Local History: Backyard Farms

This past spring, as Covid-19 lockdowns began and people worried about the availability of fresh food, victory gardens and backyard chickens became a growing trend. In Cabin John, raised beds and deer-proof fencing became more common. But what many of Cabin John’s backyard farmers may not have known is that their newly cultivated gardens revisited a pastoral community tradition.

Today’s Cabin John was originally parcels of land owned and farmed by a handful of families during the late 1700s and 1800s, with few houses dotting the landscape. In 1870, Joseph and Rosa Bobinger purchased 100 acres west of the Union Arch Bridge, and the legendary Cabin John Bridge Hotel was born. Joseph had worked as a stonemason on the bridge, while Rosa operated a nearby refreshment stand, selling drinks and cakes and later her chicken dinner, which cemented her reputation as an excellent cook. Across from the hotel, where the tennis courts and baseball field are located, were once stables, a smoke house, dairy building, an ice house, a red brick gas house (which still stands today), poultry houses, a large garden, and perhaps most interestingly, one of the largest asparagus beds in the country. 

The hotel was famous for its elaborate and freshly cooked meals, a turn of the 20th century farm to table restaurant. From Maryland fried chicken to a small-mouth bass platter, with the bass split down the middle, golden brown and garnished with tartar sauce and boiled new potatoes, meals were fresh and local. Some of the wine was made from local vineyards on both sides of the Cabin John Branch (though the Bobingers prided themselves on their far more sophisticated European wines). The hotel’s homemade biscuits were famous. Special enclosures were built in the creek, which held bass caught in the river, and many vegetables were grown in the gardens across Conduit Road (MacArthur Blvd).

Rosa Bobinger’s famous chicken dish, advertised as “fried spring chicken, Cabin John style,” made the leap from her small food stand during the construction of the Union Arch Bridge to their grand hotel. And it made an appearance in Edith Armstrong’s 1958 historic novel, Days at Cabin John, a story of family and neighbors in Cabin John during the 1920s. Though the characters are imagined, the book captures the community’s history and anecdotes through Armstrong’s eyes. Strolling by the hotel one afternoon, the narrator decides to knock on the door and is met by Rosa Bobinger’s daughter in law:

“Is it true Maryland fried chicken originated at the hotel?” I asked. “Yes, indeed it is.” She told us how the chicken was served quartered on a platter with curled bacon on top, and around it was brown gravy and golden brown corn fritters.

In 1912 the American Land Company, owned by J.S. Tomlinson, purchased 600 acres for the development of a new community called Cabin John Park, “Farmlets for Pleasure and Profit” near Cabin John Bridge. Thus began Tomlinson’s sales pitch of 100-foot-wide lots, 15,000 to 40,000 square feet in size, and “specially arranged for comfortable homes and suitable places to raise chickens and to grow all kinds of fruit and vegetables for family and market purposes.”

A July 1914 sales ad promoted Cabin John Park’s features: perfect drainage, fertile land, fruit, vegetables, apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, sweet & Irish potatoes, lettuce, kale, cabbage, grapes and melons, all garden crops, and chicken farms. 

A brochure touted “Big Profits in Little Crops” and tells of an old gentleman who “turned special attention to the cultivations of lettuce,” which made him thousands of dollars. The American Land Company also offered a free course through the Home Correspondence School to those who purchased lots to learn the best crops to grow. The area had over 30 species of trees, and a “splendid variety of shrubs, plants, weeds, ferns and all kinds of growth to fascinate a student in botany.”

Armstrong’s novel upholds that selling point: 

We shared much of the bounty of late autumn. We gathered hickory nuts, large and paper shelled, from our yard, enough of them to fill a round reed basket. They would enhance the flavor of cookies, cakes and candy throughout the winter. Persimmons tumbled tender and ripe from a slender tree near the hickory… down by the canal we found walnuts scattered beneath the tree like fallen apples.

Many of the residents’ recollections in Elizabeth Kytle’s 1976 Time Was: A Cabin John Memory Book also described a village of farms and gardens and an astonishing abundance of home grown food. Lena Brown recalled her father’s farm during the years before 1912: a 4 acre parcel that stood where Carver Road now is, filled with “cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, sweet potatoes and corn. There were peppers, watermelons, cantaloupes.” Norman Tuohey recalled how flour from the mill in Seneca traveled along the C&O Canal and was unloaded at Cabin John, where it could be collected by Potomac merchants. Other residents mentioned a “big grove of pawpaw trees right down past Cabin John Creek” and “collecting chestnuts to take home for roasting.”

In the early 1920s, when Mrs. Josephine Havens was a college student, “everybody had vegetable gardens, and you worked in your family’s garden and helped….We had asparagus, we had beautiful tomatoes, gorgeous strawberries—we used to sell those beautiful strawberries around the neighborhood. String beans and corn and everything. Fruit trees too, peaches and apples and cherries…Mother used to can—oh, killed herself canning all summer long.”

By Rachel Donnan

Contributing Writer

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