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The Gilmore Cabin and Farm, the home of freedman George Gilmore and his wife, Polly, will open to the public on Saturday at James Madison's Montpelier

April 14, 2005 1:10 am



In 1880, 15 years after the Civil War ended, freedman and farmer George Gilmore's personal property included one horse, two cows, four swine and various poultry. All together, his assets were worth $26.

Gilmore, a former slave at President James Madison's estate of Montpelier in Orange County, lived with his family in a 1-story cabin on land he leased from Dr. James Madison, a great-nephew of the president.

"They were pretty representative of what an African-American household looked like at the time," said Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at Montpelier.

The Gilmores' cabin fell into disrepair after the last members of the family quitted the dwelling in the 1930s, but Montpelier officials have spent the last four years researching, stabilizing and restoring the structure to tell the story of the Gilmore family.

"The driving motivation was that we wanted to be able to tell the story of the African-American experience here at Montpelier, as well as that of the Madisons," said Jon Bowen, Montpelier's director of communications.

The Gilmore Cabin and Farm will be open to the public for the first time on Saturday, and it will remain open on Saturdays and Sundays through October.

John Charles Thomas, the first black justice on the Supreme Court of Virginia, will speak at the opening, and 14 State Supreme Court justices from around the country will attend.

The Gilmore Cabin is believed to be the first restored freedman's home in the United States, "based on our discussions with peer sites around the country," Bowen said.

Stabilizing the home, which was built in 1873, was the first priority, he said. Then, restoration crews repaired exterior walls, installed wooden shingles, built doors, replaced flooring and an interior ladder to the second floor, built window boxes and re-trimmed windows and doors.

Finally, the 16-by-30 cabin was lime-washed inside and out, and furnished with period objects.

Descendants of the Gilmores worked with Montpelier to research the cabin, and other information came from census records and an oral history project undertaken by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Reeves said.

Census records show that George Gilmore was born around 1810, and his wife, Polly, was born about 15 years later. The couple married in 1850.

Archaeologists discovered evidence of Confederate huts in the yard of the Gilmore Cabin, so it's possible the family lived there before the cabin was built, Reeves said.

According to the 1880 census, George and Polly Gilmore, lived in the cabin with five children: Phillip, 19; Jerry, 17; William, 14; Mildred, 12; and Ida, 9.

With one common room downstairs and two rooms in the loft upstairs, the home would be a tight fit by today's standards, but "in terms of space, it was very typical of white and black families of the time period," Reeves said.

Archaeologists also uncovered numerous sewing implements and hundreds of tiny glass beads that probably fell through the floorboards of the house. These artifacts indicate that Polly Gilmore or the Gilmores' two daughters may have been seamstresses.

It was fairly common for freed slaves to take up residence so near the former owners' homes, Reeves said.

"This is where their social or economic contacts were," he said. "They knew folks that could provide them with labor, or access to land in the case of the Gilmores."

More research needs to be done on this family and others in Orange County at the time, Reeves said, in order to accurately compare the Gilmores' experiences with those of other freedmen.

The Gilmore Cabin and Farm is of great value in this regard, Bowen said.

"We'll be able to open it to the public and explain to people the historic transition from slavery to freedom for African-Americans in the South following the Civil War."

To reach EMILY GILMORE: 540/374-5426

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