A family town built on pride

Matthewstown: Descendants of Nicholas `Papa Nick' Matthews will honor the Arundel community's founder.

May 21, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Nearly 100 years ago, Nicholas "Papa Nick" Matthews -- a black farm laborer who couldn't read or write -- borrowed $20 from his one-time boss to buy 40 acres of west Anne Arundel county farmland and start a community.

Today, Matthews would hardly recognize the town bearing his name.

Less than a mile from where the town's founder once picked peaches, Arundel Mills beckons shoppers with outlet stores and a mega-screen, faux Egyptian-temple theater. Black children and white children go to school together, condos have sprouted where crops once bloomed and a ring of highways leads to the area's business parks.

Tomorrow, Papa Nick's descendants will gather in Matthewstown on Matthews Town Road to raise a glass of grandson William "Penn" Matthews' homemade cherry wine and remember their town as it once was.

"We've missed a lot of Papa Nick's past, and we just don't want that to happen again," said Tyrone Galloway, one of many descendants of Matthews still living in the community. "We're going to try to take the younger generation back to 1903 as best we can."

That time travel will include horse-and-buggy rides -- a nod to Matthews' career as an a-rab carting his wares to South Baltimore -- and a fish fry. The man known as Grandpa Penn will pick cherries from his backyard tree for wine, some of the aunts will bake coconut cakes, and the children will drink homemade root beer from old-fashioned preserve jars.

But mostly, the Matthewstown residents who remember Papa Nick and his iron-willed wife, Mama Rose, look forward to swapping tales of a man who rose above poverty and Jim Crow to build a loving neighborhood that remains largely a family despite the changes swirling around it.

Matthewstown -- still not named on county maps -- is tucked amid a canopy of trees shielding it from the mega-mall, highways and office parks. Its one-lane roads lead to sturdy houses with large, green lawns. Neighbors wave to passing cars and often stop drivers to inquire about a cousin or grandchild.

Celebrating heritage

Like several other historically black towns in the region that host annual celebrations, Matthewstown's organizers hope the anniversary reminds residents of their heritage and the history of the area -- a much different place now than it was in 1875, when Papa Nick was born.

He grew up in a four-room house on Larkin Shipley's farm in Harmans, where he followed in his father's footsteps and became a laborer. After Larkin Shipley's death in 1890, Shipley's two sons, Irvin and Edgar, left their schools in Baltimore to run the farm. Matthews and his family showed the white city boys Shipley's harvesting methods, and the farm prospered.

The Shipleys never forgot the help. In 1903, Irvin Shipley told Nicholas Matthews he had seen 40 acres for sale nearby and that he would lend Matthews the $20 to buy it, provided Matthews never told a white person that the money came from a white man.

Papa Nick kept his word, according to a history of the families written by Irvin Shipley's niece, Isabel Shipley Cunningham, and Matthews' great-great-grandson, Edward Sewell.

With a borrowed mule and a plow, Papa Nick cleared the land; planted cantaloupes, strawberries and beans; and sold his wares door to door. He and his wife raised 10 children, many of whom stayed to raise their own families on Matthews' land. Then their children stayed, creating a town where nearly everyone was related.

That closeness made for interesting times when party-line telephones came to the neighborhood and cousins could hear each other gossiping. It also meant that the children couldn't get away with mischief -- their aunts often were also their teachers at the all-black public elementary school.

According to his grandchildren, Papa Nick spoke like a learned professor despite never having learned to read or write. Mama Rose would read him Bible verses, and he would repeat them as he walked around the neighborhood. According to family lore, his white customers often would gather at his cart to hear his recitations.

Man of routines

He was a man of routines -- he liked a steak for dinner and refused to convert his home to electricity when power came to Matthewstown.

One granddaughter, Doris Brashears, remembers how Papa Nick would catch the children sneaking into his peach orchard after school and yell at them to get out.

"You would no more than set in there and you would hear his voice," she said. "And you would wonder, `Where is he?'"

Penn Matthews said that Papa Nick had little patience for horseplay in his fields. To him, more help in the fields was not necessarily better; if the Matthews boys worked too close together, they could find ways to avoid working at all.

"He used to tell all the little boys around here that one boy is a boy, two boys is half a boy, and three boys, well you ain't got no boy at all," he said, laughing.

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