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Owen Historical Society News: Pawpaws were a treat for explorers, settlers and kids

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By Bonnie Strassell

“Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ‘em in your pocket,
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.”

The preservation of our history includes passing down family stories and songs, and recording important events. But another vital element of preserving our past is planting and cultivating heirloom flowers, crops, and trees. This piece of our history also keeps our traditions alive and serves to enrich our lives.
The pawpaw tree is making a comeback in Kentucky. The rich fruit, with a taste somewhere between a mango, a pineapple, and a banana, is being offered at farmers markets in Lexington and Frankfort. Many Owen countians recall their childhood days when they would pick and eat pawpaws which grew abundantly in the area. Some claim not to be overly fond of the taste of a pawpaw, while others extol its sweet juicy nectar. One elderly Owen countian declared the pawpaw had to be black before it is ripe enough to eat; and there is no denying the brown splotches on the skin of a ripe pawpaw would win no prize for beauty. However, the pawpaw is one of the most nutritious fruit available, and its importance to the early pioneers cannot be emphasized enough.
As the first settlers left the colonies in the east and pushed westward, they often subsisted on wild game and the vitamin enriched pawpaws that grew abundantly west of the Appalachian Mountains.
In the fall of 1806, Lewis and Clark depended almost entirely on the wild pawpaws and nuts when their rations ran low and game was scarce. Meriwether Lewis noted in his diary as his group traveled to the Pacific over 200 years ago: “September 15,1806 -- We landed one time only to let the men gather Pawpaws or the custard apple of which this country abounds, and the men are very fond of.”
In 1541, De Soto found the Ameri-Indian cultivating the pawpaw tree east of the Mississippi, and history records that pawpaws were well known by our founding fathers. It is documented that George Washington was fond of pawpaw fruit, and pawpaws were among the many plants Thomas Jefferson cultivated at Monticello.
Over the years, the pawpaw fell in obscurity and was replaced by more familiar fruits such as apples, pears, and cherries. Fortunately, the pawpaw is now becoming popular, and pawpaw groves can be seen throughout Kentucky as farmers are once again cultivating this piece of American history.
The Pawpaw Foundation at Kentucky State University is working to revive the fruit by promoting scientific research in areas of pawpaw breeding, growing, managing, harvesting, and use. Some growers are not too keen on the process needed to pollinate pawpaws as it involves an abundance of blowflies. Dr. Kirk W. Pomper of Kentucky State University explains: “ Pawpaws are pollinated by flies and beetles. However, here in Kentucky we have lots of cattle on the farm, so pollination in not a problem.”
Perhaps as word gets out as to the health benefits of the pawpaw, Owen County will once again see our children running around the farm, picking up pawpaws, and revelling in the taste of its rich, creamy pulp. Watching pawpaw juice trickling off little chins presents an opportunity for us to share stories of our own childhood, including the experience of eating the delightfully sweet fruit of the pawpaw tree.
The Owen County Historical Society would like to thank J.O. Powers and all those who made donations in memory of Lori. The mantle, an Owen County piece of history from Dr. Bowling’s office, has been installed and the finishing touches are in the process of being accomplished. A plaque with Lori’s name will be affixed to the mantle. If you haven’t visited us for awhile, please do so as we have added new items to our collections.
We are preparing to pour a new driveway and fix our bathroom and rock wall. In August, work begins on repairing the outside of the museum. If you are so inclined we would appreciate any donation to help with these costly expenses.
Don’t forget to look us up on the Internet which highlights our upcoming events, lists publications we offer for sale, and includes news from our president Jeannie Baker. Our website is www.owencohistory.com.