Saving 'Little Treasures'


January 12, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Deep in a glade off Three Notch Road near Mechanicsville, a ramshackle log cabin survives as a poignant symbol of religious freedom in Southern Maryland.

"Here in this log cabin 100 years ago, in this little patch of woods, a group of free humble pious colored folk . . . organized the Ebenezer AME Church, the first of its denomination in Southern Maryland," reads the inscription on a plaque dated 1961.

"In this hallowed spot their spirits are enshrined forever, tho their names and faces have been forgotten and dimmed by time."

Built about 1860, Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the few historic log structures still standing in St. Mary's County and perhaps the only log church to be found anywhere in Maryland.

After a new church was built next to it in the late 1890s, the older structure became a one-room school for blacks, a use that continued until the early 1950s. It was then converted to storage space for the church, which opened nearby buildings in 1949 and 1961. In recent years, the log structure has deteriorated. Part of one wall has collapsed, leaving a hole in the roof.

But the owners are hoping to preserve it for future generations, with the help of a restoration grant from Preservation Maryland.

The statewide organization recently offered a $5,000 matching grant to help restore the building as a museum and setting for occasional worship services, a project that is expected to cost $25,000.

Church members are seeking to raise the rest with help from the St. Mary's County Historic District Commission, the Maryland Historical Trust and others. The cost is relatively inexpensive, sponsors say, because the building is so simple in its construction. Jim Laws of Leonardtown will be the restoration contractor.

"It's as derelict as a building can get and still be standing," said David Chase, executive director of Preservation Maryland.

"It was going quick," agreed historic district commissioner John Cook. "A lot of times, it's these little treasures that fall through the cracks."

Made of hand-hewn horizontal logs joined with half dovetails at the corners, the church is one of three African-American landmarks that Preservation Maryland has targeted for assistance this year.

The second is an 1818 church in Bladensburg. It was constructed to house a Presbyterian congregation but sold in 1872 to St. Paul's Baptist Church, an African-American congregation founded in 1866 by a former slave named Sarah Plummer. St. Paul's sold it in 1973 to the Free Hope Baptist congregation. Preservation Maryland awarded $5,000 to help restore the building at an estimated total cost of $50,000 to $70,000.

The third project, for which Preservation Maryland allocated $2,500, is to recycle the former Free Colored Men's Library at 111 to 113 Ice St. in Frederick. The library was an outgrowth of a reading club formed in 1913. Frederick Habitat for Humanity plans to convert it to affordable housing for two families at a cost of $120,000.

Preservation Maryland's effort to help save African-American landmarks is consistent with a national movement toward multiculturalism in preservation.

Mr. Chase said earlier waves of restoration activity generally involved preserving homes of wealthy people. As a result, African-American sites have been neglected, he said. Only in recent years have efforts been made to save buildings of significance to African-Americans, such as Orchard Street Church in Baltimore, he said.

Tyler Gearhart, programs administrator for Preservation Maryland, said "the preservation movement is trying to reach out and be more aware of the different cultures that have contributed to the American landscape."

Preservation Maryland provides grants ranging from $500 to $5,000 and plans to allocate about $50,000 this year. Rather than undertaking restoration projects of its own, it seeks to support local preservation efforts by providing seed money. It also administers a $200,000 revolving fund that provides low-interest loans to help nonprofit organizations acquire and rehabilitate historic structures.

"What I would like to think is that our show of interest and our support are going to help these projects come about," Mr. Chase said.

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