The discovery came through trauma. On a wet evening in 2018, a patrolman with the Hagerstown police crashed his cruiser into 417 Jonathan St., a tiny house at the center of the city’s historic African American neighborhood.
The house was condemned; its elderly owner went to live elsewhere. When the demolition crews arrived and began to rip off the vinyl siding, they saw horizontal timbers, still bearing the ax marks of the person who hewed them from tree limbs perhaps 200 years ago.
At a time when more Americans are thinking about Black history, the log cabin on Jonathan Street has become what one blogger calls “a little underdog,” capturing attention from preservationists around Maryland and beyond. This summer, a statewide preservation advocacy group based in Baltimore purchased the building with plans to bring it back to life as a residence. In Hagerstown, activists hope the refurbished old cabin will be a catalyst for change in one of the state’s oldest African American communities, a likely stop on the Underground Railroad.
“We’re building steam, and we’ve found friends and advocates from across the state that are willing to help,” says Reggie Turner, a Hagerstown financial adviser appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan to the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture.
A step forward came this year, when Preservation Maryland agreed to purchase the home from its previous owner, Richard Davis. He charged them only $15,000, likely less than the lot was even worth, says executive director Nicholas Redding. Now, Redding’s organization is raising around $200,000 to restore the log structure. “The idea is to use this one project to kick-start revitalization for the community,” he said.
Walking down Jonathan Street, 60-year-old resident Gracson Bell pointed out landmarks from his memory: the second-floor barbershop that had stood next to the beauty parlor. For many years, a stable ran parallel to Jonathan Street; it was demolished to make way for public housing.
A few blocks down, he said, was the bowling alley where an attendant reset the pins by hand. During segregation, Black residents wouldn’t have been allowed inside Hagerstown’s all-white bowling alleys. “Back then, the community had to rely on itself,” she said.
“It was a very nice neighborhood,” said Anna Scott, 90, who lives in another Jonathan Street house. Her grandfather, who worked for the railroad, built it. “Everybody was so nice and friendly. We’d sit out on the porch and converse with one another.”
Bell’s grandmother worked multiple jobs including washing dishes to help afford her house in the neighborhood, where he lives in today. Some neighbors worked at the Coca-Cola bottling plant where Habitat for Humanity is now located. Others cleaned the ornate homes of white people.
“The ties of this community to the national story [of African American history] is something that needs to be explored more,” said Turner, the financial adviser. “So much has been lost and suppressed.”
In a meeting last year with the city council, Turner blamed local leaders for not doing more for the area, calling the decline of Jonathan Street “a community failure.” Council member Lewis C. Metzner shot back that the failure was not on the city, but on residents for not coming forward.
Together with consultant Tereance Moore, Turner is on a mission to preserve the neighborhood, building by building. Within a few years, they want to see the area flourish as a dynamic business and residential district as well as a tourist destination. Moore, who works with budding entrepreneurs, says he wants to see the area become a “self sufficient community,” one with more owner-occupied housing.
After trying, and ultimately failing, to save another old house in the area — the crumbling former home of Robert Moxley, who led the No. 1 Brigade Band of U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War — the two set their sights on the little log cabin.
During a recent visit to the cabin, Redding, with Preservation Maryland, pried open the back door, pausing in case a stray animal had decided to take up residence. Finding the house unoccupied, he shone a smartphone flashlight around the collapsing interior.
The things wrong with it would give a first-time homeowner nightmares. Besides the buckled front wall where the police cruiser hit, there are foundation problems and water leaks. A loft is insulated with cardboard boxes from the 1920s; the electrical outlets practically scream “not up to code.” It needs all-new plumbing and HVAC.
Through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, whose Washington County chapter happens to be in the neighborhood, Redding’s group plans to turn the cabin into new housing for a low-income resident. It’s the first time in 40 years that Preservation Maryland has purchased a building; Redding says it will pave the way for more projects like it at a time that preservationists are thinking critically about how their work can benefit communities.
