Friday, April 17, 2009


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.

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?


Vera said...

Matthew, I don't have any Gypsie stories but I sure enjoyed yours.

Denise said...

Very interesting look at gypsy life. As a child in England gypsies would walk around the neighborhood and sell us little sprigs of 'lucky heather'.

Lindah said...

Interesting look at Gypsy life. Growing up in N.CA, I remember Gypsies coming through town in big black Cadilacs with tinted windows. They camped some miles outside of town on a barren hilside near a grove along the highway. I would see their cars in town, but I don't know what they were doing. This would have been in the late 40's/early 50's. My folks didn't want to have anything to do with them, so I never knew anything more about them. As an adult, many years later in VA, a Gypsie family operated a fortune telling room nearby. As you say, dressed a bit differently; kept to themselves.

Kim said...

What a great read this post was Matthew. I have no knowledge of gypsies in Australia (maybe it's too far to bring the wagons).
I really love the photos you included as well.
Looking forward to the next offering.

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

This is a fantastic story! You have often told me of the gypsies, but not in this detail! It really came alive. Thanks for sharing! I don't remember ever hearing about gypsies in Wyoming County...just heraing "Gypsies, tramps and thieves" on the radio...that's all. :-) Maybe they didn't want to haul wagon loads of coal or moonshine away...that's our 2 best offerings!

Granny Sue said...

Matthew, I think your neighbors might have confused the word "Romany" with Romney. I'll have a post on my blog about that and a few other related things soon--very odd that you should address this topic just now, seeing as I just got home from hearing a speaker on the topic of the Scottish Travellers. Weird!

Matthew Burns said...

Granny Sue,

It is quite possible that the folks who told me of the gypsies were mistaking Romney, WV, with the country of Romania, but perhaps not. The gypsies camped every other year near Springfield (just outside of Romney) so perhaps the gypsy king was born there. Or it could be that they came from Romania.

Another weird (and neat) thing about the gypsies, they camped and traded with my Dad's family when they were in Pendleton County, and the gypsies also traded with my Mom's family who lived in Springfield. So I heard a few stories from Mom's side of the family too about this same bunch of gypsies.

Back in the days of horse and wagon, the area of travel would have been limited, especially since camp was made for a whole summer in alternating years in either Pendleton or Hampshire Counties.

I'm kind of recalling that the gypsy king's name was Zeke (or something like that) but I ain't entirely sure.

I would love to hear more about the gypsies to whom I was so often threatened with being sold. I did a little background research after writing this post, and see that Goldenseal had an article about a gypsy king a few years ago, I'm gonna try and find the specific issue to see if it is the same gypsies that I've always heard about.


tipper said...

Matthew-don't have any specific gypsy stories-but I too was threatened with being sold to them when I was little. And I told my own girls the same thing-still do sometimes. Even though as far as I know I've never even seen a Gypsy. Neat post.

Nance said...

I enjoyed this post too, and the great photos. I remember hearing in the mid 50s that the gypsies were in our little rural Iowa town . . . but as my folks had nine children and Mama kept close count of us, I didn't ever get to see the gypsies. Sure did a lot of imagining tho!

Jason Burns said...

Matthew, I think I have that issue of Goldenseal somewhere. Of course, with the house in a mess its hard to tell where it is.

One thing you never mentioned, and you may have forgot about it - Grandma Bithey had those "gypsy baskets" on her porch in Springfield. The ones that are like a basket on top of a three-legged table. Grandma used to tell me that she had those on her porch because the gypsies WOULD steal from people in the town.

The only way around that was by proving that you were an honest person who would trade with them. Years before, I guess, Grandma had traded something for those baskets, and she kept them out on her porch as proof to the gypsies that she was a fair and honest person to trade with. That way they would not steal from her and her family.

I have a reproduction of one of those baskets at the house, and I have no idea whatever happened to Grandma's. Some relative probably has them.

Matthew Burns said...

I had forgot about the gypsy basket on Grandmaw's porch, but I remember it now that you mention it. I think Patty got it, I seem to recall helping her put it in her car at Grandmaw's sale.


Janet, said...

Loved your story about the gypsies, Matthew. Like you, I wonder where they came from before camping in your area. It wasn't nice for people to call her Old Hog Face, though.

Joanie said...

Hi, this was a very interesting story to me. I grew up in an area where there were many Gypsies and some have come by my husbands business before.

Granny Sue was probably right in that they were maybe confusing the word "Romany" for Romney. Romany is the official name for the ethnic group known as 'Gypsies.' The word actually has nothing to do with Romania. There is a rather large community of Romanichal (English Gypsies) in WV I've seen around since I was a little girl, so this post was interesting to me.

Joanie said...

Hi, this was a very interesting story to me. I grew up in an area where there were many Gypsies and some have come by my husbands business before.

Granny Sue was probably right in that they were maybe confusing the word "Romany" for Romney. Romany is the official name for the ethnic group known as 'Gypsies.' The word actually has nothing to do with Romania. There is a rather large community of Romanichal (English Gypsies) in WV I've seen around since I was a little girl, so this post was interesting to me.

Gypsy Nurse said...

This was a very vivid story! Thank you for sharing...

I am truly a Gypsy at heart and would love to some day visit the Gypsies, be it in America or Romania!

Gary Howell said...

I am from Princeton W.V. and I have lived around Gypsies all my life. And where they got their name probably is because when you had any dealing with them you got jipped, or took.they still practice this way of life in a different style. They had paving companies in our area until no one would let them work for them because of the poor work they provide. They would drive to the Christionsberg Va for work. They still live in the Stumpy Bottem area in Princeton and have watered down driveway sealer that washes off in a good rain. They are mean and crooks

Penny Covey said...

The gypsies migrated from wv to Florida during picking seasons.Some still reside in Florida and many are still around the Romney area. They have been forced to give up their freelance lifestyle and convert to modern society.