Woodworker helps save part of Edisto's last slave cabin
EDISTO ISLAND - The two deteriorating slave cabins on Point of Pines plantation have vexed members of the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society for years.
The society, which runs this island's small museum, had tried to move both cabins to its property at S.C. Highway 174 and Chisolm Plantation Road, but the cabins' weak condition, county code issues and the museum's modest budget kept that dream from coming true.
For a while, it seemed like both would be lost.
But last May, the Smithsonian saved one by dismantling it and moving the pieces north. It ultimately will be reconstructed inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture being built on the Washington Mall.
This month, the Edisto Island Museum saved what was left of the other.
It's not a full reconstruction: The original 15-by-20-foot cabin had suffered from extensive termite and powderpost beetles and years of neglect.
Tommy Boozer, a decoy maker who has done construction his whole life, dismantled the cabin last November, then surveyed the pieces and determined which pieces could be reassembled inside the small museum.
His first challenge was simply securing the cabin enough to take it down.
"It was just rocking back and forth," he says. "The next big challenge was getting enough pieces just to do the 8-foot by 8-foot (reconstructed section). This was really all I was able to salvage because of the rot and decay."
But he has found enough pieces of siding, floorboards, ceiling boards and post and beams to rebuild a small section, complete with a door and a window.
Before installing them, Boozer spread the salvaged wooden pieces over his property and treated them three times with an insecticide and fungicide.
The Smithsonian's cabin was built around 1842, and the museum's slave cabin is believed to have been built a few years after that, judging by its construction, he says. The latter was not placed on the National Register of Historic Places, possibly because it had been moved from its original site to a spot next to a nearby creek.
Society director Gretchen Smith, who has grappled with the cabins' fate for several years, says Boozer's attention to detail has exceeded the museum's expectations at every turn.
And the rough details on the reconstructed cabin are evocative: from the strap hinges on the door to the weathered white, pink and blue paint to the post-and-beam construction to the many bent nails on either side of the cabin's door.
"You've heard the expression 'dead as a door nail'?" Boozer asks, noting that technique, nailing planks to a few horizontal pieces of wood, then bending the sharp end of the nail into the wood, was a common way of constructing doors.
The museum is closed this month as the cabin is being installed, and that work also prompted the first major rethinking of the 28-year-old museum's format. Smith says the cabin will occupy a space near a re-created plantation parlor and a furnished bedroom.
"You see the two types of lives side by side: The placement of it is just, 'Whoa,' " she says. "But both are parts of our history."
Carroll Belser, chair of the museum, says the museum was lucky to find Boozer, who first constructed a diorama featuring the two cabins and reflecting life on a Sea Island cotton plantation.
That job was done in late 2012, when the museum figured both cabins might be lost and wanted to have at least some sort of exhibit acknowledging them.
While he was paid for the diorama, Boozer volunteered his time to dismantle and rebuild the cabin.
"He's our hero," Smith says.
Boozer also built a small model of it, from salvaged wood, to give visitors a sense of its original shape and details.
And while preservationists will tell you that always preferable to save a building in situ, on its original site, Smith takes comfort in knowing that at least the island's last two surviving slave cabins will continue to survive in some way.
"We're thrilled that there's one in Washington and one here," she says. "We think it's the best possible outcome."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.