Tidewater Review - February 2011

 

Irregularities in Abundance
by
Anne Stinson

 

Irregularities In Abundance: An Anecdotal History of Trappe District in Talbot Co., MD, edited with commentary by Jim Dawson. Published by the Talbot Free Library Foundation – The Albaugh Fund – Easton, Maryland.
Everything you ever wanted to know about Trappe – and a whole raft of things you didn’t know you wanted to know about Trappe – are revealed in Jim Dawson’s fat, fact-filled book about the town, starting with its earliest colonial times up to the present.
What makes this history different from the conventional form is Dawson’s meandering through all the published references about life diaries, newspapers and events in the town and its rural neighbors. He also stirs in oral histories, careers of doctors and preachers, crimes and revelries, prosperity and hard times, capers and calamities. All in all, his record is like a crazy quilt with each page detailing another facet of life off the beaten track. And like many quilts, its completion took six years to assemble and match the parts.
Dickson Preston’s 1976 Trappe: The Story of an Old Fashioned Town described it as “an afternoon nap kind of town.” Dawson, born and raised in Trappe, paints a very different sort of picture. His commentaries following selected bits of history or private writings over several centuries give him license for humor, wry and witty, to twist the self-important claims of their authors.
A perfect example of Dawson’s incisive prose is his choice of the book’s title. It’s excerpted from a 1743 letter written by the Irish immigrant Henry Callister, whose screed about Talbot County has as a title The Purgatory of Rogues and Fools. After opening his tirade with a charge of its being a wild and savage land, Callister proceeds with a litany of its faults – from all sorts of vermin to the variations of the weather – “Thunder & Lightening, excessive heat, excessive Cold – irregularities in abundance.”
There’s short shrift given to the bustling town of Oxford in this book, Dawson explains, although it is part of Trappe district, because it has been written about extensively and was then, as now, a more prominent town than Trappe. He has made an exception to its role in this narrow focus with two accounts of the death of Robert Morris Senior.
One report includes the inadvertent role of the captain of the ship bringing Morris into the Oxford harbor. According to this version, a fly on his nose made the captain brush it off and sent a misread signal to the gunners alerted to fire a salute from a welcoming ship. Morris was hit in the upper arm by a wad from a cannon. Infection set in, and he died several days later. The second account, also written within the same week as the incident, gives no mention of the fly, but credits the positions of the two ships for the deed.
The piety of Trappe is traced from the Quakers (possibly as early as the 1660s) to the Episcopalians (whose White Marsh Church ruins still stand) and Methodists. The Rev. William Glen, in 1708, was one of the first rectors at White Marsh which was then called St. Peter’s Church. Dawson includes a provocative tale about Glen’s marriage to the 17-year-old widow of a Mr. Allen shortly after the deceased died from a gunshot wound suffered while turkey hunting with the Rev. Glen.
Dawson refrains from commenting on the incident.
Rev. Glen was succeeded in 1745 at Old White Marsh Church by the Rev. Thomas Bacon, whose claim to fame was founding a school for poor children, orphans and slaves. This plea did not sit well with local slave holders in the area, but the Rev. reminded them that Negroes had souls and it was white men’s duty to educate them and bring them to God. In effect, he shamed his neighbors into donating to the cause.
His fundraising was successful, and a school was built to teach reading, writing and “to account” (arithmetic) as they were supplied with “cloathing, lodging and diet for their labour.” Incidentally, while Rev. Bacon badgered his congregants for funds, he also preached to Negro congregations that God had created them to be slaves and they must obey their masters.
Again, Dawson reserves comments, but not so did Frederick Douglass a century later. He mocked the Rev. Bacon, citing the Rev. as an example of ministers of the south.
At any rate, since the Rev. Bacon and most of his parishioners died by the 1780s, and with them, their financial subscriptions, the school was closed and turned over to the county where it was designated as an Almshouse “for the poor or deranged.” The last patients were sent to a mental hospital or permitted to stay as they were gainfully employed as farm help. The building fell into ruin and some of its bricks were used in the partial restoration of Old White Marsh Church in the 1950s.
The Civil War divided Trappe’s citizens, just as it did many communities in 1860. Slaveholders could be counted on to support the Confederacy, but the Union also had many supporters. Voting records show a puzzling statistic, however; only one vote in the district for Lincoln - Talbot was not far off - it registered two in favor of Lincoln.
One Trappe standout who wore the blue uniform in the war was the former slave, Nathaniel “Nace” Hopkins. He decided to mark the Emancipation Proclamation with a parade of thanks. In 1867 he led his people in an event that has been part of Trappe’s history until this day.
Commerce bustled in the second half of the 19th century when Trappe was the center of large farms and transportation for shipping grain by schooner and steamboat from Trappe’s Landing, Kirby’s Wharf and Jamaica Point, which also had a shipyard. Peaches, wheat and corn, and later tomatoes were the cash crop. Merchants and blacksmiths, canneries, churches and tradesmen flourished.
The gentlemen of the town formed clubs for entertainment and fellowship. Among those cited by Dawson were The Horse-Trading Club and the short-lived Champagne Club. At one time or another (no date specified) a 17-piece band (with suspect membership due to chicanery) and another club organized apparently for nothing more than practical jokes.
Trappe got its first “colored” school (the polite term of address of the time) in 1884, and its principal petitioned to open it at night for adults. A public water supply was made available by a well in town - bring your own buckets. It didn’t have an organized fire company until 1913.
Life was even more exciting two years earlier when hometown boy J. Franklin “Home Run” Baker became a national hero by winning the World Series. The big news in 1928 was the day it rained frogs (or maybe they escaped from a flooded pond. Wherever they came from, they were small in size but numerous beyond counting, being squashed on streets and sidewalks until the whole town reeked with decaying frogs for a day or two. In other news, the late twenties had its share of local bootleggers and small planes landing on out-of-the-way fields, presumably to pick up hooch brought in by rumrunners using the Choptank.
School integration and consolidation changed the insularity of the town, but more jolts were on tap. Trappe’s busy roads grew quieter as Route 50 became dual lane and the Bay Bridges diverted traffic roaring its way to the ocean.
Dawson has captured the sequences, the evolution of a small town poised to accept its own suburbs, a chronicle of change, maturity and respect for the old days while basking in its own tranquility.
As he writes in his introduction, “This could also be thought of as a source book as to what makes Trappe tick. However, the answer to that question may still prove to be elusive. Just when you think you’ve got Trappe figured out, it can surprise you.”
As Dawson diagnoses it, the surprises are mostly delightful. The few that aren’t - well, they’re not his fault. He’s just the messenger. The people of Trappe wrote the book and told an engaging story indeed.