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Historic Cabin Opens to Public

Maryland residents get a first time look inside Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the life of Josiah Henson

Driving down Old Georgetown Road, it is hard to imagine the miles of tobacco farms that stretched for miles where neighborhoods, restaurants, cafes, shops, parks, and schools now stand. It is even harder to fathom that at 11420 Old Georgetown Road, near the intersection with Tilden Lane, lived a man whose life inspired, as President Abraham Lincoln put it, "a little lady who shook the world."

That "little lady," was Harriet Beecher Stowe. The man who inspired her novel "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" was Josiah Henson, who lived and worked at the home on Old Georgetown Road, in the 19th century.

Passersby would not know that Henson’s former home, tucked behind tall green trees and dense bushes, is the famous cabin, unless they knew exactly what they were looking for. Indeed, much of the farmhouse and the adjacent cabin have been remodeled over the years — the buildings have heating, water and electricity, and some of the façade has been redone. Despite these changes, some historical elements remain intact, like the fireplace which was built in 1789.

THIS PAST WEEKEND, as part of the ninth annual Heritage Days celebration, sponsored by the Heritage Tourism Alliance of Montgomery County and the Montgomery County Historical Society, Uncle Tom’s cabin was open to the public for the first time. A line of people wound its way down the sidewalk of Old Georgetown Road on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, full of visitors awaiting their turn to step inside this relic of Montgomery County’s slavery era. By the end of the weekend, 1,750 people visited the cabin, according to Peggy Erickson, executive director of Heritage Tourism Alliance of Montgomery County.

According to Historic Preservation Supervisor Gwen Wright, Josiah Henson, born a slave in 1798 in Charles County, was sold at a slave auction in Rockville when he was 4 years old. He was sold separately from his mother to Adam Robb and soon became very sick, practically lying on his death bed, due to the separation. Robb gave Henson to Isaac Riley, who owned Henson’s mother and was the original owner of the farmhouse and cabin on Old Georgetown Road.

As a young adult, Henson became a capable farm and slave manager, practically running the farm for Riley. When Riley went bankrupt in the 1820s, he entrusted Henson with his slaves, whom Henson took to Kentucky. In Kentucky, Henson earned enough money — $350 — to pay Riley’s price for Henson’s freedom. He returned to Maryland to find that Riley had backpedaled on the deal. Henson went back to Kentucky for his family and escaped to Canada where he started the Dawn Community for escaped slaves. The community taught former slaves different trades and farming methods. In 1848 Henson wrote his autobiography, "The Life of Josiah Henson," which was the impetus for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin." Over time Henson became an articulate champion of abolition.

AFTER EMANCIPATION, Henson returned to the Riley House. By that time Riley had passed away, and his wife, astonished at the sight of Henson, well-dressed and well-spoken remarked, "My goodness Josiah, You became a gentleman." Henson’s reply: "Ma’am, I always was."

Plans for the future use of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was sold to the Maryland Park and Planning Commission for $1,000,000 in January, are not definite.

"There is a range of options that are being considered. One option is to turn the farmhouse and cabin into a museum. Another is to make it a center for research and archives of African American history in Montgomery County. Yet another option is to make the home open to the public. We are eager to make it open to schools for school trips as students study the Civil War. Our main concern however, is preservation," Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage said.

The commission is also considering doing restoration work on the farmhouse and cabin, changing modern additions into historically correct ones.