History reborn at East Towson log cabin

The 13-by-17 foot building on the grounds of the Carver Community Center, at 300 Lennox Ave., Towson, is like the cover of a book for an important story.

It contains an important chapter of East Towson's past, an authentic log cabin built in 1857 by descendants of the freed slaves from Hampton Mansion and the Ridgely Estate who settled the community.

The plain exterior of the structure belies the rare chestnut logs put together with molasses and clay that are visible only from its interior.

This week, that story will become more accessible to the public, as Baltimore County cuts the ribbon for the official debut of the cabin as a new, mini-museum called The Jacob House on Saturday, June 22, at noon.

The cabin "means a lot to us," said Adelaide Bentley, president of the North East Towson Community Association.

"It's our history. Our ancestors built it."

Though it has sentimental value for Bentley and other current and former East Towson residents, its prime purpose is educational, according to Baltimore County officials who began the museum project through the county's now-defunct Office of Community Conservation. That office secured the $200,000 project to reconstruct and rehabilitate the building with state and federal money.

Ray Heil, who managed revitalization projects for the Office of Community Conservation, called the building "a real asset for a very interesting community with a very interesting history."

"It will enable people, especially young people, to envision what life was like for African-Americans in East Towson during the 19th century," said Heil during the reconstruction last year.

The cabin narrowly escaped the wrecking ball a decade or so ago, according to East Towson resident Michael Miller, whose great grandfather built it.

Once freestanding, it had disappeared into a series of additions that formed the drab, asphalt shingled Jacob House that formerly stood at 437 E. Pennsylvania Ave.

A fire so badly damaged the house in 1998 that the landlord sought a permit to demolish the entire structure, including the cabin that was so important to black history.

The community association fought to save the house. A compromise, after two years of hearings and public meetings, resulted in the landlord being able to tear down everything except the cabin, which was dismantled and stored at a north county farm until the resources became available to allow its reconstruction and display.

That's a done deal now, thanks to Douglass Reed and his company, the Hagerstown-based Preservation Associates. They deconstructed the cabin and performed the painstaking work needed to rebuild it.

Once the artifacts and exhibits have been chosen for the mini-museum, the county's Department of Recreation and Parks will take over, and will open it by appointment to school and community groups.

If seeing County Executive Kevin Kamenetz cut the ribbon is pleasing to Bentley, it is just as pleasing to Liz Glenn, the county's chief of community planning and development. Her division has absorbed the former Office of Community Conservation.

Two decades ago, by all accounts, the historic East Towson neighborhood was in decline, and many of the houses were deteriorating, she said.

They were just as threatened by the wrecking ball as was the cabin, in this case, because they sat on prime real estate that could turn into prime pickings for commercial developers.

"East Towson became a special effort for us," Glenn said. "We've been involved for more than 11 years and made significant investments to turn that community around increased home ownership as well as rehabbed housing and new housing that allowed offspring to establish their own households in the neighborhood instead of leaving.

"We learned how to work with the community with collaboration and trust to do what they need us to do, block by block.

"We're just so pleased. The transformation has been amazing."

For Bentley, the mini-museum is "the icing on the cake."

She has special words of thanks for former community conservation Specialist PJ Widerman, Chief Mary Harvey and the office in general.

"How nice it was for them to go to bat for us," Bentley said. "Once I contacted Mary Harvey, it was meetings and meetings and meetings — all kinds of meetings — trying to get things done.

"They stayed with it, they didn't give up on us, and I always will be grateful to Mary Harvey and for all their efforts."

Widerman, who like Harvey, is retired now, said she never imagined it would take so long to see the cabin in place.

"But it was absolutely worth it," she said. "I'm just so happy they found a spot for it.

"It's history — real life history — and it tells how that community began."

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