Journal Opinion Nov. 25, 2020
“Question about so many tramps traveling in our streets, able bodied and some of them young men getting their board and lodging out of benevolent people…when they could be at work.” Bradford Opinion, April 17, 1875.
The above was a letter to the editor of the Bradford Opinion from a reader in Fairlee. It began a series of letters regarding the number of tramps in the area at that time. This column deals with several itinerate groups that made the local news in times past. These, often unwelcomed groups, include transient poor, gypsies, peddlers as well as tramps.
Every town is on a road to somewhere else. There are always people just passing through. In previous columns I wrote about transients and short-term visitors. Readers can find my columns on short-term visitor such as summer campers, tourists and commune dwellers on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. There is also an article on hotels and taverns that catered to wagon drivers, railroad workers and other commercial travelers.
To these groups we could add families in wagons headed to or from northern parts of New England, runaway slaves seeking freedom in Canada and migrant workers seeking short term employment. Passengers on stagecoaches or railroad and passenger cars pass through give only a brief glance at our hometowns. Even stranded hitchhikers wish only to pass through.
Prior to the establishment of town poor farms in the 19th century, the transient poor were given the heave-ho by New England towns. Voters did not want the expense of supporting those who moved from another town, a situation that often caused hard feelings.
In New Hampshire, the practice of “warning out” newcomers who had no visible means of support began as early as 1641. This practice continued after New Hampshire became a state.
In 1787, Vermont granted the right to towns to exclude strangers while supporting their own improverished residents and a number of local towns used that option. Between that year and 1816 when the law was repealed, Newbury warned 21 different families. Not everyone who was warned left town, but they were ineligible for town support.
Ever since the middle of the 19th century, every economic downturn has created homeless individuals. Generally men, these homeless vagrants have been called bum, hobo or tramp. While the titles are often used interchangeable, some online sources make the following distinctions. A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, a tramp is one who is homeless but will seek or do work if forced to and a bum is one who will not work at all.
In the decades following the Civil War and again after 20th century conflicts, legions of unemployed veterans tramped the roads or hitched rides on railroad freights cars. Many of these men could be described as walking wounded.
During the economic depression that began in 1873, the term “tramp” became used for a vagrant with not visible means of support. Newspapers reports warned of “the tramp evil becoming a terror to rural homes.”
In July 1875, the following appeared in the Bellows Falls Times: “Crimes by tramps have become so frequent…that soon people will have no other resource left but to treat them as outlaws generally.“
In May 1878, “a tramp enraged the wife of Roswell Cora while she was alone in her house at West Fairlee because she refused him some cider.” He was arrested and confined in the tramp house in Bradford.
The threat from “hordes of vagabonds,” caused both states to pass severe anti-trump laws with imprisonment threatened. Some of the leading proponents of these measures had local connections.
In New Hampshire, Gilman Marston of Exeter was the primary sponsor of the bill. Marston was born in Orford in 1811. Ellis Bliss, Jr. of Bradford played a similar role in Vermont’s 1878 tramp law. Bliss had been Bradford’s overseer of the poor for 21 years and in 1878 had 518 tramps coming to him for food and lodging.
These stringent laws caused the number of tramps to decline briefly in both two states. The St. Johnsbury Caledonian printed a “letter” from one tramp to another that closed with the following. “U won’t ketch me in this stat again…ceep clere of Vermont for it iz not a good hum for a sensitive tramp.”
However, the number of tramps subsequently increased with each economic downturn. In 1898, the United Opinion reported “Tramps are getting very thick.” In 1905, Piermont used its jail “to provide a suitable place for criminals and tramps.” Each year, local towns appropriated funds for the care of tramps.
In 1909, when Groton offered tramps “a loaf of bread and can of salmon or piece of cheese” and allowed them to stay in the jail, the editor of the Groton Times warned “if this continues, Groton will be the tramp’s headquarters and the village at their mercy.”
During the Great Depression the number of unemployed vagrants again increased. In 1932, the town of Newbury fed and lodged 1,421 tramps. Fairlee’s overseer of the poor maintained the town’s tramp house at the north end of Main Street. It was recalled that “tramps jumped the train at the dump site to get food and other items offered by the town residents.” The town provided a meal of bread and beans and one-night shelter.
Tramps were known to write messages on telephone poles advising others who traveled from town to town in search of odd jobs and meals. Some might warned of local police, whereas other messages told of places that offered assistance.
One of those messages must have directed men to my parents’ house on Bridge Street in Orford. They were never turned away. I recall one late afternoon that a disheveled looking man came to our back door asking for food. My Mom was preparing supper and offered him some stew. He politely replied that he hoped for raw ingredients that he could take back to what might be known as a “hobo kitchen.”
Martina Day Stever recalls that during the Great Depression, tramps often stopped by the family farmhouse in Piermont “to ask if there was any work they could do for a meal.” There was always, she recalls, wood to chop or other work to do. Her grandmother always fed them and they were never afraid of the men who came to their door.
