'Not real fixed up, but people love us'

Jacques Kelly

July 24, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

The familiar sign by the side of Ritchie Highway still reads "Ice Bait Beer."

The sign advertises Fishpaw's, the one-time gas station, one-arm-bandit parlor, grocery store, liquor store and bait shop. It's a relic from the rip-roaring Anne Arundel County of the 1940s and 1950s.

"We know we're not real fixed up, but people love us this way. They tell us don't change a thing," says Kim Lawson, the #F 29-year-old part owner of the Arnold store that now qualifies as a Ritchie Highway institution. Fishpaw's is one of the oldest businesses along Md. 2.

Fishpaw's is at its liveliest in the summer. During the recent 13-day heat spell, the place sold 7 1/2 tons of ice, boatloads of night crawlers, chicken necks and blood worms, and enough National Boh to float a battleship.

And while Ritchie Highway takes the rap for being a nightmare of traffic lights and non-conforming uses, the busy traffic strip remains an integral part of many drivers' annual expedition to the ocean. Passing Fishpaw's is part of that trek.

The store recently made it into the history books. Aaron Day, who lived nearby, opened the gas station in 1923. This fact is listed in the new "Baltimore-Annapolis Trail Park Guide," published by the Department of Geography at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Nearly 70 years ago, the filling station faced Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard and the railroad tracks of what was then the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad, an electric interurban line. Much of the old WB&A right of way is today a hiking and bike path.

When Ritchie Highway was built in the late 1930s, its alignment much favored the gas station. The pumps were merely moved around to face the east. Fishpaw's found itself on a small plot of land between two of the state's busiest thoroughfares, Md. 2 at its front door and Md. 648 at its back door.

There's enough space for a few parked cars, the business, an old ice house and not too much else.

Since 1984, the store has been owned by the Lawsons -- Kim and her sister Rachel and their parents, Christine and Brad, who live in Florida. The sisters, who actually run the business, are intent on maintaining Fishpaw's identity as a liquor store, gossip exchange and lottery ticket outlet.

"We like the idea of this being an old-fashioned general store, not fancy. We call it the 'Liquor Dump,' " says the plain-spoken Rachel Lawson, who uses the second floor of the patched assemblage of frame buildings as a commercial art studio for the large hand-lettered signs she paints for liquor wholesalers.

Some of these bright red signs have been put up outside the store. This does not please Anne Arundel planning and zoning officials, who cited the store's outdoor signs as a non-conforming use late last year.

The sisters countered by saying that Fishpaw's was around before the 1953 zoning ordinance.

"People come in and say, 'You can't take those signs away. They hold up the building,' " says Kim Lawson.

The Lawsons never dared put their own name on Fishpaw's, which got its liquor license shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.

At that time, the owner was William Fishpaw, a man still recalled in the old part of Arnold around Jones Station Road.

Mr. Fishpaw, who died some years ago, sold gas and groceries and ran a large towing and auto-wrecking business. He was called at all hours of the day and night to tow a stranded motorist or to clean up after an accident.

He even bought 90 acres of farmland near today's College Parkway to junk his wrecks.

"What is today Raintree and Woodfield [two housing developments] is where he kept his junked cars. There was a tobacco barn and strawberry fields," recalls Kathy Galli, his stepgranddaughter.

"He was a very generous man. I don't know how many bags of groceries he gave away."

At one time, Mr. Fishpaw had a bar with a pool table and slot machines, the one-armed bandits that figured so heavily in the lore of a more youthful Anne Arundel County before developers built bedroom communities for people who work in Washington and Baltimore. The slots were outlawed in the 1960s.

The old Amoco gasoline pumps have also disappeared at Fishpaw's. The Lawson sisters have given up pumping and selling gas.

"We weren't doing the volume we needed," says Kim Lawson.

Nowadays, the sisters host wine tastings and sell cheeses.

"And blackberry brandy. You'd be surprised how many hunters like that stuff in the fall," says Kim Lawson.

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