- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Montgomery County plans today to approve the purchase of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Bethesda, but it will take years to turn the property into a museum, county planners and historians said.

“It’s an amazing piece of property. It’s virtually unchanged in 200 years. For us to get this is just a gift,” said Peggy Erickson, executive director of Heritage Montgomery, a nonprofit group that promotes the county’s history for tourism.

Mrs. Erickson, who wants the county to turn the property into a museum, is trying to raise money for the Department of Park and Planning.

The two-story home, with an attached one-story cabin, was built in the late 17th century, a county planner said. It was last modified in the 1930s and is a Colonial-style home, at 11420 Old Georgetown Road.

The house was the plantation home of Isaac Riley, who for 30 years owned Josiah Henson, the black slave who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s explosive novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The novel, published in 1852, focused national attention on the slavery issue during the years leading up to the Civil War, and was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

Henson, who wrote an autobiography, noted that he sometimes slept in the cabin, which is thought to have functioned as slave master Riley’s kitchen.

Henson escaped to Canada in 1830, and Stowe was inspired to write her story after reading his memoirs.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin is like a sacred text around the world,” said Wayne Goldstein, one of the county’s leading civic activists. “People need to understand that what happened here, this was the equivalent of the Deep South.”

Park and Planning was notified in November that the house was for sale, and has written a contract on the home, which was listed at $990,000. The purchase, if approved by the Planning Board at a hearing today, is not subject to review by the county executive or the Montgomery County Council.

“Planning Board members are very excited about the prospect of purchasing Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” said Nancy Lineman, a spokeswoman for the board.

The house went on the market after its owner, Hildegarde Mallet-Prevost, who was 100 years old, died in September.

“Although it was a designated historic site, nobody on our staff had been inside of it, because the family who owned it wanted their privacy,” said Gwen Wright, the acting chief of Park and Planning’s countywide planning division.

“We certainly didn’t know this property was going to come on the market. So we didn’t have a plan. We don’t have any estimates on how much it’s going to cost to renovate the property,” she said.

Mrs. Wright said a committee likely will be formed to decide whether to turn the house into a museum, and whether to restore the house to its 19th-century appearance.

Mrs. Erickson wants to raise the money now, but said she has been told it could take up to five years to make the house available to the public.

“If we can get a fairy godfather or godmother to give us money to get going, it would be helpful to everybody,” she said.

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