Dr. William Palmer married his second wife, Cleorah Duvall, shortly after moving to Woodlawn Manor in Sandy Spring, MD, in the mid-1820s. The marriage came with a dowry gift that would change his plantation’s future: its first slave.
Woodlawn Manor, now a Montgomery County park, would eventually depend on the labor of more than a dozen enslaved people.
The choice to become a slave owner brought personal consequences, too. Palmer was a Quaker, and Quakers were opposed to slavery. Maryland Quakers freed their enslaved workers in 1777, nearly a century before Maryland and, in some cases, gave them land and back wages along with their freedom. Because he accepted slavery, Palmer was “read out” of the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting — which still meets today — much like being excommunicated from Catholicism.
“Dr. Palmer was an interesting guy because he was one of the few that maintained his slaves, to serve the property and his growing family,” said Mark Thorne, program manager at Montgomery County’s Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park, during a walk through the former estate.
Today, the immaculately maintained grounds are still home to the Palmers’ 1809 mansion, which opens for public tours for the first time in the spring. A tiny board-and-batten tenant house and log structure housed the enslaved.
Several outbuildings speak to agricultural operations at the 750-acre plantation during the 1800s. Among them is a distinctive three-story barn that opened last year as a museum to depict the lives of religious slaveholders and the plight of enslaved people considering their prospects as runaways.
Along with a trail system that weaves through the woods, the property tells the story of an era when morality was beginning to look askance at slavery while a growing number of enslaved workers were looking — and running — north for freedom.
By the early 1830s, rumors were spreading about the Underground Railroad, a system of trails and safe harbors that, though treacherous, could lead runaways to freedom in the North.
At Woodlawn Manor, a two-mile Underground Railroad Experience Trail cuts through the woods at the park’s edge to help visitors imagine the experience of people fleeing slavery through Montgomery County. The trail is part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and, though no one can say for certain whether runaway slaves trod through these woods, the pathway’s natural setting and thoughtful prompts provide a backdrop for considering the risks of a desperate route to freedom.
“We often tell people that no slave would have used a trail like this, because too many other people use it,” Thorne said. “If it was a great route for the Underground Railroad, we would never know about it.”
The Underground Railroad’s “conductors,” those who moved fugitives from one “station” to another, used natural landmarks such as distinctive trees and hiding places like the ones along this trail to help thousands of people make their way through the woods, especially when the North Star was not visible.
“Just imagine if you were having to stay in these brambles overnight and hope that nobody would come through here,” Thorne said, as we reached the third marker along the trail’s self-guided tour.
To our right was a thick mass of thorny bushes that would have kept dogs, horses or men scouring the woods for runaways at bay while providing cover for a nap. A guidepost tells hikers that this is “The Brambles,” and a map available at the visitor’s center provides details about what traversing these woods would have been like for freedom seekers in the 1850s.
Guided tours of the trail are also available on Saturdays and the first Sunday of the month from April through mid-November. The $8 ticket for hikers ages 7 and older includes admission to the Woodlawn Museum inside the barn. Thorne suggests starting with a visit to the barn museum to set the scene for an interpretive hike. (Tickets for the museum only are $5 for adults, $4 for children ages 6 and older and free for children ages 5 and younger.)
Thorne likes to use his imagination while walking the trail. A large tree in the shape of the letter Y, for example, strikes him as significant. He asks visitors how they would describe its shape to an illiterate escapee on whom comparison to the letter Y would be lost.
“If I were a slave working in the wheat fields, maybe that’s a pitchfork,” he said.
Though the guidepost suggests the brambles as a good — if uncomfortable — hiding place, Thorne thinks he’d rather scramble into one of the trees’ branches for cover.
“The whole time we are walking along this trail, we are looking down,” he said, noting that a slave hunter concerned about his footing might be, too.
That’s partly because there are tree roots to avoid tripping over on the otherwise easy-to-walk path. Though not ideal for strollers, the trail is relatively flat and connects with several other paths in the Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park. It ends at Meeting House Road, a private road that can be taken to the Sandy Spring Museum or the Sandy Spring Slave Museum, each within three miles of Woodlawn Manor. (Visitors should stay on the road to respect the privacy of area residents.)
