I remember while growing up I always heard stories about the gypsies visiting the mountains of home. In fact, during times when I was especially annoying, people would threaten me that they were going to sell me to the gypsies. Lucky for me, by the time I came to be the days of the gypsies coming through were long past. People still talked about them though. It is their stories that I will relate to you.
The gypsies travelled in a wagon train, and it was said you could hear them coming from miles away. I remember hearing people talk about how the squeaky wheels of the wagons would echo up every holler along the way, and this was how people would know that the gypsies were back. It was said that the gypsies never greased their wagon wheels. I’m sure this was a sort of calling card of the gypsies.
The gypsies were led by a gypsy king. It was said that the gypsy king was from down around Romney but nobody ever knew for sure. The gypsy king ruled the camp and his word was law. He kept everyone in order. When there was a problem in the community, he would deal with it. He was respected both in the gypsy camp and in the greater community. While gypsies had the reputation of being thieves, nobody could ever point out any instance to verify this. Now they would haggle when trading and try to get the best possible deal, but that can’t really be considered stealing.
They said that the gypsies would come about every other year and would set up camp along the river in an empty field. The gypsies were never invited to your house, but it seemed that everyone went to visit the gypsy camps. The gypsy camps were favorite area’s to trade for horses, and pretty much anything else you could think of. My granny always bragged on a pot that she bought off of the "wandering gypsies", as she referred to them. The gypsies especially liked to trade for medicinal herbs and roots and such when they were in our neck of the woods. I reckon they got those things in the mountains, made medicine out of them and traded it back down in the more populated areas. They always seemed to have money.
Local people really looked forward to the return of the gypsies, and many local farmers would vie for the title of having the gypsies to camp on their land for the summer. The gypsies brought news from all over, and had items to trade that were hard to come by in the mountains. If the gypsies camped on your property, you’d get better deals and the first pick of the trading. I was told that one time the gypsies camped on Burns property. While our place was up on the mountain, there is a creek there to supply plenty of water, and the gypsies set up camp in the flat part of the property. My granddaddy Burns supposedly got a team of good horses to allow them to camp there, and people came from all around to trade that summer. The local store merchant loved it too because his business was boosted to an all time high. It was said that while they were camped there, an old gypsy man had died and was buried on the hillside near where my great-grandparents later built their house, but nobody knew the exact spot. I remember years later while digging a water line, my dad came across some bones that were buried about 4 feet deep, and he figured it was the remains of the old gypsy man. Dad covered the bones back up and dug the water line around the spot.
The last time people remember the gypsies coming through was in the early 1940’s. People remembered that on this last trip, the gypsy camp was really small and times were very hard for them. The gypsies couldn’t offer as many good deals as they had in the past, and they were going hungry quite a bit. Their clothes were old and worn out, and gone were the flashy jewels that they wore. The gypsy king was very old and was sick, and many of their wagons were in bad repair and it was pretty evident that this would be the last time the gypsies would come through. Everyone reckoned it was the automobile and the better roads that allowed people to travel further away from the mountains to shop had rendered the time of the gypsies obsolete.
It was said that of all the places the gypsies went, the gypsy king liked the mountains of Pendleton County the best and he said that it was here that people treated his people with kindness and fairness. In fact, on that last trip of the gypsies, the gypsy king married off his daughter to a local man. She was not an attractive girl, but she was very skilled in making medicines and reading fortunes, and she was his pride and joy. When I was a little boy, I remember the gypsy kings daughter, who by this time was an old woman. The most memorable thing about her was the silky, shiny scarf she wore around her head, and the clothes that she wore were not the same type of clothes that everyone else wore. Her clothes were really bright colors and were made out of shiny cloth of some sort, and she wore a big green bauble around her neck. People referred to her as “Old Hog Face”, well, because she really did have a face like a hog. Her given name was Belle but I don’t recall anyone ever calling her by that name.
I remember one time when my brother was a boy, he got poison ivy really bad, and people were afraid it was going to swell his eyes shut he had it so bad. Mom said that if his eye’s started swelling up, she was going to have to take him to the doctor. Word got around about my brothers condition and Old Hog Face sent word to my Mom to put white shoe polish on the poison ivy, and Mom did, figuring that Old Hog Face used to be a gypsy and she might know what she was talking about. The next day, my brothers poison ivy was nearly all dried up, that shoe polish sure did the trick. I do remember people would come from miles around to ask for medical advice from Old Hog Face, and while she was kind of an outcast, people did seem to respect her, although there were some people who called her a witch.
It was said that when the old gypsy king died, the remaining gypsies brought his body to Old Hog Face. He is reportedly buried somewhere along the river near Cherry Grove. After his death, the gypsy camp broke up and scattered to the winds, and nobody ever heard from any of them again.
I’ve often thought about the gypsies that came through the mountains, camping for a season and then moving on. Where did these gypsies come from? Where all did they travel? Do any of you all have any stories about the gypsies?
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem
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