"WATCH OUT, THE GYPSIES ARE COMING" - Gypsy Bands Liked Backwoods Country Roads

By Bob Weaver 2023

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gypsies roamed the backwoods of America, sometimes coming through Calhoun County.

Looking at a letter from historian Joy Morgan Stevens, written in 2000, she was encouraging me to write a story about Gypsy Caravans coming through the county.

My only personal recollection from about 1946 was a phone call warning us that a gypsy wagon with lots of gypsies are "headed to Hur, coming up Dennis Fork." Leona Sturm, the Hur switchboard operator, stayed on top things, alerting the neighborhood.

When the gypsies came through the county, the ominous warning was about them stealing stuff, although there are few records of them doing such dastardly deeds.

Morgan had spoken to Arnoldsburg man Cecil Sturm, a survivor of WWII's sinking of the USS Yorktown. Sturm recalled ornate gypsy wagons with lots of folks camping at the Corder Bridge (US 33-119) and to the Arnoldsburg area near the former Speedy Mart location.

Sturm remembered the caravans having about 25-30 children with their elders, riding on fancy wagons pulled by horses, some having a wood burning stove with stove pipe.

"They had tents and wanted to trade horses and wanted garden produce. T think most of them came out of the Shenandoah Valley. Most of them were dark complected and spoke broken English, sometimes staying about two weeks," said Sturm.

He said the locals were on high alert about the outsiders, concluding, "I never knew them to steal."

Morgan said they always traveled on the backroads, away from most main highways, such as traveling the rustic road to Hur.

Foot travel was still in during the first half of the 20th Century, with fewer automobiles.

Retired teacher Marvin Stemple recalls packs of out of area "foot gypsies" wandering the Mt. Zion Ridge in the early 40s, sometimes three to five people, looking for a meal or a place to stay.

Foot travel was still common in the early 20th Century, dozens of folks walking the highways with some hitchhiking. In earlier days foot travel was more prevalent, many riding horses.

Dozens of door-to-door sales people called on every household, including the Watkins and Raleigh folks.

Lots of hobos passing through, while Boston millionaire Godfrey L. Cabot admitted to being a Calhoun tramp during his early 1900 years, developing oil, gas and Calhoun's carbon black factory.

My grandfather John Ira McCoy said Cabot would walk through the Village of Hur and bum a free day and nights board.

Cabot implied that his tramp persona helped him to engage poor country folks and hatch deals.

Faded in the 21st Century - hitchhikers, motorists having dubious fear.

Also faded, "Ne'er Do Well" folks who would travel from one house to another looking for room and board, sometimes staying for a few days, months or a year, volunteering their services.