University of Maryland Extension

Garden Gateway Into The Past

Soapwort at the Gates Heritage House
Soapwort at the Gates Heritage House
Image Credit: 
Image courtesy of the Gates Heritage Foundation

CUMBERLAND, Md. -- Throughout 2020, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Sherry Frick worked with the Jane Gates Heritage Foundation to design and build educational gardens for the historic home-turned-museum and community center. During the installation, Frick and Foundation President Sukh Gates, discovered a legacy plant on the property, unlocking clues and opening a gateway into the life of Jane Gates, a previously enslaved woman who bought the Cumberland, Md. property for $1,400 (equivalent to $29,000 today) in 1871.

“Jane was born around 1819, and she signed the deed with an ‘X’ in 1871, so the Gates family has been on Greene Street officially for 150 years,” said Sukh Gates, president of the Gates Heritage House Foundation and wife of the third great-grandson of Jane, John Gates. 

Greene Street in Cumberland is adjacent to its historic district and there is a lot of mystery and speculation surrounding Jane and how she had the means to purchase such a home only five years after the end of the Civil War. “It’s not much, but for her at the time, it was amazing -- from slavery to that -- it was fabulous, it was a mansion,” Gates said.

Although the house has passed through a few hands in the last century, Sukh and John Gates bought the property in 2007 with intentions of converting the house and surrounding property into a museum and community center to celebrate the legacy of African Americans in western Maryland, and Jane Gates’ role as a member of the Cumberland community.

Converting the property included Sukh’s vision for a teaching garden that would provide opportunities for children to learn about growing, harvesting, and preparing their own food, as well as the importance of pollinators. Allegany County Master Gardener Sherry Frick developed a plan for the area to include a butterfly garden, four raised beds for herbs and vegetables, and an in-ground plot for fruits like strawberries. 

“Sherry did the design and laid it all out,” said Gates, “but when I was digging, I messed up the calculations so I didn’t dig where I was supposed to. Had I dug accordingly, I would have dug up the soapwort.”

While Gates’ miscalculations did not affect the implementation of the teaching gardens, it did leave the plant to be found by Frick and Gates. The plant, of the genus Saponaria, and commonly known as soapwort, Frick learned, was used in early laundering processes as a common ingredient in making detergents. The discovery of the soapwort growing amongst the weeds and poison ivy led Frick and Gates to research Victorian era laundering processes and whether Jane would have planted it purposefully.

“The laundering processes we learned about would be what any laundress would do to get material clean; they would boil it outside over a fire in a big kettle,” Frick said. “We found that soapwort could be used in cleaning delicate fabrics like lace and woolens.”

Connected to the discovery of the soapwort, a 2017 archeological dig conducted by Suzanne Trussell of Oxbow Cultural Research and the Allegany County Historical Society, identified the remains of a large fire pit in close proximity to the plot of soapwort. Additionally, distinct vertical post markings in a triangle around the pit indicated the location where a tripod stood over the fire, presumably to hold a large boiling pot, and giving more credence to the idea that the area was Jane’s work space.

The soapwort, still flourishing after 150 years, will remain in the yard, a testament to the legacy of Jane Gates, who after emancipation, was able to earn the money to purchase her own home and became a respected member of the community with lasting roots and successful generations to come. 

“Of course, we can’t know any of this for sure, but that’s not what’s important,” said Frick. “It’s the journey you go through as you put evidence and pieces together to come up with a picture of what life was like for Jane Gates. It helps you connect to her, helps to make her into a real person.”

Although the pandemic has created some obstacles in completing the educational gardens, with the help of family, Frick and Gates were able to tame the weeds, remove the poison ivy, build the raised beds, manage the wildlife, and plant the fruits and vegetables.

“I want to keep it simple. I want to provide a simple learning experience for children,” said Gates. “But the one thing I told Sherry was that I wanted the boxes to outlast me. I want them to be there long after I’m gone so future generations can come and keep learning. I want the foundation to be solid.” 

The materials for the garden were provided through grant funding by the Western Maryland Food Council and the plants were donated by the Allegany County Master Gardeners.

Currently Gates is fundraising for the next phases of her renovation project and to begin offering educational opportunities befitting of the Gates Heritage Foundation mission, “To empower, enrich and enhance the lives of all through faith, education, and history.”

To help support the Gates Heritage Foundation, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/bringing-the-jane-gates-heritage-house-to-life. To learn more about the UME Master Gardeners, go to https://extension.umd.edu/mg.

 
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