In two afternoons packed with informative, fun and free activities for adults and children, Heritage Montgomery will offer insight into Montgomery County’s rich history, heritage and culture. The 22nd annual Heritage Days — Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30, from noon to 4 p.m. — will feature 40-plus programs including exhibits and demonstrations as well as live music at parks, museums and historic sites; some of these venues are not open to the public at any other time of year.
Two newly-restored sites — the Warren Historical Site, in Dickerson, and Swains Lockhouse, in Potomac – will be accessible for the first time during this special weekend. At both, visitors will gain an appreciation for how residents lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Without signage, few people knew the Warren property was there. They would drive right by the intersection of Whites Ferry and Martinsburg roads, said Joy Turner. Turner’s Kinship Heritage Group has helped Heritage Montgomery and the Warren Historic Site Committee (WHSC) develop programming to support and promote their mission to save the last vestiges of what was known as Martinsburg, an African American community founded by Nathan Naylor, a freed slave from Virginia, who bought the 97-acre property for $50 on Jan. 22, 1876.
The Warren site is the sole surviving community in Maryland that has all three structures considered the pillars of thriving late 19th- and early 20th-century African American communities. On the property are the Warren UM Church (built in 1903 and named in memory of Isaac Warren, a member of its first board of trustees), the one-room Martinsburg Negro School (1866) and the Loving Charity Lodge Hall (1914).
The all-volunteer WHSC, a group of former Warren UM Church parishioners who bought the property, oversees the site and holds regular fundraisers to help maintain the buildings and keep them from continued deterioration. The buildings are still used for community events and weddings.
Although the newest of the three surviving structures, the Lodge Hall had deteriorated – dilapidated and listed as endangered — until its recent, and still ongoing, restoration. All three buildings will be open For Heritage Days on Saturday, although only the Lodge Hall’s exterior work has been completed. “Visitors will be able go inside [the hall] and get an idea of its size and layout,” Turner said, comparing the layout to an Oddfellows hall.
She noted that the main floor open area was used for the Loving Charity Society’s administration of sick and death benefits otherwise unavailable to free blacks and former slaves; the official meeting space was upstairs. The hall also functioned as a community center where plays, dances and lectures took place. A docent will talk to visitors about how the hall was used.
On view in the church, Turner said, are its original pews as well as a painting, “The Gospel Train,” from the 1930s.
Because of industrialization, the community shrunk in size – people moved away to places like Poolesville and Frederick for jobs – and the church’s once-active congregation merged with a neighboring congregation, Turner noted. But many original-family members still live in the area, including Elsie Thomas, 80, who serves the WHSC board president.
The exhibits that will be returned to the hall when its interior is completed, will be temporarily relocated to the county’s oldest surviving African American schoolhouse, which also has exhibits of the school’s beginnings as the Martinsburg Negro School through its assimilation into the Montgomery County Public Schools system in 1899; it remained in use until 1939. In a living presentation, “The Beginning of Education for Persons of Color” (2 to 3 p.m.), Turner will take on the role of schoolmarm and interact with visitors as her students.
Turner said she enjoys working with Heritage Montgomery’s Executive Director Sarah Rogers “to bring information forward through interactive methods, especially to young people who learn better via hands-on experience in which they can get involved rather than by lecture.” She noted that young people are likely to appreciate getting a “a take-away, a quilt code game they can take home” in conjunction with Dr. Blanche Brownley’s presentation, “Quilt Codes of the Underground Railroad – History or Mystery?” (12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in the church).
On another side of the county, at an entrance to the C&O Canal National Historical Park at Lock 21 (10700 Swains Lock Road) in Potomac, the newly restored circa-1830s Swains Lockhouse will have its grand opening on Saturday afternoon as part of Heritage Days. The Lockhouse will be the seventh lockhouse available for overnight stays – the first since 2011 — through the C&O Canal Trust’s Canal Quarters program (www/CanalQuarters.org), according to Heidi Glatfelter Schlag, the trust’s director of marketing and communications who also serves on Heritage Montgomery’s board.
“Every year, for Heritage Days, we open a different lockhouse,” and each lockhouse interprets a different period of canal history, Schlag noted. Swains represents 1916, the year the National Park Service was formed as well as the time that the C&O Canal was transitioning from a working canal to a recreational space. A few of the other lockhouses offer an 1830s to 1850s, experience, authentically unequipped with electricity and running water.
Funded by public and private sources, the three-year rehabilitation brought the lockhouse’s plumbing and electricity up to current standards. A new roof as well as drywall and flooring were added and an ADA-accessible bathroom and a Murphy bed were installed on the first floor, making Swains the first Canal Quarters lockhouse to be ADA-accessible.
In addition to period antique furnishings, scrapbooks and interactive exhibits that convey circa-1916 life on the canal, photos and stories about the Swains, the family for whom the two-story lockhouse is named, will be on view. In the 19th century, members of the family helped build the canal; they served as lock tenders until 1924, when the canal closed to boat traffic and then operated a concession stand to rent boats and offer tours to visitors. The Swains lived at Lockhouse 21 until 2006, and after years of neglect, the lockhouse has been given opportunity to welcome a new generation of visitors who want to step back in time.
Heritage Days will take place on Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30, from noon to 4 p.m. For more information and a Heritage Days schedule, visit www.HeritageMontgomery.org or call 301-515-0753.