The project is led by Ziger Snead Architects, a Baltimore-based group that’s worked on high-profile restoration projects like the skylight of the George Peabody Library. They hope to break ground on the project this fall, says Redding, and finish by spring.
Restorers are debating whether to add on a siding to the exterior. In the 19th century, “It was seen as rather uncouth” to leave a log structure bare, Redding said. “It sort of seemed like you hadn’t made it.” Filled in with chinking made from clay and horsehair, the logs were likely covered by slats fairly early on both to protect the wood and to give a more polished appearance.
Jessica Scott, program director for Habitat for Humanity for Washington County, is looking for the right person to place in the log cabin once it’s completed. This is the first historic preservation project Habitat has participated in in the area, and the log cabin will need an added level of care. At around 800 square feet, it’s just big enough for one person or an older couple, she thinks, perhaps “someone really into history.”
As with all Habitat properties, the prospective homeowner will be expected to put in 200 hours of “sweat equity,” helping out with the home’s reconstruction. The down payment Habitat requires in Washington County is low, typically around $400, and the mortgage is designed to be affordable.
Some of the restoration funds are being raised by Elizabeth Finkelstein, founder of the website and Instagram account Cheap Old Houses, which has more than 1 million followers. Through September, Finkelstein is selling $25 enamel pins that say, “Save all the old houses,” and donating proceeds for the Jonathan Street house. She called the cabin “a little underdog.” The timing was right, she said, to elevate a house with Black history.
“This is a very heated and exciting time in ... cultural recognition, in understanding what stories we’re not telling.”
On her platforms Finkelstein elevates the everyday, pointing out the woodworking in a middle-class 19th-century home or the ornate light fixtures in another. “For so long the field of historic preservation has focused on one particular narrative about our history,” she said. While the grand estates of the wealthy are made into landmarks, everyday homes and history have been forgotten, she said.
Jonathan Street gets few mentions in Maryland history books, but as early as the 1790s, the area was home to a mix of free and enslaved Black people living side by side, says Turner. They built churches like the Second Christian Church and Ebenezer A.M.E., which began in a log cabin and later was used as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
“A lot of the enslaved people in that area would live in the Jonathan Street community and go to the house in which they were actually enslaved,” says Lynn Bowman, an associate professor at Allegany College. An expert in Western Maryland’s Black history, she spent 10 weeks researching the neighborhood’s history, poring over census records and other archival materials. “No one was really appreciating the historical significance of that street and area,” she said.
During the time of slavery, Redding says “there certainly would have been Underground Railroad activity” in the Jonathan Street area. But determining which buildings were used is difficult: “It was a secret society. So people didn’t keep records.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black-owned businesses thrived on Jonathan Street, then home to Route 11, a highway that was later re-routed. Some were listed in the Green Book, a motorist’s guide to Black-friendly establishments during the Jim Crow years. Baseball great Willie Mays stayed at the now-demolished Harmon Hotel on the 300 block of Jonathan Street while his team played in Hagerstown.
Neighbors had differing accounts of who lived in the little log cabin on the 400 block. Was it Mr. Ford? Or Ms. Loretta Brown, who had a little dog named Brown Eyes? Davis, the home’s previous owner, declined through a friend to be interviewed. Redding said a genealogist is working on figuring out the exact history. Census records show that in 1920, the inhabitants of 417 N. Jonathan St. were Charles H. and Maude A. Ford, a married couple. He was a janitor at the police station.
A century years later, Redding pulled a rusty nail out from a timber. A cut nail, distinctive to the 19th century, helps date the structure; but Preservation Maryland plans to have dendrochronology done to date the wood within a few months of when it was cut. Archaeologists will dig up the site of the backyard, hoping to discover the location of the privy; ancient toilets can be treasure troves for researchers.
Outside, Redding placed his hand on one of the timbers, caressing the hew marks; a visceral connection to the past. The various types of notching on the ends of the wood indicate the house was repurposed from the materials of other buildings, reuse common in the 19th century. People rarely threw things away then, Redding says, something that’s almost incomprehensible now. But for the most part, the wooden timbers here are still strong, ready to provide shelter for the next resident of Jonathan Street.