People with spare means but sure hands built a cabin in East Towson in the 1800s, leaving their mark in tight joinery and chestnut logs.
The builders put up a cabin that might now be one of the oldest structures in this area of town, which was settled by freed slaves and their descendants between the 1850s and the 1920s. The house has survived a literal trial by fire and now nears the beginning of its second life as a tiny museum furnished to represent a very modest home of its time.
Through the late summer and fall, a small crew has been working behind the Carver Community Center off Towsontown Boulevard reassembling what was carefully taken apart nine years ago when the project began to salvage the cabin known as the Jacob House. The original logs are covered with whitewashed wooden siding, the roof is in place, the seven windows are in. Still to be done are door details, landscaping, interior plaster and simple furnishings.
"It looks lovely, beyond my imagination," said Adelaide Bentley, a lifelong resident of East Towson who lives on East Pennsylvania Avenue, the street where the 18-foot by 13-foot cabin originally stood a couple of blocks away from the Carver Center. "I think it's going to be really beautiful. We're going to have a celebration when it's finished."
Depending on the weather, the outside of the cabin could be finished by the end of the year, said Raymond Heil, revitalization project manager for the county's Office of Community Conservation. Douglass C. Reed, an expert in log cabin preservation who has been supervising the reconstruction, said he did not expect finishing touches to be completed until spring.
The plan is to eventually open the cabin by appointment as a museum, allowing a glimpse of what life might have been like for those who settled here in the 19th century and showing "how black folks built homes and how they stayed together," Bentley said.
The cabin was built well, even if it was done on a very low budget, said Reed. He said about three-quarters of what visitors see will be original materials from 19th-century construction, which he believes took place in two phases about 30 years apart.
"The house tells the story of a financially challenged person doing the best job [he] could of putting a really nice little house together," said Reed, who lives outside Mercersburg, Pa. He said he can tell that the person "wasn't a log-cabin builder, but he was very careful about how he built it. … He had skills in his hands."
The notches used to join the logs are particularly tight, though unorthodox in the way they're cut. And whoever did the job was creative in scrounging fence slats and bits of old rafters for the "chinking," the material that fills the gaps between the logs. That fill provides a base for a daubing made of sand, lime and cement.
State historic records date the cabin to the 1880s, but Reed said there's ample evidence that the house was renovated about that time but was built some 30 years earlier. He said he can see signs of construction dating from about the 1850s in the pockets cut for studs in the top gable log and the way some wooden planks in the roof are stained with whitewash, suggesting that they were taken from the original siding and reused. The angled cuts in the window frames on the second floor also look older than the 1880s, he said.
Teri Rising, a county historic preservation planner, said no buildings are shown that far east in an 1877 atlas, but she said it's possible this small structure was overlooked in that map. Architectural evidence is often more accurate, she said.
Oral accounts indicate that the cabin was originally built at the direction of Sarah Jane Johnson, who was emancipated from the Stevenson family farm, also known as Friendship Farm, but the historical record is not clear. Neither is it clear why it's become known as the Jacob House. A man named Jacob Wilson owned it for a time, but Johnson's descendants believe her name was altered along the way to "Jacob."
The cabin has clearly been through an ordeal. Decades ago a large house was built as an attachment to the cabin. A 1998 fire gutted the newer addition, but the old cabin survived — all 44 logs of it. In 2001, after much discussion among county officials and community groups, the decision was made to preserve the cabin.
Reed came in with a crew to take the cabin apart and carry the logs away for safekeeping while a plan was made to restore the building and find a site. The project has been done with $200,000 from the Maryland Historical Trust and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Heil said.
"People stop me and ask me, 'When is it going to open?'" said Bentley. "People are excited."