By Heather Gilreath

June 13th, 2023

From 2019-2020, historic contractor Mike Faust and volunteer Heather Gilreath conducted a major restoration of the Exchange Place Cook’s Cabin, a reconstruction of the log cabin that housed the enslaved cook in the antebellum era.  The project included replacing termite and weather-damaged logs, installing new windows and doors, whitewashing the interior, and laying a floor of packed cob (clay, sand, lime, and straw)—the latter with help from the Exchange Place Junior Apprentices.  Wooden pegs were inserted in the logs for shelf support and general purpose hooks.  Holes from such pegs were documented in the original structure and were commonly used in log dwellings.  Window sizes were reduced to more closely match the size of the sole window in the original building—about 2-ft square.

The Original Cook’s Cabin

When the Preston family donated the Exchange Place property to the Netherland Inn Association in 1970, the Cook’s Cabin was the only slave or tenant dwelling still standing on the property, though it was in such poor shape that it could not be restored. The structure was cleared away, and a similarly-sized cabin from Newmansville, TN (Greene County) was acquired, moved, and reassembled on the original site, mostly by volunteer labor. A professional mason recreated the unique massive chimney with the double fireplaces (one interior and one exterior). 

The Enslaved Cook

The restoration created an opportunity to more accurately interpret the lives of the enslaved people who labored on the farm before the Civil War, namely the cook. Little is known about the woman/women who prepared meals for the Gaines and Preston in that time, though Preston family memoirs and interviews suggest that there were two women—Aunt Easter and Aunt Susan—who performed that role, perhaps sharing responsibilities.  The 1850 and 1860 slave schedules also confirm that James Preston owned two women during that time.

The new furnishings in the Cook’s Cabin illuminate the cook’s role in the household as well as her African ancestry.  Gourd utensils and vessels hang on the walls; medicinal herbs hang from the ceiling; and protective charms commonly used by enslaved Africans (such as bones, coins, and buttons) are tucked in various places.  Cumbersome wooden wash tubs, a wash board, and sewing notions suggest that the cook likely served as a laundress and seamstress for the family as well. While mostly primitive, the furnishings no less reflect the status of the cook as an important member of the household.  She has a rope bed rather than a pallet on the floor and a few pieces of “fancy” chinaware.  Archeological digs conducted on the site in the 1970s as well as items found during the recent restoration included many sherds of such tableware, which were likely cast offs from the main family’s dinner service. 

Visitors to the Cook’s Cabin can now see demonstrations celebrating African-American heritage, such as the cooking of hoecakes on the hearth and gourd crafting, performed by the Eden’s Ridge Hearth Cookery Society and the Exchange Place Junior Apprentices.

Silhouette renderings by artist Lauren Muney of what Susan and Easter might have looked like