This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on April 5, 1997
GYPSY TRIBES FASCINATED WHILE EVOKING SUSPICION
By Roz Young
Among the gypsy tribes that roamed the country years ago, there were some who were dishonest. Dayton used to be visited by one tribe particularly, known as the `Terrible Williamsons,' that descended periodically.
The men offered to surface driveways, using a black substance that looked nice when they put it on but that washed off in the first rain after they had collected their fee and moved on. The women sold imitation heirloom laces that could be bought much cheaper at the dime store. And they were good at nipping into a house through the back door when the owners were in the front and lifting valuable jewelry.
These dishonest gypsies gave all gypsies a bad name, and exasperated mothers often threatened their children that they had better behave `or the gypsies will get you.' These gypsies were not the Stanleys and related gypsies who lived in Dayton, who were always law-abiding and good citizens of the community.
Mildred Filbrun Heck grew up on a farm north of Dayton. `Your recent gypsy stories brought back my own experience in the 1920s with a gypsy tribe that spent the summer near my farm home,' she wrote from her home in Arlington, Ill. In 1990 she wrote a memoir of her early years for her grandchildren.
`Every spring they came,' Heck's story of the gypsies begins, `a whole caravan of them. They came suddenly out of nowhere, and no one ever knew where they went when they just as suddenly and quietly left on a September night. They arrived in large old black autos, old wooden sleeping vans and old buses with windows heavily draped. In a flurry of activity, their camp was set up in a short time with tents and camp fires.
`For years they had made their summer camp in the same large wooded grove just on the north edge of the tiny village of Sulphur Grove. Sulphur Grove was an unincorporated old crossroads village on State Route 201 in Wayne Twp. about eight miles north of Dayton. In the 1920s the village had two corner general stores, a doctor, a minister, a garage and about 30 people living there. Our family farm was about one-quarter mile north of the gypsy camp, and from our house that sat back from the road on a hill we could see their camp fires and the mysterious comings and goings of the gypsies in their big cars.
`Word of the gypsies' arrival spread through the whole area in a hurry, for no one trusted these dark foreign people, and with good reason. Every farmer knew these sneaky night people would soon be stealing chickens and pigs from farms for miles around. At this season of the year, the hogs and their piglets were running free in the open fields. The new flocks of young chickens were filling every chicken house. From this time on, the farmers would find it very difficult to protect these animals. I never heard of any farmer catching a gypsy in the act of stealing or with the stolen loot, but it was well-known that these clever people always cooked a lot of chicken and pork in those large black iron kettles over the open fires.
`One fall after the gypsy camp was deserted, a few farmers who had lost pigs and chickens dug up some of the many camp fire locations. There they found the remains of pig and chicken entrails, bones and feathers of different colors. The gypsies gathered and ate a lot of wild greens, which they cooked in pots with the meats. The gypsy women would be seen daily gathering watercress from the spring water creeks and cutting big burdock leaves from the roadsides. Many farmers were sure these women, driven in cars by the men, were roaming the side roads not for gathering weeds but as a ruse to canvass the farmers' fields and chicken houses. Like everyone else, I also believed this was exactly what they were doing, but I also knew they did really cook and eat all those green weeds.
`These strange people were a bit of excitement in this farm area every spring. At 13, my curiosity about these people was almost more than I could stand. Several times in the late afternoon, I wandered in on their camp. At this time of day, their camp was almost deserted except for older women who were tending the cooking pots for the evening meal. I was shy and did little more than ask the women what they did with all those weeds. One woman pulled a few greens from the cooking pot for me to taste - they were soft and slippery. In those large pots cooking with the greens I could see whole chickens and potatoes with the skins on. Several women called out to each other in a strange manner and in a foreign language, and I had a strong feeling they wanted me to get out of there.
`The gypsy women did all the work, and the men gave the orders and took control of the money. The women told fortunes and sold beads and bracelets in rented storefronts in Dayton, and the men drove the women to and from their working places and watched the activity very closely. Babies were left in the camp with the old women, and all young adults were taken with the young women and taught the tricks of the gypsy life. Some of the young women were beautiful with their dark eyes and long black hair, and they wore long, full skirts in bright colors and many beads and bracelets.'
