PORT DEPOSIT — The little scrollwork sign in front of a rather plain building with simple wooden stairs and a beige stucco exterior at 98 N. Main St. is a curiosity to many.
It announces the hours of and location for the Paw Paw Museum. To some, the wonder is of what a “paw paw” could be, which immediately follows the wonder of why a museum should be dedicated to such an enigma. Point in fact, the name of the building is a nod to local history and yet another quirky thread in the myriad stories that are the fabric of Port Deposit.
Built in 1821, the structure on North Main Street originally served as the only church edifice for any denomination in Port Deposit. It was a one-story structure made of Port Deposit granite and rubble field stone, and featured a front entrance for white males, a first side entrance for white females and a secondary side entrance for African-Americans, enslaved or free.
As the town grew in the heyday years of 1830-1850, the church edifice proved too small, even though other congregations began meeting elsewhere. In addition, a small academy or Sunday School was operating there, with at one point as many as 13 classes being offered, including a class for African-American children. A new edifice was required for the Methodist congregation that had built the 1821 structure, so they measured the original, doubled that to accommodate the growing population and moved across the street.
Catty-corner to the 1821 structure is what is now known as Nesbitt Hall, but was the Port Deposit Methodist Church, Part II, if you will. It was two stories of Port Deposit granite and more than twice the size of the original building, which continued to serve as an academy. Indeed, this is when the building took on that strange name — the academy originally called Port Deposit Academy, became known as the Paw Paw Academy and the building as the Paw Paw Building. The name is based upon two Paw Paw bushes or trees that flanked the front entrance — one remains today.
Never heard of a paw paw? You have, you just didn’t realize it. If you ever heard the little childhood ditty, “Way down yonder in the paw paw patch?” Well, a paw paw is a type of fruit, known as a Spanish papaya. The fruit, which are quite tasty, are about the size of a kiwi without the fuzz, and have a taste not unlike a banana. They are also known as “custard apples,” and were a staple of local Native American diets.
Back to the buildings. Eventually Nesbitt Hall became too small as well, and the much larger edifice was erected in 1872 now known as Tome Memorial United Methodist Church — thus providing a triangle if you will — of Methodism between the three structures that remain neighbors today. Nesbitt Hall is still retained by the Tome UMC, named in honor of the family of Evalyn Nesbitt Tome, wife of Jacob Tome, who built the new edifice in honor of his bride who was a Methodist while he was a Lutheran. (It is an interesting sidenote to realize though that while Jacob Tome may well be Port Deposit’s most famous philanthropist, there was never a Lutheran church in town, the faith into which he was baptized in York, Pa.)
A second floor was added to the Paw Paw Building, along with exterior stairs and stucco, and it served as a store, a restaurant, an academy and a lodge for the International Order of Odd Fellows and other groups. Eventually, in private ownership, it fell into horrible disrepair and was in danger of demolition. Envisioning the old building used for education once again, the late Grace Humphries, a Port Deposit transplant stepped in.
Through the efforts of Grace Humphries, and many others, a group formed to preserve the town’s history and artifacts and find a proper repository for them. They banded together to purchase the old structure and have architectural surveys done, acquire and raise funding through events, bake sales, cookbook sales and every possible means, to restore the structure. When they succeeded, they did so as the Port Deposit Heritage Corporation, a non-profit, member-driven volunteer organization that was organized Jan. 29, 1975, though their efforts began earlier without the benefit of incorporation.
And that is why the building is still honored as the Paw Paw, though it is truly is the Museum of Port Deposit, with a more harmonious name.