Historic Bethesda park could become active museum
Planners aiming high for Josiah Henson Park, which inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin'
County parks stewards unveiled a plan Thursday night to turn Uncle Tom's Special Park in North Bethesda back into the working plantation it was during the turn of the 19th century in an effort to create the first active museum on the history of slavery in Montgomery County.
"We believe this should be considered one of the top historic sites in the county, it's just such an important story; the story of slavery in the county," said Montgomery County Department of Parks Project Coordinator Rachel Newhouse.
The 1.02 acre park, proposed to be changed officially to be called the Josiah Henson Special Park in coming months, was bought for $1.72 million in 2006 and expanded to include a half-acre parcel with a historic home in 2009.
The parkland includes portions of the Isaac Riley plantation, the stage for much of the 1849 autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson which inspired the internationally acclaimed novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, credited with expanding abolitionist ideas in 1850s America.
Park officials held a series of meetings this summer to elicit comment on possible uses for the park, Newhouse said. The meetings showed an interest in interactive programs designed for children and enhanced public safety efforts for transportation to the park, she said.
The park is open to the public, but the historic sites are only toured for special events, said Shirl Spicer, a museum manager for the Department of Parks stewardship division.
Spicer outlined three plans for the future of the site, a sliding scale of programs ranging from keeping the park as-is to opening a fully interactive museum with a full-time staff. She said her department is recommending a moderate approach that would keep the park open one day a month with a full-time staff member available for special tours and continued research concerning the slave life in Montgomery County.
This approach would require three to five years of renovation efforts on the park that would include exhibits on slave life and culture in Montgomery County as well as planting and maintenance of traditional crops, but could begin open hours as soon as 2011.
"The moderate option, that we are suggesting, will fulfill the goals and stay compatible with the economic realities of the department," Spicer said.
Newhouse said the proposed museum could stand as one of the few research sites concerning African-American culture in America's middle states prior to the Civil War, from portrayals of family lives of slaves to maps and exhibits on other significant nearby locations related to the site, such as the slave auctions in Rockville or the marketplace in Georgetown.
Cost estimates were not available for any of the projects.
A public hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 28. Visit www.montgomeryplanningboard.org for time and location of the meeting.
THE STORY SO FAR
In 2006, the Montgomery Department of Parks, part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, purchased the Riley Farm/Uncle Tom's Cabin Special Park, a 1.02 acre parcel off Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda containing a historic house and a portion of plantation home once owned by Isaac Riley for $1.72 million. An autobiography written by a former slave from this plantation, the Rev. Josiah Henson, inspired the internationally renowned novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Parks Department held a series of public meetings in June and August to elicit public input on the future of the site, hoping to create a plan for the special park.