Uncle Tom's real-life cabin saved from the dentists in $1m deal

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The cabin's oak beams are covered in bark and the cellar floor is made of packed mud. If the small building bristles with history, then little wonder. This was Uncle Tom's Cabin - home to a slave whose autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's still controversial novel.

Having been owned by the same family for decades, the cabin - along with the three-bedroom colonial house to which it is attached - has been sold.

Less than a month after being put on the market for about $1m (£580,000), the cabin and the house are being purchased by Montgomery County.

"We don't want it to turn into a dentist's office," said Peggy Erickson, the executive director of Heritage Montgomery, an agency that promotes historic tourism and which helped raise money to buy the house.

The owners signed a contract with the county in Maryland last week, rejecting rival bids from a group of doctors who wanted to establish a centre to study world health and from a private bidder. The price wasn't released. The sale is expected to be final at the end of January.

Greg Mallet-Prevost's parents had owned the house since the early 1960s, and he put it up for sale after his mother died in September at the age of 100. The Mallet-Prevosts were history buffs and took great care of the cabin, he said.

"The archaeologists come through here and just go nuts," he told The Washington Post. "They see the dirt floor in the cellar and it's like they're ready with their shovels."

Once the anchor of a 3,700-acre (1,480 hectare) farm that sprawled over much of modern-day Rockville, the house was owned by Isaac Riley, who bought Josiah Henson and his mother in the 1790s.

The cabin was the home of Henson - who was born into slavery in 1789 - after he became superintendent of Riley's farm. He and his family eventually escaped to Canada where he wrote his 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, formerly a Slave, which inspired Beecher Stowe. The memoir includes a section relating a journey Henson made to Kentucky, transporting 18 other slaves on behalf of Riley. En route, former slaves encouraged him to join them but he said he felt obliged to carry out his task for his owner.

Henson recalled in his autobiography how his mother pleaded with Riley to purchase both her and her child, and was beaten by Riley as she clutched his legs. "This was one of my earliest observations of men; an experience which has been common to me with thousands of my race, the bitterness of which its frequency cannot diminish to any individual who suffers it," Henson wrote.

He recounted beatings and gruelling work for Riley, but also some pride that Riley eventually appointed him manager of the farm. Henson described his quarters as a "cabin used for a kitchen, with its earth floor, its filth, and its numerous occupants".

Beecher Stowe's novel remains controversial and the phrase "Uncle Tom" has become an insult for African Americans accused of selling out their race or seeking approval of whites.

In 2002, Harry Belafonte, accused Colin Powell, the then secretary of state, of having become a "house slave". "In the days of slavery, there were those slaves who lived on the plantation and were those slaves that lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master," the singer said.