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Nacoochee cabin restoration unites descendants of slaves and owners

Discovery fills gap in overlooked history at museum

POSTED: February 12, 2012 12:30 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Andy Allen, left, and Caroline Crittenden have been working together for years to restore the Nacoochee slave cabin, which is located on the campus of the Sautee-Nacoochee Community Association.

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With its weathered wood and cobblestone chimney, the small building sitting back from the road has all of the trappings of your average rustic cabin.

Bystanders who are unaware of its past disregard it as a typical find in the Northeast Georgia mountains. Those who know better value it as a rare, historical gem: A slave cabin from the 19th century.

"This cabin is from 1850," said Caroline Crittenden, project coordinator of the African American Heritage Site in Sautee Nacoochee, of which the cabin is the focal point.

"It was one of three slave cabins that was owned by E.P. Williams.

"After Emancipation, a descendant of the white family lived in it for a while and made it into a cottage. That's probably the only reason why it was preserved."

The cabin sits on the 8-acre campus of the Sautee Nacoochee Center on Ga. Highway 255. It's within hollering distance of the History Museum - the former Nacoochee School - which inadvertently became the catalyst behind the cabin's restoration.

"I was standing in the doorway waiting to buy a book and a young girl (Sierra Nicole Nicely) walked in and looked at everything and read everything," Crittenden recalls.

"Since the docents were busy with other people, she walked over to me and said, ‘There's nothing here that tells the story of my people.' I said, ‘You're right. What would you like to see?'

"She said, ‘I want to know the history of slavery and the contributions of black people to this community and Northeast Georgia.'"

That chance encounter had a domino effect.

"She was totally right. There wasn't a single thing in the museum that told the history of slavery in this area," Crittenden said.

"All of this was made possible by cheap labor and the labor of slaves. They cleared the land, they mined the gold, they ran the mills and there was nothing to represent them."

In working to help Nicely gather information for a school project, which lead her to the History Museum in the first place, Crittenden began meeting many of the families in Bean Creek - the center of the black community in Sautee.

"I just started hanging out and listening. I'd been working with (Nicely) for a while and we were coming across these amazing

pictures," Crittenden said.

"They really told the history of a snapshot in time.

"We decided to do an exhibit on Bean Creek. The faces, families and friends."

Around that time, Crittenden received a call from her husband's cousin, Jim Johnston, about a dilapidated cabin on his property.

"It was this, only it was in terrible shape," Crittenden said referring to the slave cabin on the heritage site.

"He didn't know what to do with it. He talked about pushing it down a hill, but I don't think he could've done it because he loves history too much.

"I was able to convince him to donate it to the Sautee Nacoochee Association and I've spent the last 10 years restoring it and trying to preserve the history."

While volunteers like stone mason David Vandiver and craftsman Barry Stiles went to work restoring the cabin, Crittenden and others got to work researching the history of slavery in Sautee to help turn the building into an interpretive museum.

One of the photographed faces that she stumbled upon was that of Mary Ann Jarrett, who turned out to be the great-grandmother of Andy Allen, a Bean Creek resident whom Crittenden had worked with in the past on other community projects.

Although years of working together helped to forge a bond of friendship between the women, that picture strengthened their connection.

"(Jarrett) was owned by the Williams family. (Johnston), who donated the cabin, and my husband are Williams descendents," Crittenden said.

"She and I had worked together all these years to preserve this history, but we didn't realize how it affected our families."

Allen, who says slavery wasn't a topic of discussion when she was growing up, was just as surprised by the revelation.

"(Crittenden) did all the digging. When she told me that, I said ‘You've got to be kidding me,'" Allen recalls.

"That made everything more personal."

Although the restoration project was completed in October and the cabin is now open for tours, Crittenden says the work isn't done. There is still much left to do to fill the voids of the History Museum.

"It's complicated," Crittenden says about why there's no mention of slavery in the museum.

"One part of it is that the museum was established in part by descendants of the wealthy, white property owners, so they want to tell their story.

"Another part is there's a reluctance to talk about slavery or Jim Crow. It's probably even more complicated than that.

"The irony is that the descendants of the families - the slaves and the slave owners - are a part of the same community and have been for generations."

Ironic or no, complicated or straight-forward, Allen wants the story of slavery in Sautee Nacoochee to be told. The cabin is a step in the right direction, she says.

"I said when I'm gone, maybe the cabin will still be here and the history will still be here," Allen said.

"For me it's personal, but it's history. A dying history."



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