Living in Land of Lincoln-Era Connections


January 14, 1996|By BOB ALLEN

Don't blink while driving south along busy Route 5 in Charles County. If you do, you could easily miss Bryantown.

This inconspicuous crossroads, 10 or so miles east of La Plata, the bustling county seat, and 25 or so miles from Washington, was once one of the county's largest mercantile centers -- second only to Port Tobacco, the former county seat. But today Bryantown is barely noticeable from the main highway, which is lined by soybean fields, tobacco patches, subdivisions and strip shopping centers. It's just a sleepy enclave of elegantly restored 19th-century homes clustered around the shady intersection of Oliver Shop and Trotter roads (the old Port Tobacco Highway).

But for Lincoln assassination buffs Bryantown is a mecca of sorts, and has been for years: John Wilkes Booth slept, and spun his web of conspiracy, here -- in the 1820 Bryantown Tavern. The enigmatic Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Jr., who set Booth's broken leg, lived just a couple of miles up the road. Mudd was also a regular on the streets of Bryantown during the war years, and the countryside is still full of his descendants and distant cousins.

The good doctor is buried just up the road at St. Mary's Catholic Church -- ironically, the very place where he first met Booth in the fall of 1864 and became inextricably entwined in the actor's anti-Lincoln intrigues.

Confederate undercover agents and mail couriers (like Mudd) drifted in and out of Bryantown all throughout the war. Escaped prisoners of war, contrabandists and other desperadoes hid out in nearby Zekiah Swamp.

Bryantown's Civil War connections go on and on. After Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, and after John Wilkes Booth had become the object of the largest manhunt in U.S. history, the Bryantown Tavern, now on the National Registry of Historic Places, was the federal army's field base. Numerous conspiracy suspects were hauled into the rooming house/tavern/post office for interrogation and imprisonment before being shipped on to Washington.

Bob Cook, 53, a federal-government employee, and his wife, Suzanne, live in the tavern now, which is present-day Bryantown's architectural centerpiece.

It was the town's rich local history that brought the Cooks here. An avid assassination buff, Mr. Cook had visited Bryantown several times on tours of John Wilkes Booth's escape route. The day the tavern was put on the market by its previous owners, he snapped it up and made it his home. That was in 1992. Today it's his personal shrine to an era of American history with which he's fallen deeply in love.

The home's rooms and hallways are adorned with photos of Booth and Lincoln, reproductions of assassination reward posters and century-old photos of Bryantown's main street. Mr. Cook still seems slightly in awe when he contemplates all the shadowy historical personages who passed through the rooms he now calls home.

"One of the main benefits of Bryantown is the history, and the people it draws," says Mr. Cook, who has grown used to having tour buses from the Smithsonian and the Surratt Society, a historical group, pull up by his porch. "You never know who's gonna show up, and that's the fun of it. I always try to make them feel at home."

"Living here is different for me, though," Mr. Cook, a New York City native, says with a chuckle. "I'm an urban person. I'd lived in urban areas most of my life before I came here, and I've always loved city life. But it's absolutely pleasant here. The countryside reminds me of Connecticut, or England."

Similar considerations brought the Cooks' neighbors, Archie and Frederica Castle, to Bryantown in the late 1980s. They've since done a magnificent job of restoring their 125-year-old Victorian residence, and they recently opened the Bryantown Art & Antique Center, just around the corner.

Relative newcomers like the Cooks and the Castles have done much to breathe new life into this community. Quite a few of the most historically and architecturally significant houses were badly in need of rehabilitation before they arrived.

"We enjoy history; we're turn-of-the-century, Victorian kind of people," says Mr. Castle, 48. He is a General Services Administration employee in Washington. Mrs. Castle was already teaching in Charles County before they moved here from Rockville.

"The pace up in Montgomery County just picked up to where we found it uncomfortable," Mr. Castle explains. "We wanted to live in an older community, a Southern, old town. And we found one. We're quite happy here."

Says resident Sally Allen, "Sitting on your front porch, gazing at the village, you get a feeling of timelessness -- unless a tractor-trailer happens to be roaring past on Route 5!

"It's also nice ... that Bryantown feels like such a safe place. People look out for each other here."

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