The Vagabond – Horse trading with Gypsies


By Danny Crownover

It was reported in 1883 that a large colony of gypsies was encamped near Gadsden. The camp had the usual herd of trading horses, or swapping stock, and many gaily colored wagons. During these times, bands of gypsies came around and often left a trail of thievery, robbery and weird horse trades.

In the 1890s, there was one trade between a gypsy and a 21-year-old farm boy. They rode out to Chestnut and Walnut streets and on their return, decided to swap even in front of what later became the Gadsden Hotel.

The gypsy took the saddle off his horse and began to pull off blankets and pads by the dozen, finally revealing that his plug was about the worst swaybacked creature ever seen in these parts.

When he saw what he had done, the farm boy began to cry. After some begging on the boy’s part, he was permitted to take his horse back and pay the gypsy $5. The gypsy confessed that it was the most valuable swapping horse he ever owned. He always got it back with some cash to spare.

In 1894, a band of gypsies appeared with a fine bay Kentucky trotter that attracted much attention, so much so that W.W. Ross, a local horseman, challenged the gypsy a race with his thoroughbred mare. The gypsy horse won, and Ross traded for it. He had seen the animal sell in Lexington to a Huntsville man for $900 and knew what he was doing.

One of the funniest horse trades was made by Gadsden’s own Dr. Walter R. Gunn, a traveling dentist who made many horse swaps, mostly for the fun of it. One morning in the mid-1890s, Dr. Gunn was driving to town with one sorry looking plug of a horse hitched to the buggy and another plug tied to the back of the buggy. He drove to the trading grounds with the intention of swapping those two horses for a good one. He thought he was a competent judge of horses, since he had owned many.

As he stopped, Dr. Gunn spied a beautiful bay with flaxen mane and tall hitched to a post. Without further ado, he looked up the owner, who happened to be a gypsy. They talked a few minutes, the gypsy being willing to trade “as is” without any guarantees or assurances on either side.

The upshot of it was that Dr. Gunn gave his two plugs and $5 in cash for the beautiful animal that stood hitched some distance away from the swapping stock of other owners. The bay with the long flaxen mane and tail was hitched to the doctor’s buggy. After driving around a few blocks, it appeared that the horse was well broke to harness, so it was decided to parade him through Broad Street from Sixth Street to the bluff of the Coosa River.

The bay stepped lively and in great style, attracting much attention. Arriving at the river bluff, the good doctor saw the smokestacks of two steamboats at the wharf. He decided to go down the steep Broad Street hill and watch the boats load and unload.

The bay horse continued to behave perfectly, but when the doctor turned around and started back to town, the handsome and well-groomed animal simply refused to pull up the hill. All of the known tricks to start a balking horse were tried, but to no avail.

Finally, Dr. Gunn’s brother Allday, a widely known Methodist circuit rider of the North Alabama Conference, had a horse that would not pull up any hill. The prea-cher solved the problem by bracing his feet against the dashboard of his buggy, gra-bbing hold of the horse’s tail and shouting. “Get up!”

The horse moved quickly up the hill, but with slack traces. Dr. Gunn pulled the vehicle entirely by his tail. Dr. Gunn tried the tail business, but it did not work. Finally, in complete disgust and very much chagrinned, the doctor unhitched the bay and led it back to the trading grounds.

The gypsy saw him and smiled. After a bit of rough talk, the gypsy reminded the doctor that the trade was made without any guarantees on either side.

After much more talk it was finally agreed that the gypsy would trade one of the doctor’s plugs back for the hay, provided the doctor bought the drinks. The long and short of it was that Dr. Gunn had given the gypsy a horse and $5 to gain a little experience.

When it was all over, the gypsy said, “I would not take $500 for that bay. I have traded him 42 times, and every time he was brought back. He is the best money maker my band ever owned.”

There were many gypsy camps to be found around Gadsden in the 1880s and 90s, and parents frightened children into good behavior by telling them that the gypsies would steal them and carry them away. The parents backed up their scare stories by occasional news items from other towns and states about the gypsies carrying off children.

In February of 1899, Harry Winters, a 12-year-old son of a local carpenter, disappeared. It was rumored that he had been kidnapped by a band of gypsies that had camped between Gadsden and Attalla. The boy’s family was sure that was what had happened but had no money to trace him, and the authorities believed that he had gone off on his own accord.

Early in August of that same year, the sheriff of Casey County, Kentucky, wired the Etowah County Sheriff that Harry had escaped from the band and was being cared for by a family. He added that the boy would be given transportation back to Gadsden. Young Harry reached home on Sunday, August 13.  For weeks, he kept busy talking about his experience, all of it rough and unpleasant. Harry said that he was simply picked up when the gypsies were breaking camp and hauled off. He said that he was made to do all manner of work and suffered much from the lack of food and proper clothing. 

The gypsies, Harry declared, made him hunt up wood for the camp, make fires, carry water, attend to the stock and the like. Harry said that was kept tied up at night. When the band reached Casey County, he managed to escape and appealed to the authorities for protection, which was given him.

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