“A Good Place To Either Get Blessed or Cussed”
In February, 140 residents came together for Cabin John’s Inaugural Trivia Night in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Cabin John Citizens Association. One hundred years ago, the entire population of Cabin John was not much larger than the number of residents that filled the Clara Barton Community Center a few weeks ago.
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson was president. The U.S. Congress passed the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoon first appeared in a newspaper (it would later lampoon the Cabin John Fire Department in 1938). The Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. A loaf of bread cost around 8 cents, as did a gallon of gas. One could buy a Palmers soft drink, bottled right on Wisconsin Avenue, for around 5 cents at Tuohey’s store on Conduit Rd. (now MacArthur Blvd.). A blacksmith’s shop stood on the corner of Seven Locks Rd. and Conduit Rd., Cabin John’s busiest thoroughfare dotted with horses, carriages and wagons.
In 1919, Cabin John’s 1.3 square miles boasted only a handful of houses and summer shacks, with bucolic views of nothing more than ‘fields of corn stubble’ and trees. Day trippers hopped off the trolley on the opposite side of the Union Arch Bridge and wandered across to the Cabin John Bridge Hotel. Though long past its heyday, the hotel’s landscaped gardens offered a wonderful country escape from D.C. Visitors and ramblers could hike around Cabin John, gather chestnuts and persimmons, lay out a picnic and then head down to the river in hopes of catching a canal boat on the C&O Canal back to Georgetown.
Mrs Josephine Havens, a long-ago resident who started coming to Cabin John in 1912 as a child, recalled in Time Was, A Cabin John Memory Book (1976) seeing President Wilson drive along Conduit Rd. to Great Falls in what she thought was a Pierce Arrow: “I gathered it must have one of his favorite drives…You didn’t see too many people going by in cars, so when I’d see him I’d always wave.”
J.S. Tomlinson’s American Land Company began selling lots in Cabin John in 1912 when the area was home to only a handful of families; by 1920 around 100 lots were sold. The cost of a half acre lot was about $200. The lanes off of Conduit Rd. remained unpaved, there was no electricity, the post was untimely, and the elementary school was across the bridge on Wilson Lane. As more people discovered this rural enclave, demands for community improvements and services grew. A small group of interested residents spearheaded by four local gentlemen founded the Cabin John Park Citizens Association in 1919. Andrew C. Wilkins, Charles H. Godbold, Walter B. Armstrong and Ellis R. King were known as the Four Horsemen of Cabin John for their efforts to forge ahead—perhaps also in a nod to the best selling novel of that year, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.
Meetings were held at Junior Hall (a large building at corner of 79th Street and MacArthur). Mrs. Havens, whose father was Charles Godbold, recollected that “the Citizens Association was really responsible for getting the roads and everything else going. In the twenties it was a very active group. When they started getting these houses built, they had to have electricity and other utilities. Our roads were all dirt at one time. It was just a gradual process of them all working together, fighting for it, and getting it done.”
Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Smith bought a lot at Tomlinson’s auction and built their house in 1914, as well as several other houses in the neighborhood. Mr. Smith was a charter member of the Citizens Association, and though he was often too busy to attend meetings, he recalled the “First time I did go, I said ‘This is a good place to either get blessed or cussed.’ But it started right off with a bang.”
And what a bang indeed. The Cabin John Citizens Association has continued to advocate for the community through its decades of perseverance, civic engagement and tenacity. As Cabin John grew, the Citizens Association was as a charter member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation in 1925. Three years later, it helped establish the Glen Echo-Cabin John School, which became the Clara Barton School in 1944. During the 1920s, the Citizens Association organized a trash collection service, a July 4th fireworks display, sponsored Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, improved telephone lines and the postal service, and brought electricity to Cabin John.
Perhaps one of the more significant actions of the CJCA was the drafting of a community plan in the early 1970s, following a contentious and unsuccessful proposal by the Bogley Company to develop a high rise shopping plaza in Cabin John. The Citizens Association surveyed residents which resulted in the Cabin John Community Plan that “contains our goals, objectives, and proposals for the future of the area in which we live—and the assertion that we, the citizens, have both the right and the duty to direct the lifestyle we choose to follow, rather than have it done for us.”
Ongoing activities of the CJCA include the Chicken and Crab Feast, a Potomac River canoe excursion, a Cabin John Creek clean up, the July 4th parade, neighborhood blood drives, the Turkey Trot and New Neighbors Potluck. The CJCA publishes The Village News, which has been the community’s newsletter since 1965. Cabin John continues to face urgent issues, from airplane noise and pollution to the proposed beltway expansion. While fostering a unique sense of community, the Cabin John Citizens Association is more relevant than ever in representing our collective voice to maintain this mellow, eclectic community.
By Rachel Donnan