Log cabin is due back in Towson

Timbers that survived fire had been stored in Pa. barn

February 21, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch

Years after it survived a fire, was dismantled and hauled away, a landmark of the East Towson African-American community is coming home.

The so-called Jacob House, a 19th-century log cabin about the size of a living room, is expected back in town this summer, when the timbers will be driven down from near Mercersburg, Pa., unloaded from a truck and put back together a few blocks from the site where it stood until 2001.

"It's part of our history, it's something that's been in the neighborhood," said Adelaide Bentley, a lifelong resident of East Towson who has been part of a years-long effort by citizens and Baltimore County government to salvage the cabin and find a place for it. "Let the people of East Towson know what their ancestors did."

Those 19th-century forebears established a small community tucked between what is now the business center of Towson along York Road, the Black & Decker headquarters and Joppa Road. Some 70 to 75 homes remain in a six-block section where about 50 homes and small shops have been lost since the 1960s to encroaching commercial development and the construction of a BGE substation.

Many East Towson residents have come to feel that the county has been indifferent to the erosion of their neighborhood and the cultural bonds it represents. Until recently, that is, as efforts by local government to restore the section have gained momentum with improvements to houses and more attention paid to residents' concerns about the future of East Towson.

The Jacob House is a small, crude-looking thing made of chestnut logs, but it looms large as a symbol for people who are trying to hold onto something they value and fear losing.

"It shows the tenacity of the people," said Elizabeth Scott Glenn, the county's chief of community planning and development.

She and PJ Widerman, who both work for the county's Office of Community Conservation, have been working with Bentley and others in East Towson on the log cabin project, which Widerman has described as her own "labor of love."

When she first came to work for the county in the spring of 2000, Widerman said she "fell in love" with East Towson and said she "couldn't believe what was allowed to happen" to it.

By that time, Bentley had already been pressing the county council to salvage the log cabin at 437 East Pennsylvania Ave. It stood behind and attached to a newer house that had been gutted by fire in October 1998. The old cabin survived. "Everything burned but those logs," said Bentley.

The fire ignited years of argument about what to do with the cabin, an 18-by-13-foot structure with a gable roof that stood about 14 feet tall at the roof peak. At the time, the log frame was encased in a layer of wooden siding and another layer of asphalt shingles.

"There were a lot of opinions," Widerman said. "Was it worth doing anything? Should we just let it go? It became an emotional decision for people who lived in that community. So much had been taken from that community."

The cabin would eventually be taken, but under the careful direction of an expert in log cabins and historic preservation. Douglass C. Reed, who is based in Hagerstown, showed up with a four-man crew in the spring of 2001 and took two days to dismantle the little building and cart it off for safekeeping. In doing so, he gained great admiration for the workmanship.

"It was a snug and very well built little house," said Reed.

Exactly who built the cabin and when is less clear. The Maryland Historical Trust's Historic Sites Inventory dates construction to the mid-1880s, but one local family says a 19th-century ancestor and her son built it in the 1850s after they were freed from the Stevenson family farm, also known as the Fellowship Farm.

Some 40 or 50 logs are in storage in a Pennsylvania barn. Plans are being made to erect the cabin in a lawn behind the Carver Center, site of the old segregated high school for African-Americans in East Towson, about four blocks west of the cabin's original site. Reed said about 60 percent to 70 percent of the rebuilt cabin will be original, the rest restoration.

The effort is expected to cost $200,000, shared by the county and the Maryland Historical Trust. Widerman expects the foundation to be built this spring and the cabin to be put up by early summer and opened as a museum. It is to be stocked with historic artifacts and photographs to help tell the story of how a small community came to be and to endure.

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