Travel: Button Farm Living History Center

Button Farm’s brochure

On a recent Heritage Montgomery weekend highlighting and celebrating history in Montgomery County, my family and I visited a local site that not only honors  African-American history but keeps it alive.

Our stop was Button Farm Living History Center, on 40 acres in Germantown’s Seneca Creek State Park. Button Farm is the only living history center in Maryland that explores slave plantation life in the 19th century. Come to the farm to learn more about the Underground Railroad, heritage crops and livestock, and 19th century trades and skills.

The farm lane

Button Farm is the main project of the Menare Foundation, dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Underground Railroad. Menare was founded by Anthony Cohen, a local historian who wanted to preserve this too often neglected yet critical piece of American history. In fact, he undertook two and three month journeys to retrace what it would have been like to escape north through the Underground Railroad, not only walking but also using boats, rail, and even being mailed through the post in a crate. Click here to view a video of Anthony Cohen speaking about his experience: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=yXjaFF1OImk

Anthony Cohen, photo credit Menare Foundation website

On this weekend, Button Farm was offering cooking demonstrations from the brand new Montgomery County African American Heritage Cookbook by a Culinary Institute of America graduate and Michelin-starred chef, Larkin Rogers. Profits from cookbook purchases are earmarked for supporting African American heritage preservation efforts in the County. The cookbook collects historic recipes from the 1700-1800’s as well as recipes from Montgomery County churches.

Heritage Montgomery’s new cookbook

Chef Rogers helped to test and edit recipes for the cookbook and served tastings of several recipes with a smile. Every dish was flavorful and fresh. Honestly, it was hard not to be tacky and go back for seconds.

Michelin-starred chef Larkin Rogers

Garlic scape pesto was served with fingerling potatoes from the farm; gumbo made with guinea fowl, a heritage poultry breed, and thyme from the farm; and a peanut stew with a melange of spices were on offer. While serving samples and prepping more ingredients, Chef Larkin cheerfully fielded questions from visitors. Later that evening she would be cooking for a Plough to Plate social on the farm; we couldn’t attend but happily more will be held in the future.

Strolling around the farm, you can learn more about what it was like to live in Maryland as a free or an enslaved person during the 19th century. The farm also offers a variety of experiences for groups. In fact, the Underground Railroad Immersion Experience was part of the preparation that Oprah Winfrey undertook before filming the movie Beloved.

Button Farm map

In keeping with the food focus of this visit, we took a closer look at some of the heirloom varieties of vegetables in the farm garden and heritage breeds of livestock. When many of us think of endangered species, we tend to think of wild animals and exotic plants but livestock and crops can be endangered also. These plants and animals are an important part of American history and should be preserved.

Cotton Patch geese numbers have dwindled since cotton farmers moved to using herbicides
Guinea hogs were brought from Africa aboard slave ships and now are classified as a critically endangered livestock breed

Button Farm’s kitchen garden grows heirloom varieties of crops that would have been familiar to people living in the 19th century. As someone who enjoys hot peppers, of particular interest to me was a variety of hot pepper known as Baltimore Fish. According to the farm’s explanatory sign, this pepper was a favorite among African Americans in the Chesapeake Bay area. Looking at the pepper plants, visions of making a Baltimore Fish hot sauce danced in my head. I think I need some seeds for next year’s garden.

Raised beds grow a range of crops from the 19th century

It was a beautiful day to learn more about local history in a way that was engaging and immersive. I’m grateful for the hard work of professionals and volunteers who keep it from obscurity. Visit Button Farm’s website to find out more about their mission, visitor times, and more: http://buttonfarm.org/ Find out more about Heritage Montgomery’s work at: http://www.heritagemontgomery.org/

Do you enjoy learning about local history? Where is your favorite site to visit?


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