In 2006 Montgomery County, Maryland, received international attention for purchasing a 19th century farmhouse that oral tradition suggested was the original “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The county paid $1 million for a little over an acre in suburban North Bethesda. Now, four years later the county is holding community stakeholder meetings to map out the future of what officials are now calling The Josiah Henson Site. I recall the excitement surrounding the announcement that the legendary material link to American literary and social history would be “saved” from land hungry developers gobbling up Montgomery County real estate.
After shelling out the initial million and hiring a bevy of experts – archaeologists, historians, and architectural historians – the county learned that the log cabin was not old enough to have housed Josiah Henson, whose autobiography formed much of the basis of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. County parks staff are holding a meeting tonight in Silver Spring to discuss the park’s future. Now that the county has separated the folklore from the facts, I wonder what steps Montgomery County officials will take to ensure that better historical research is done before precious resources are spent buying parks or designating properties historic.
Earlier this year the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission held a series of hearings and work sessions to evaluate the historical significance of Upcounty farms and residences in what the Planning Department calls the Upper Patuxent planning area. I wrote about the questionable history – one sitting HPC member called it “folklore” – Planning Department staff presented in its lengthy designation documents. History and historic preservation get a bad rap from many quarters and some of the criticism is well deserved. Like when a county buys a piece of folklore that it mistakes for history.
So what can the site “formerly called the ‘Riley Farm/Uncle Tom’s Cabin’” (yes, the Parks Department Website really does call it this) teach us? The site, indeed a well-preserved piece of architectural history, can teach schoolchildren and tourists about the county’s agricultural past and its reliance on slave labor. And, it can teach us about the valuable and intricate relationships between popular culture (literature) and social history. The site also can teach us how locally preserved oral traditions can be reified as historical fact. This literary site can teach our elected and appointed officials that history is an art that requires careful practice to ensure that information being used to make policy and regulatory decisions is defensible and accurate.
Update (20 September 2010): Last week the Montgomery County Planning Board was briefed by Parks Department staff on the Josiah Henson Historic Site master plan. Parks employees laid out a menu of costly approaches to develop educational plans, site maintenance plans, and staffing plans for the new park. The briefing video may be viewed at the Planning Board Website: <http://mncppc.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=2>. A hearing on the master plan was scheduled for October 28, 2010.
Update (4 October 2010): Washington Post article: After buying historic home, Md. officials find it wasn’t really Uncle Tom’s Cabin <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/03/AR2010100304022.html>
Update (4 October 2010): Former Montgomery County historic preservation staff have written that they knew that the log building was not the prototype for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Their Spring 2006 departmental newsletter suggests otherwise:
Update (5 October 2010): “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” segment on WNYC’s The Takeaway. Interview audio:
Related Post: Historic Preservation: Rubber Stamp or Healthy Debate?