The drive would take 7 ½ hours five of which I would share with Terry James. Terry is the fellow Civil War reenactor who has spent numerous nights in slave cabins sleeping in shackles. Upon arrival at the Arlington House where we would spend the week, we were greeted by Maxwell Shaw. I knew Max from my early days of Civil War reenacting, he played the role of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw in our newly formed group of 54th Massachusetts Civil War reenactors. Max now lives in Cumberland, Maryland and read about the workshop opportunity through my facebook page. Another person joining the group of sixteen would be Leoneda Inge, a reporter for National Public Radio who spent a night with me, Terry James and several others in a slave cabin at Stagville near Durham, NC.
From Delaware to California most of the sixteen participants were a lot like me, not having a clue of how to build a log cabin. One of the participants, Eric Larsen, revealed to me that he learned about the opportunity through one of my facebook friends. Impressive because that made a total of 5 of the team of 16 that the Slave Dwelling Project was directly responsible for recruiting.
We met Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology at Montpelier. He played a major role in getting us all there and had the responsibility to ensure that we could perform the requirements of building a log slave cabin. From my first conversation with Matthew, I was curious as to how he convinced folks higher in his chain of command that this was the right thing to do. We also met Craig Jacobs, owner of Salvagewrights Ltd. It was Craig and his crew that had the experience of building log cabins so he would have most interaction with the group of green enthusiastic potential builders.
Day one included a history lesson of President James Madison. What stood out to me the most was that Madison was inaugurated in 1809, a year after the international slave trade was abolished. Suddenly all of my knowledge of how the state of Virginia benefitted handsomely from the internal slave trade came rushing back to me.
Before we could handle any of the tools Craig Jacobs and his crew gave us instructions on their use while placing emphasis on the chain saw. The work site was a parking lot with the donated logs already in place. From the worksite we could clearly see the mansion which for me provided a constant reminder of how the wealthy lived versus those who they enslaved. There, using the various tools, the intent was that we would prepare the logs and assemble the cabin in one week. At the appropriate time, long after the crew of sixteen would have left, Craig and his crew would disassemble the cabin and relocate it to the footprint of where the original stood.
Our day ended with a tour of the mansion. It was a great tour but my distractions were obvious as I scanned and touched the bricks looking for fingerprints of the slaves who made them, an action I find myself doing often as I consider who built antebellum America.
At the end of the day and back at the Arlington House, we all confessed to working muscles we didn’t know we had.
By day two, we were beginning to see the outline of the building. The crew was beginning to perform actions and use some of the tools that we did not do the day before.
Our day would end with Matthew taking us on a tour of the grounds. A lot of time was spent among the ghost buildings that housed those enslaved at Montpelier. These four slave cabins and two smoke houses were an indication that Montpelier was not new to the game of interpreting the existence of the enslaved on the property. Our mission of building the log cabin would be an extension of this interpretation.
Predicted rain on the third day of the operation made it necessary that we move the operation in doors. After lunch, with the rain gone, we were able to move back to the original worksite.
We ended the day in the archeology lab where we got to see some of the artifacts that documented the presence of the enslaved at Montpelier. I became fixated on a piece of fine china as we all speculated on how it would have come into possession of the enslaved.
On the morning of day four we were graced with the presence of Kat Imhoff, President & CEO of the Montpelier Foundation. She took well to the hewing of a log with a broad axe. Her presence was a testament that Montpelier is dedicated to telling the whole Montpelier story.
When I finally built up the nerve to use the chain saw, cutting halfway down the log, I discovered that I was cutting into the wrong side. Upon further review by Craig Jacobs, it was discovered that the log was unsalvageable.
On the final morning we were treated to a tour of the mansion that would allow us to go into the attic. There it gave us a better understanding of the craftsmanship necessary to build this architecturally significant structure and made me appreciate more our purpose for being there.
Our last official event was a dinner/graduation. It was obvious that we bonded well as a group. It will now be up to Craig Jacobs and his crew to dissemble the cabin and move it to the footprint of the original. This must be done before they take on the huge responsibility of building slave cabins on Mulberry Row at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson. I am beginning to see a pattern here. We are becoming more comfortable with interpreting all of our history as evidenced by the actions taken at the homes of our founding fathers.
It was certainly a privilege to serve on the team that built the log slave cabin at Montpelier. I will apply the knowledge gained to the Slave Dwelling Project. As I continue to come across stewards of extant slave dwellings who have the desire but not the means to restore them, with the proper sponsors, I want to implement a similar model of assembling teams of volunteers to do what is necessary to stabilize, and restore these structures so that they will continue to remain on the American landscape.
Part two of this event will be when some of the crew go back to Montpelier to spend a night in the cabin that we assembled and it is my hope that descendants of those who were enslaved there will join us.