Local History: Cabin John’s First Historian, Edith Martin Armstrong

A young woman in a striped coat gazes out from the photo, a plumed hat perched on her head. In other snapshots, she sits grinning from a canoe with paddle in hand, smiles with her two boys along the banks of the river and poses in her garden. These black and white images perfectly capture Edith Martin Armstrong, affectionately known as “Bin,” an early pioneer of Cabin John. Bin was a loving mother and wife, a keen canoeist, an avid gardener, a dedicated volunteer, and a creative seamstress. And, she was Cabin John’s first historian. 

In 1947, Armstrong wrote the well-researched and very thorough “A Brief History of Cabin John Park.” She also penned a folksy tale of life along the C&O Canal called Days at Cabin John. Though the characters are fictional, the stories of the neighborhood are steeped in truth. 

Edith Martin was born in Nashville, Tennessee on April 9, 1892 and was the oldest of four children. In 1906, Edith’s mother passed away when she was just 14, and the family relocated to Washington, DC for her father’s government job. Edith’s education was effectively ended, as she was tasked with raising her three younger siblings. Fast forward several years, and Edith’s brother Lex, who worked for the Navy Department, invited his co-worker Walter Armstrong to the Washington Canoe Club. Edith tagged along, and she and Walter met at the club and married soon after. They had two sons, Richard and David.

With fond memories of childhood trolley trips out to Cabin John, Edith soon convinced Walter that it was an ideal place to raise their young boys. In 1919, Cabin John was quite rural with a small population of several hundred people. It lacked many amenities, including electricity and plumbing, and had just one small shop.

But for Edith it was magical: “The creek was like a chapel walled in by blackhaw and roofed by sycamores leaning from the banks. In its quietness, I had a feeling of spiritual uplift. The murmuring of the water changed to soft organ-like tones and a wood thrush lifted his song like chanting from a choir loft,” she wrote in her novel.

Edith and Walter bought a tenant house on Riverside Avenue, about a mile from the Union Arch Bridge and trolley at Glen Echo. Their yard held a “cluster of three dogwoods coming into bloom and a redbud spread shade for the porch. Oaks, a sycamore, a persimmon, a hickory, and a huge locust scenting the air left an opening for a lawn. “Wild flowers went on through the tumbling fence to the wood across the lane.” Though in need of work, her son Richard remembered the home sat about 100 yards back from the C&O Canal on two lots and boasted chickens, large gardens, “apple trees, grapes and strawberries…The entire area provided more than one childhood adventure to tell.”

The young couple threw themselves into their new home and community. They worked not only on renovating and expanding their house but bringing improvements to Cabin John. Edith’s husband Walter was one of the “Four Horsemen,” a group of civic-minded residents who led the Cabin John Citizens Association and used their political connections to petition for a new school. The Glen Echo-Cabin John School (now the Clara Barton Center) was built in 1928 thanks in part to their efforts.

Edith helped form the Homemaker’s Club and Lay Health Club. She was involved with the Hermon Presbyterian Church and was a member of the Social Welfare League. As a volunteer for the American Red Cross, she received recognition for 10,000 hours of service. 

It seems it was the verdant abundance of Cabin John that really took hold of Edith. She created a rainwater-fed pond in her yard and loved walking along the canal and tending to her garden. Her love of wildflowers, nature, and gardening shines through nearly every page of her book Days at Cabin John. Published in 1958, in some ways it feels like a meditation on nature along the Potomac River interspersed with local anecdotes. Her descriptions of flowers, trees, and wildlife fill nearly every page.

The novel tells the story of a young mother called Binny Laceson, who moves with her family to a small tenant house in Cabin John. Though the characters are fictional, they tell the true stories of real life “old timers” who lived along the C&O Canal during the 1920s. 

Written in “authentic Maryland backland dialect,” the reader gets a sense of the rustic kind of people who lived in Cabin John during that time. 

“Dog my cats, I ‘most forgot what I come for. I’m glad I ‘membered, ‘cause there wouldn’t be no peace at our house with John Hebbs a-goin’ on ‘bout his wants always bein’ forgot,” exclaimed Binny’s neighbor, Mrs. Hebbs, whose gossip drives the narrative. In another passage, she explains why she doesn’t want to boat the canal: “My worry over younguns a-drownin’ was the main reason…I’ve saw ‘em more’n once a-danglin’ by a rope over the side of a boat and a-squealin’ like a pig, but you had to tie little uns if you wanted ‘em to grow up.”

The history of Cabin John is woven throughout the chapters—from the legend of John of the Cabin and buried treasure to the lock tenders and the arrival of electricity—as are stories from Bin’s own life, including a visit to the Cabin John Hotel where she was gifted several pieces of the hotel’s china. (Edith was in fact gifted a teapot, pitcher, and saucer by Mary Bobinger, the daughter-in-law of founders Joseph and Rosa Bobinger. In 1973, Bin donated her hotel china to the Clara Barton House, believing Clara herself must have been a hotel patron during its heyday).  

Before her book, Edith wrote “A Brief History of Cabin John Park,” a 12-page typed pamphlet that was sold to benefit the Brookmont Garden Club. According to Edith’s grandson, Rick Armstrong, Walter was a stickler for facts and advised Bin to be sure to get authoritative sources. Her history remains one of our community’s primary sources of historical information. 

Bin’s fascination with local history was far reaching. She provided material to the National Park Service and gave lectures on the canal for various clubs. She was elected vice president of the Montgomery County Historical Society.

The Armstrongs moved to the Wood Acres neighborhood in the early 1940s, in part due to gas rationing according to Rick. After Walter retired, they moved to the Chesapeake Bay. When Walter passed away, Bin was motivated to write her book about their “country mice” days in Cabin John and a disappearing way of life.

By all accounts, Edith was very energetic and “busy all the time. When she did sit down, her hands continued to be busy sewing, repairing clothes, crocheting, or doing some other necessary work,” her son Richard remembered.

Bin settled in Naples, Florida and continued volunteering, traveling, painting, and sewing. At age 80, she made hundreds of Christmas socks, pillows, and stuffed animals to donate. “My husband always complained he got tired just watching me,” she recalled in a local newspaper story at that time.

Edith’s granddaughter Jill Armstrong Shultz warmly remembers a “short, wrinkled and energetic” Bin visiting them in Potomac when she took trips overseas. “40 countries and 17 of the islands!” she’d laugh. Jill recalls Bin telling stories of Cabin John and some of the families, especially during the Depression when she and Walter supported some of them, including a neighbor who would “come and do the dishes after dinner” so that Bin could offer her money in a more dignified way. “I made too much food tonight, would you be able to take some home with you?” was a common refrain.  

Jill believes “that my father and mother’s deep appreciation of community, and how to nourish it, was one of their greatest gifts to us.” Clearly, this was something Jill’s father, Richard, got from his own mother Bin. Edith Martin Armstrong passed away on February 5, 1983.  The dedication of Days at Cabin John reads “To my grandchildren: may they enjoy the memories I cherish.” How fortunate we are to have a record of her memories that paint a glimpse of those earliest days at Cabin John.

By Rachel Donnan

Contributing Writer

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