TRAPPE — This town once was a forest wilderness, barely passable, with narrow trails wandering through trees and underbrush. It’s also been a bustling hub of activity with 18 stores, shipping out enormous loads of farm produce.
Ladies and gentlemen, dressed in their finest, boarded the steamer at Trappe Landing, and folks of all ages crowded into a floating theater there, too, to sit and giggle at characters in plays like “Ten Nights in a Bar-room.”
It’s all there and more in a new exhibit that will open this weekend at the Trappe Museum of Rural Life during its annual Friends and Visitors Day celebration.
Museum curator Carol Lange developed the new exhibit, and much of her research was taken from “Trappe: The Story of an Old-Fashioned Town,” by Dickson Preston, published in 1996.
Even before the colonists landed in St. Mary’s City to form Maryland’s first capital, there were traders checking out what would become Howell’s Point near Trappe, Lange said.
In 1630, five men in a small open boat sailed past the point. They were traders from William Claiborne’s settlement on Kent Island.
It was the first recorded occasion of “white men” sailing close to the land on that north shore of the Choptank that eventually became Trappe District.
Preston wrote that Trappe District actually is a series of peninsulas or necks that comprise nearly a third of the land mass of Talbot County. Most of Trappe’s inhabitants live there and not in town, he wrote.
He said the most tangible evidence Native Americans were in Trappe is the development of roads from Native American footpaths.
Preston believed a major footpath led through the woods of each peninsula and converged in a place near the site of the present town.
From there, an old trail went north and probably became the old Easton-Trappe Road, Route 565, Preston believed.
But the old Native American footpaths served the community at least until 1687, according to Lange’s research. At first, nearly all travel was by water.
In 1687, the Episcopal Church at Whitemarsh was constructed and could not be reached by water. Roads began to be formed out of footpaths.
It is recorded that George Cowley was given the task of keeping at least one horse trail open to the new church at Whitemarsh, according to Lange’s research.
All indications are that roads remained nothing more than crude pathways well into the 18th century, she noted, and carriages and carts were virtually unheard of before about 1740.
The exhibit includes a photocopy of a rare tintype of the outside of Kemp’s Drug Store taken about 1880 that shows a man identified as Gen. Joseph B. Seth, builder of the B.C. & A. Railroad line that also ran steamboats, making regular stops at Trappe wharves.
The tintype is owned by James Dawson of the Unicorn Book Store.
Steamboat service had an illustrious heyday in Trappe, according to Lange.
The first steamboat began service in 1823 when the Albermarle, a side-wheeler, started making stops at Howell’s Point as it passed by, picking up freight and passengers, to and from Cambridge and Baltimore.
At first, the service was sporadic, but it reached a peak after the Civil War.
Within a year after Lee’s surrender, three steamboat companies were competing for Trappe passengers and goods, arriving and departing 16 times a week, according to Lange.
Kirby’s Wharf, Trappe Landing, Clark’s Wharf, Windy Hill and Lloyd’s Landing all were served by numerous steamboat lines, according to Lange.
They brought mail and manufactured goods from Baltimore, and took back fish, crabs, potatoes, tomatoes, peaches, apples, melons and livestock.
The two most luxurious steamboats, according to Lange, seemed to be the Dorchester and the Talbot, built near the end of the steamboat heyday in 1912.
The Talbot was a massive steamer at 192 feet long, 60 feet wide and with a displacement of 1,100 tons. It was designed with overnight passenger accommodations and was state-of-the-art for 1912, with steam heat, running water, electric lights and even electric bells in all of its 85 first-class staterooms.
Trappe residents excitedly treated themselves to its opulent decorations and delicious meals. For many, indoor plumbing was a novelty.
Another amusement for Trappe residents came by water — the James Adams Floating Theatre pulled up at Trappe Landing at least once a year, beginning about 1914.
The troupe of actors, acrobats, musicians and comedians on board put on melodramas, comedy sketches and concerts for townsfolk.
Famous author Edna Ferber spent a week on board the floating theater in 1924 and wrote about it in her novel, “Showboat,” that later became a Broadway musical and two major motion pictures.
Saturday’s celebration will include a chance to view the new exhibit in Defender House and other exhibit buildings at the museum.
The Carriage House, a historic building that was moved from Trappe’s main street, showcases the story of Nathaniel “Nace” Hopkins, a former slave who joined the Union army during the Civil War. He then returned to build an African-American school, help build a church and establish an African-American neighborhood that included homeownership. A parade is held through town every year in his honor.
Other buildings include the Slaughter Smokehouse, which houses an extensive antique farm equipment collection from Trappe’s early agricultural days.
Children usually delight in visiting the Scale House, where they can make a stencil of their name or any other word on the antique stencil machine and try their hand at sealing a tomato can to make a “piggy” bank of sorts.
Also in the Defender House, visitors and sewing enthusiasts will be able to try out a genuine antique treadle sewing machine on loan for the occasion from collector Eleanor Oakhill. The “New Home” machine dates from the 1880s.
The musical team of Ellery and Wendy Adams will lend their ambiance with tunes from the past, and light refreshments will be served.
The fun begins at 11 a.m. and probably will wind down by about 3 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at the Museum of Rural Life, 29379 Backtown Road, just north of Trappe. For information, visit www.rurallifemuseum.org.