Local History: An Adventurous Woman “Living High”…in Cabin John?

I recently came across a Village News article from twenty-plus years ago about a book called Living High by June Burn, first published in 1941. An old friend from Washington State sent this autobiography to a long ago local resident, certain that June Burn’s adventurous and unconventional life started right here in Cabin John. 

June’s book begins in 1919:

“Up the Potomac River in Maryland, not far north of the district line, there used to be a little log cabin on a knoll in the heart of a hundred acre place. It had woods all about and clear cool brooks winding by on three sides. Down the trail from the house was a large tulip poplar tree that spread its huge limbs over a stone walled spring.

In a Washington newspaper I had placed an advertisement: “WANTED, a cabin mate. Every country inconvenience. Mile walk from Cabin John trolley, through a pine cathedral. Brooks, spring, woods, wild strawberries soon. No bath, no telephone, no neighbors in sight.”

Thirty women responded to June’s ad. Unable to choose one of them, she invited all thirty to the cabin to draw straws. She also invited Ensign Farrar Burn, a weekend rambler who was detailed to Washington during the war. He’d come across her cabin one Sunday while she was out, and left a note pinned to the door asking if he could send her some photos he’d taken of her rustic home. 

When June was offered a job she’d applied for with the Red Cross in St. Louis, Farrar proposed marriage and staying put in the simple cabin in the woods that they both loved. Within a month, June and Farrar married and “the Glen Echo postmistress said, ‘Well, you got your cabin mate, didn’t you?’”

June wrote of spring rains filling the brooks, about “rooster violets [that] came out along the trail to the car line” and bluets “like a dream low over the meadows.” She described the dogwood trees and mountain laurel, and how the brook “crossed the trail seven times on the way to the post office, every crossing different. Here it would be shallow, the sweet singing water honey-colored over the fallen autumn leaves…. At another crossing, the brook narrowed and was deep and still. I had to jump it here. At another, it winkled happily over flat steppingstones.”

After Farrar was discharged from the Navy several months later, they visited a library. Finding an atlas, they scoured the maps in search of a place to make their permanent home. Enthralled by the idea of living on an island, they chose Washington and started planning their journey to their next home, on an island in Puget Sound. 

Inez “June” Chandler Harris was an adventurous and independent spirit who was born in 1893 in Alabama. As a young woman, she worked as a writer for McCall’s magazine. Together with a friend, they hatched a plan to take turns working, so they could each spend a few months to explore what they wanted to pursue in life. June rented that small cabin in the woods as a place to write when it was her turn.

Farrar Burn was born in 1888 in Arkansas. After he and June married, they slowly made their way across the US towards Seattle and their island. They had two sons. They even returned to the cabin in the woods for a brief time when the boys were infants. They spent time in the Arctic Circle working with indigenous communities. Farrar, a musician who “sings and sells his own songs,” and June toured the country with their children in the Burn Ballad Bungalow, a car remodeled into a 1920s version of a camper van.

In her fifties, June studied soil and its impact on health. She did a one year internship in England on an organic farm. Back in the US, the couple continued writing, making music and cobbling together a fulfilling and fascinating life. June died in 1969 and Farrar in 1974.

Living High is the story of June and Farrar’s adventures after their meet-cute in the Washington, DC area. But it’s her opening pages that ring familiar. The reader gets a sense of place that sounds remarkably like the Cabin John Creek or somewhere just beyond Cabin John’s borders, perhaps nearby over the bridge. Wherever June’s rustic cabin stood, her writing paints a picture of the natural beauty of Cabin John and the surrounding area before development touched much of the landscape. 

By Rachel Donnan, CJ Historian

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