This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on April 12, 1997
YOUNG MAN, RED CONVERTIBLE CREATE STIR IN SULPHUR GROVE
* Second of 2 parts
`Sometime during the late summer,' Mildred Heck continued, `a bright red convertible appeared in the camp. Several times when I was baby-sitting in the village, I saw this dark young man with his black patent-leather hair cruise through the village. Seldom did we farmers get to see such an expensive and beautiful car.
`Rumor had it that he had been called home from an eastern university to become the new king of the tribe. It was said that the gypsies selected a few of their brightest young men to be educated as lawyers and doctors.
`One afternoon this young man drove into our driveway at our farm. I was cutting grass with the hand mower. He called to me that he would like to talk with me. Our little grandmother was sitting on the front-porch swing, and she raced into the house to tell my mother. This young gypsy Rudolph Valentino got out of his beautiful car - he was dressed in white pants and a yellow sweater with a big `Y' on the front of it.
`My mother flew out the side door of our house and, very much unlike her usual calm and quiet self, yelled at this beautiful man to get off our property and never come back again. I doubt that mother was half as angry as were the women at the campgrounds, for they certainly had a clear view of that red car sitting on our hill.
`He was a very handsome young man compared to the immature farm boys I knew around Sulphur Grove, and I never had a chance to find out what he wanted to talk about and have always wondered about that. In a short time, they were all gone suddenly in the night.
`The next year I was working for my cousin in the small corner general store. On this morning I was dreading the job she always gave me on Tuesday morning - that of ironing seven starched white shirts. I was ironing where I could see the front of the store.
`Suddenly the front door opened and the whole store was instantly filled in every corner with about 15 gypsy women - all with long, full skirts. One old woman was waving a loaf of bread in my face - I felt at once this was big trouble and that there was not one thing a little teen-ager could do about it.
`I knew the owner's Winchester rifle was behind the door and was fully loaded, for I had used it many times to shoot rats in the barn behind the store. I grabbed the gun and pointed it right at that group of gypsy women. One woman barked but just one word and those women were out of the store in a flash. Waiting cars with men drivers stood just outside. The store was nearly cleaned out - 30 loaves of bread, every pack of cigarettes, cigars, candy bars and canned goods.
`The gypsies remained in camp all summer, but not a one of them ever came into either of the corner stores in Sulphur Grove again. After the owner of the campgrounds died, the gypsies never came back to Sulphur Grove.
`Today Sulphur Grove, our family farm and the whole area for miles around is built up into the city of Huber Heights. All the people living there today will never know what life was like in the 1920s in the tiny village of Sulphur Grove, or of life on the farm or the fun of watching the camping tribes of gypsies that came to our farm area every summer.'
A gypsy wedding
We have one more gypsy story from a Dayton Journal news story quoted by Dora Brentlinger in her book, Beside the Stillwater. Celeste Olmitch, a 16-year-old French gypsy was to be married to one of the Stanley tribe. About 60 of the girl's tribe camped in Stillwater Woods near Polk Grove Church and made preparations for the three-day ceremony.
`Three pigs were butchered, a hundred fat hens were dressed, 200 loaves of bread cut and spread, a keg of rye and five kegs of lager tapped. All the farmers and their families were invited to join in the feast and the festivities.
`The bridal tent is as large as an ordinary circus sideshow,' Mrs. Brentlinger quoted from an April 1898 newspaper, `and from this tent the bride and groom come out at intervals through the day to lead the lines of gaily dressed dancers through the graceful figures of old world dancing.
`The bride's gown is of purple silk velvet. Beneath her veil may be seen a tiara of silver and diamonds. The groom, dressed in a black broadcloth suit, wears four diamond studs and a silk hat.
`The tribe has an abundance of solid silverware, and they carry fine china with them. When the wedding is over, these gypsies will journey west to Wabash, Ind., and thence south for a summer's trading.'
Mrs. Brentlinger recalls that the Stanleys owned a farm in Harrison Twp., just north of Needmore Road and about half a mile east of the Troy road. Her husband and his brothers and sisters attended school with the Stanley children, who were somewhat aloof from the other children but were never mistreated.
About the turn of the century the school burned. They finished the school year in a tent, and the following year a two-room brick school, was erected. This was Beardshear School on Needmore Road.