Hiker Judith Michalski said she learned about the trail from a library book before driving up to experience it with her three dogs on the first day of September.
“You feel like you’re in the countryside,” Michalski said as she walked the trail, using the Underground Railroad prompts as a guide. “I was trying to picture the slave experience. It’s really moving.”
We met Michalski at a fork in the trail, which, along with the stream crossings, would have been a dangerous point for undercover travelers. A runaway would have to look for signs, such as a broken limb or pile of stones, to decide which branch of a trail to follow to safety. And slave catchers often would be waiting at the end of bridges, knowing that fugitives would have to cross bodies of water along the way.
But traveling through the Sandy Spring Creek corridor, a tributary to the Anacostia River for which the town was named, would also have its advantages.
In the mid-1800s, Washington, DC, had the largest slave market in the country. Those who escaped could have followed a waterway northward from the city in lieu of the North Star. And those who were trying to escape the slaveholding enclave of Virginia would see Montgomery County as the most direct route to Pennsylvania.
“That would have been the ‘promised land’ at the time,” Thorne said, until 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act required runaways to make it to Canada to be declared free.
Escaped slaves who reached this Montgomery County community had reason to breathe a small sigh of relief, though. Walking through the woods in a Quaker community didn’t necessarily ensure safety, but it did mean that they were more likely to meet sympathizers and could blend in among a small population of formerly enslaved people who had been freed by the Quakers.
Thorne said many Quakers did not believe in breaking the law of the land, which still required them to report runaway slaves, but they would take passive actions to help fugitives.
If he were a Quaker, Thorne said, “I might leave some food out every Thursday. I don’t know who takes it, so I’m not actively engaging in helping those people escape.”
A hollowed-out tree along the trail is an example of a place where a satchel of food could have been hidden for those in need. Next to the tree is a boundary stone of the Palmer property.
Many visitors are drawn to Woodlawn Manor park by either the trail or the historic home and then discover that the site has more to explore. With the addition of the new museum and the start of manor tours in 2018, the park’s organizers hope more people will take in the whole experience.
“We are now seeing the property more as a park with several things to see and do,” said Jennifer Legates, facilities manager for the Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park and the Woodlawn Museum inside the barn.
Sitting at the crest of a small hill, the bank barn — built into the hillside so that the slope provided access at three different levels — is not to be missed. After moving to the property from Pennsylvania in 1822, Palmer built the barn in 1832 as a way “to project that he was going to be successful as a farmer,” Thorne said.
The country physician spared no expense on the barn, constructed from stone with lightning rods on the roof because, as one of the founding directors of the Montgomery Mutual Fire Insurance Co., Palmer knew all too well the risk of losing the structure to fire.
But there is plenty of wood throughout the interior of the light-filled barn, and it, too, is a subject of marvel.
“When I stand here by myself, I think, ‘How did these guys do this without power tools?’” Thorne wondered aloud, pointing out one of the hand-hewn joints near the foundation.
The barn is as functional as it is beautiful, with each of its three levels serving a different purpose. Wagons would have wheeled up the sloped (now paved) path to the top floor of the barn, where workers could pitchfork hay into storage silos on the sides or into a tunnel leading down to the animal stables on the bottom floor.
After thrashing wheat on the top floor during the harvest, the grain was funneled through metal holes to a second floor. There, laborers would catch it in sacks and pile the food behind tin-lined partitions for storage.
While still demonstrating their original function, each of the barn’s floors have become the backdrop for museum exhibits that tell the story of the landowners and the enslaved people who spent much of their time laboring within the barn’s walls.
A projector on the barn’s second floor plays short vignettes on whitewashed walls of conversations that might have taken place in this barn nearly two centuries ago. As visitors walk through the barn, they hear Quakers discussing whether or not their religion instructs them to free slaves. They also eavesdrop on enslaved people talking about the drudgery of their work — and considering an escape to freedom.