Maryland's "Miracle" Cabin

In a Historic African American Area, Locals Fought to Save 150-Year-Old Structure

For 150 years, the small log cabin sat largely unnoticed on a quiet residential street in East Towson, Md., a historic African American community 15 miles north of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. But today, the 13-by-18-foot structure known as the Jacob House stands in a new place of honor along a busy boulevard, between the stately community center and the neighborhood playground. This spring, more than a decade after it was threatened with demolition, the restored and relocated log cabin is set to open as a museum showcasing the history of Baltimore County's oldest African American community.

"It's a tiny little building, but it carries a lot of significance," says Ray Heil, revitalization project manager at Baltimore County's Office of Planning. "It's kind of a miracle that it was discovered and saved."

The chestnut log cabin, no bigger than a living room with a small sleeping loft overhead, is believed to be one of the oldest structures in the area, though its exact origins are uncertain. Construction techniques indicate that it was built in the 1850s or 1860s. Oral accounts suggest that the cabin was built for an emancipated slave, but few reliable contemporaneous records for freed slaves exist.

At some point in the log cabin's history, a larger addition was constructed, dwarfing the original cabin's features and obscuring its age, and decades later, it was rented out to tenants who gutted the interior, destroying flooring, rafters, and other historic details. Further insult came in 1998, when a fire broke out on the property. The cabin was left relatively unscathed, though the addition was destroyed. A year later, the owner announced plans to demolish the remaining structure. Residents tried to fight the demolition but had little luck.

"The owner didn't care what the community wanted," says Adelaide Bentley, a lifelong resident of East Towson who grew up down the street from Jacob House and director of the North East Towson Community Association. "So we turned to the county."

Baltimore County officials were quick to respond. They approached the owner, who offered to sell the property to the county for an "outrageous price," says PJ Widerman, a retired Multi-Family Housing Specialist for Baltimore County's Office of Planning and the driving force behind the cabin's restoration. The price tag was beyond the county's means.

"But I wouldn't take no for an answer," Widerman says. "I kept calling him, and one day I just showed up at his house. He asked what it would take to get me out of his hair, and I said, 'The cabin.' And he gave me 11 days to get it off his property."

Although she didn't have anywhere to put the cabin, Widerman wasted no time. She scrambled to find someone who could quickly dismantle the Jacob House and eventually rebuild it on another site, and she eventually found Douglass C. Reed of Preservation Associates, Inc., based in Hagerstown, Md.

It was a two-day job for Reed, who has worked as a preservation contractor and consultant for 39 years. He dismantled the cabin log by log, numbering each one and documenting its place through photographs and meticulous hand drawings. With expert precision, Reed and his crew were able to save much of the cabin, including four windows, along with their sashes, jambs, and trim.

"It was a piece of cake," says Reed, who has worked on hundreds of historic cabins in this country and in Canada throughout his career.

Dismantling the house was like unraveling a mystery, and Reed approached the project with the eyes of a detective.

"We're not sure who built the house, but whoever did, it was not an amateur job," Reed says.

He uncovered several clues. In sifting through the interior of the house, he and Widerman uncovered a number of artifacts, including old nails, buttons, and pieces of fence, which supported Reed's estimates for the house's original construction date. There was a chimney but no signs of a fireplace, leading Reed to believe the first owner used a cast-iron stove for cooking and heating. Analysis of multiple layers of paint revealed the interior's original color, sea-foam green.

When Reed was finished, the disassembled cabin was then sent to storage at a farm outside of Baltimore while the county searched for a new, permanent site.

And there the logs remained, for about eight years, Reed says, first at the farm and later in a barn Reed owns in southern Pennsylvania. Finally, last February, the county allocated a parcel of land behind one of the community's first African American schools, now a community center, just a few blocks away from where the cabin originally stood. Reed was summoned to begin reassembly.

Finally, in February 2010, with the cabin now sitting at Reed's barn in southern Pennsylvania (the logs had been relocated again a year earlier), the county signed off on a parcel of land behind one of the community's first African American schools, now a community center, just a few blocks away from its original location. Reed was summoned to begin reassembly.

The years in storage proved brutal for the logs, many of which had warped and bowed, or suffered from water damage. Still, Reed was able to repair them and find a replacement log for one missing piece. He raised the cabin by hand, constructed a floor sturdy enough to hold a roomful of visitors, and whitewashed the exterior, as had been done more than a century ago.

Reed and his crew are taking a brief hiatus from the project this winter, but will resume work in the spring. Once the structural work is completed, Heil and his team will furnish the with historically accurate furnishings, and mount display cases containing artifacts and photographs from the period.

The cabin's restoration is one of the latest victories celebrated by the residents of East Towson, an area that has long been targeted by developers eager to purchase the land to tear down the houses and build commercial properties.

"We as a community have always fought to stop them," Bentley says.

Many of the homes in East Towson show their age, but many more have succumbed to neglect or demolition. Both Bentley and Widerman are dedicated to preserving as much of the community as possible.

"This cabin is an integral piece of history to this community, which little by little has lost so many of its buildings," Widerman says. "And now we want to explain the history of the community in this cabin."

Jacob House's dedication is scheduled for this spring, according to Widerman. It will be open by appointment only, mostly to local schoolchildren, who can tour the cabin and see how people in their community lived more than 150 years ago.

"It's just a beautiful project," Bentley says. "Everyone is so excited for it to be finished. It's going to be a big celebration."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed

Comments