James R. “Rat” Bowen, a member of the Lumbee Native American tribe who became a professional painter and a co-founder with his wife of Rose’s Bakery in the Northeast Market, died May 18 of pneumonia at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center. The Rosedale resident was 86.
James Rufus Bowen, son of sharecroppers Rufus Hartman Bowen and Pearl Lina Bell Bowen, was born in Saddletree, North Carolina, and raised there, where his family grew tobacco, cotton, corn and vegetables.
“He never learned to read or write because the nearest school, the American Indian Normal School, was 30 miles away, so he stayed home and worked on the farm with his parents,” said his daughter, Rosie Bowen of Rosedale. “I think about all the things my dad went through, and I just can’t imagine growing up in that time. ”
Mr. Bowen came to Baltimore in 1948, and after working for a while in a box factory, went to Charleston, South Carolina, where he again sought work. After living in Lumberton, North Carolina, where there was a large Lumbee population living along the Lumber River, he returned to Baltimore in 1956, where many Lumbees settled after World War II.
He took a job as a painter and was “proud that he once painted the White House Oval Office during the Nixon administration,” said a cousin, Ashley Minner, a local Lumbee artist, of Dundalk.
He later lived in Baltimore’s Brooklyn and Fells Point before settling in Rosedale, where he lived for many years.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Bowen met and fell in love with the former Rosalie Jean Machlinski, daughter of a saloonkeeper. They married in 1981.
In 1976, the couple established Rose’s Bakery in Baltimore’s Northeast Market, and Mr. Bowen became a baker. They also opened a vegetable stand, which they later closed.
“As far as we know,” Ms. Minner said, “it’s the last Lumbee-owned bakery in the city.”
“The recipes we use were his mother’s, my Lumbee grandmother,” his daughter said. “They were very resourceful. Nothing was ever wasted.”
One of the bakery’s specialties was its chicken ‘n pastry, a traditional Lumbee chicken noodle soup, whose dough was carefully rolled and prepared by Mr. Bowen. Other favorites were “fattening treats like golden brown hush puppies, fried cornbread and sausage. There are also plenty of vegetables like field peas and chowchow, a type of relish,” The Baltimore Sun reported in a 2016 article.
The sweet potatoes that the bakery uses are not locally sourced but come from North Carolina.
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“Actually this is going to sound really crazy,” Mr. Bowen’s daughter told The Sun in 2016. “But I drive all the way to North Carolina to Lumberton to get these sweet potatoes.”
Working alongside Mr. Bowen and his wife was his sister, Sarah Arnold, of Fells Point, who explained in the article that those sweet potatoes were “a different kind of taste.”
The bakery also uses collard greens that are harvested only after the first frost and yellow bags of House-Autry self-rising cornmeal.
When he reached 80, Mr. Bowen decided it was time to retire, but he kept dropping in at the bakery several times a week to check on things and chat with customers and friends.
Ms. Minner said her cousin was a repository and practitioner of Lumbee folklore such as being “able to blow the fire out of burns,” she said. “A woman came to him with her son’s arm one day that had been burned, and after blowing on it for hours, finally, the pain went away, and the next day, it was healed.”
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“He even invented his own language,” Ms. Minner said.
“James always liked to travel, drink, go fishing and tell stories,” Ms. Minner wrote in a biographical profile of Mr. Bowen. “He had a terrific sense of humor, was gentle and easygoing. He was very family-oriented and kept up with even distant cousins.”
Mr. Bowen was an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Ms. Minner said in a telephone interview.
“He was very proud of being American Indian. He led by example that money is always available if you work hard, but you don’t need much in life to be happy,” she wrote. “There were times in his life that he didn’t have much, but throughout his entire life, he was one of the most generous people you could ever hope to meet.”
His wife died in 2013.
Funeral services for Mr. Bowen were held May 23 at Lilly & Zeiler Funeral Home, and the burial was in St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Dundalk.
In addition to his daughter, sister and cousin, Mr. Bowen is survived by a son, Billy Shipley of Nottingham; another sister, Christine Logue of Bel Air; and five grandchildren. Another son, Jack Shipley, died in 2001.