The house had several additions that disguised it. “Often times, these [historic] buildings are buried within a number of additions and re-sidings and that sort of thing,” Shackelford said.
“It wasn’t difficult to sort out the first period” of the building, he said. “You can tell by the materials, the methods of joinery, the types of nails, the stylistic design.”
“On the inside, it was covered with drywall,” he said. “The outside was covered in multiple layers of siding.” There was considerable termite and fungal damage, and some timbers needed to be replaced.
Gardullo, of the Smithsonian, said: “The house was a mess. . . . We took another leap of faith to deconstruct the home, to really find out how much of the original structure was intact.”
“We really didn’t know what we were going to find until we started pulling it apart,” he said.
The dwelling — technically the Jones-Hall-Sims House, for the various families that lived there over the years — is believed to have been built by Richard Jones, one of the founders of Jonesville in the 1870s.
Jonesville had been part of the local Aix la Chapelle plantation, once a gigantic spread of 1,700 acres. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it was subdivided and sold off in parcels.
One of the owners, a Dr. William Brewer, on his death in 1861 bequeathed land, money and slaves to his heirs, stipulating that all slaves unable to work were to be supported by the heirs, according to Maryland Historical Trust files.
Jonesville was named after Erasmus Jones and Richard Jones, who may have been brothers, according to historian McDaniel’s research. The first parcel in the community, 9 1 /8 acres, was purchased by Erasmus Jones in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended.
Eight years later, Richard Jones purchased nine acres and built his now-famous house.
Jonesville was one of the many small African American hamlets that grew up across Montgomery after Emancipation, according to an exhaustive study McDaniel did in the late 1970s.
They were places such as Jerusalem, Martinsburg, Sugarland and Turnertown, many now almost gone.
Bernard Harper, 80, grew up in Jerusalem, just down the road from Jonesville, and attended Jerusalem Baptist Church, founded in 1874.
“Half of the people [in the area] were Methodist, and the other half of the community was Baptist,” he said. People went to church three times on Sundays.
“As a kid growing up, we knew everybody in the community,” he said in a recent telephone interview. Many people were related to one another.
But there were few jobs around, and men had to carpool to Rockville, Bethesda or Washington for work.
Many entered the military, he said, and settled elsewhere. Now a resident of Fayetteville, N.C., Harper was one of them. He said he joined the Army, served for 30 years and seldom returned to Maryland.
The most haunting details in Freedom House may be the ancient steps to the second floor.
They are the original pine, and countless footfalls over 130 years have worn grooves in the wood, which is so smooth it looks like it’s been sanded down by a carpenter.
“To think that you’re walking on the stairs that have been there all that time,” Shackelford said. “How many people and how many lives have walked up and down those stairs?”
The house timbers also had some of the early lime wash and some of the original chinking between the logs, he said.
The chinking was, in part, made of small, flat stones that were carefully arranged like books leaning on a bookshelf.
Such finds are exciting, he said. “It’s kind of like the archaeologist’s moment of uncovering the artifact, and there it is looking at you.”
Shackelford’s crew photographed, catalogued and labeled each piece of the structure as it came apart. It was easily disassembled. “This entire building — stairs, the whole nine yards — was loaded onto a 24-by-8-foot trailer to bring back,” he said.
The pieces were stored in his firm’s warehouse while the museum was being built, and it was reassembled in the museum over the past few months.
“All these structures have tremendous stories to tell,” he said. “And you can’t help but feel like you’re in the middle of that story when you sort of peel back everything.”
“This is the first home that this individual . . . could call his own, that he could have dominion over,” he said. “And that’s a pretty big deal.”