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Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" Opens Briefly in Bethesda

By the Queen of Free

Thank goodness for Montgomery County’s Heritage Days.

Last weekend the annual festival offered a terrific opportunity to visit the officially unopened site of the setting for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” where Josiah Henson, “Uncle Tom” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling novel of more than 150 years ago, lived and worked for 30 years (1795-1825) at the Riley house and farm on Old Georgetown Road.

Earnest, energetic tour guides from the Montgomery County Department of Parks conducted visitors throughout all parts of the home, answering questions and offering important known details, reading from index cards.

From a screened porch which served as the “holding room” for last weekend’s guests on the hot, muggy Sunday, visitors followed the guide into the air-conditioned house on 30-minute tours, stopping in each room to listen to descriptions of the history of the house, deplete of furniture (unless kitchen counters count).

My group, walking up and down the stairs, seemed humbled and awestruck to be inside the home with its unraveling history.

Telltale reminders of the modifications made in the mid 1930s by the owners at that time exist (wallpaper, bathroom, room sizes). A few descriptions and renderings of the possibilities of uses of the home during Mr. Henson’s life are posted here and there on the walls of the various rooms, and in the log addition which may have been the kitchen Mr. Henson described in his autobiography

Mrs. Stowe based her novel on Mr. Henson’s autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself which was published in 1849. The tour guide recommended both books which are quite different from each other, she said, and she read aloud small portions of Mr. Henson’s book to Sunday’s visitors including Mr. Henson's description of the deep wounds he saw on his father who suffered at the hands of a cruel slave owner who had also attacked Mr. Henson's mother.

Early in 2006 the Montgomery County Planning Board bought the house from private owners for $1 million, according to Wikipedia, and it will take until 2012, the guide said, before the house is restored and opened to the public.

Shouts and splashes from a nearby family’s swimming pool hidden mostly by trees in the back yard were reminders last weekend that the former 500-acre Riley farm had been reduced to a single acre, with life soon to return to the Riley house, too, and acquaint present day onlookers with glimpses of Mr. Henson's life 200 years ago.

Committees of historians, architects, landscapers, archivists, planners, and others are now conducting serious research in order to restore the property as authentically as possible to that of Mr. Henson’s lifetime. More than 550 artifacts have been uncovered in the minute investigation of the property. Tree rings and paint can reveal important information, the guide said.

If you "Google" "Uncle Tom's Cabin," another site comes up, too: In Dresden, Ontario, Canada where Mr. Henson and his family lived for many years after he fled his servitude in Maryland via the Underground Railroad in 1830.

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