Another group of transients common to the area was the door-to-door peddler. In the early 1800s, both New Hampshire and Vermont gave local authorities the power to license hawkers and peddlers. Well into the early 20th century, local peddlers carried goods from local stores to rural locations. These along with honest peddlers of everything from tools to domestic necessities in established territories were a welcomed sight to isolated homes.
But there was serious concern about unscrupulous transient swindlers, most of whom apparently ignored the law. In the 1850s, there were warnings about itinerant liquor peddlers “who retail their wares from the bottle.”
In the 1870s, local newspaper articles warned against the infestation of “innumerable swindlers…who are busily engaged in defrauding honest people, particularly farmers.” The Bradford Opinion carried the following warning against street venders in the village: “Things are not always what they seem.”
In the 1880s, both states attempted to only license peddlers who had lived in the state for at least a year. However, these laws were overturn by Federal courts as discriminatory against citizens of other states.
While improved transportation to village stores and the rise of catalog sales put an end to many itinerate peddlers, some legitimate door-to- door sales were continued locally by Watkins, Grand Union and Sunbeam. Unfortunately, as late as this year, there were warnings in both states against swindlers who visited homes to sell everything from home security systems to property repairs.
One group of scammers that have targeted the two states in recent years offering home repairs are generally considered to be gypsies. One large such families has visited the area, traveling with new pickups and travel trailers, and selling scam-related driveway and barn roof repairs.
Most Roma or gypsies first came to the United States in the late 1800s. While newspaper accounts may have confused actual Roma with Native Americans, the following is a summary of reports about groups identified in town histories and vintage news reports as gypsies. The terms Roma or Rom did not appear in earlier Vermont newspapers.
While most reports are of travelers, one large extended family of gypsies were living more or less permanently near Barrington, NH as early as the 1840s. Known for their basket making, the so-called Leather Family was described by a reporter in 1871 as “a hard looking lot.” The reporter was there to write a report on two murders suspected to be connected to the group.
In the 1890s, gypsy caravans in elaborately painted wagons and tents were seen in area towns. They were known to camp on the outskirts of villages. In Haverhill, a band of about 40 camped at the end of the Bedell Bridge for the summer buying and selling horses. In Bradford, south of the village. One farmer north of Bradford met a gypsy woman on his front steps where he traded chickens for homemade lace.
Corinth’s history includes the following: For years each summer great bands of gypsies camped on Cilley Flats when the East Corinth Fair was held. “They were not allowed to swap horses on the fairground and would lure any perspective customers to their encampment for a drink of hard liquor which was banned in the town.” It was “Yankee cunning against Gypsy slyness,” and, when the gypsies won, “they departed quietly in the night before violent physical action could be taken.”
Newspaper reports referred to the gypsies in the most negative of term, creating a lasting stereotype. They were called “bloodsucker of organized society,” pickpockets or kidnappers of children and chickens. The threat that “strolling gypsies” would kidnap white children was mentioned in Boston as early as 1794. This continued to be an accusation, but no cases of child abduction were ever proven.
Around 1917, a band of about 25 gypsies traveled through the area flash mobbing local businesses. In May, six women from the band overpowered the owner of a local store in Barnet and seized his pocketbook. Three carloads of the band descended on Barre stores, grabbing items and money. When the band caused problems in Orange, someone telephone Wait River where “the storekeeper locked up his store and hid.”
In 1926, “several automobiles with Gypsy occupants, men, women and children, were detained in the street…pending the return of $65 taken by a Gypsy fortune teller” from a local man. In 1935, a Bradford man lost $22 when a gypsy woman who claimed to be a healer picked his pocket.
In 1927, the infamous Eugenics Survey referred to as many as 430 “Gypsy Families” in Vermont. But according to the study, these were Vermonters “with dark skin due to an admixture of negro and Indian blood.”
In July 1930, Bradford merchants were alerted of a similar band and organized to repel them. Police escorted this band to the New Hampshire border where they were met by state police and “furnished a through escort to the opposite state border.”
In the mid-1960s, the Vermont State Police placed merchants on Bradford’s main street on alert of a gypsy band and some closed prematurely. The general feeling was that local towns were inhospitable as “gypsies had outlived their welcome.” About that same time, the roof and drive scammers made another visit to the area, a visit that has been repeated several times since.
Within the past two years I have finished three projects focusing on the ancestors of my wife and myself. Each one goes back at least 12 generations to those whom initially came to New England as part of the Great Migration.
As I looked at the hundreds of our ancestors, I came to know about those who settled in a location and stayed and those that frequently moved on to new locations. There were even several who were “warned out” of town.
So while this column deals with groups of transients, individuals who just passed through our area, I am inclined to think from the perspective of generations and centuries, we are all fairly transient. While we may linger more or less than others, we are truly just passing through.