1903 atlas of York showing the north side of the 600 and 700 block of East King Street
York’s Gypsies led a colorful life
A couple of months ago I wrote a column on the basket makers of Bullfrog Alley. Many of them seem to be the same families that were known as York’s Gypsies. Just about all these people came to York from southwestern Germany around 1840 to 1860. They settled around East King Street, in the few blocks west of Fulton Street. Most seem to have assimilated into the York community by the 1920s. Later interviews of older persons from that area, however, still brought up memories of York’s gypsies going out earlier to travel in the summer in colorful wagons and colorful dress. They would sell the baskets they had made in the winter, trade in horses, and some of the women told fortunes.
Here is my recently York Sunday News column on these intriguing local citizens:
York had its own unique Gypsy community
I wrote about the basket makers of Bullfrog Alley in a recent column. Bullfrog Alley was a common name for Low Street, now East King Street. Many of the families there were called Gypsies. This term can broadly refer to people who wander around instead of settling in one place. There are some indications, however, that some of these Yorkers might be descendants of the Roma or Sinti Gypsies of Europe, people whose origins stretch back to India.
Newspaper clippings and other accounts shared by family members and neighbors in the past tell of local Gypsies going out in the summer in showy wagons, “painted with flowers and decorated with dark red fancy curtains.” The women wore impressive necklaces and earrings and the men wore big hats. During those summer excursions they would sell the baskets and brushes that they had made over the winter. The women would also tell fortunes.
In a 1990 York Daily Record interview Alic Stough of East King Street told of growing up in Bullfrog Alley 70 years before. He said many of the people were Gypsies, making a living from basket making, junk dealing, horse trading and bootleg whiskey. His father peddled baskets and junked with horse and wagon. Stough’s grandmother, a German immigrant, was dark complected, with long black hair. She wore a bandanna, beads and a long full skirt.
Sometime during the latter part of the 19th century the local Gypsies got into the horse trading business, both in York and on the road. Junk dealing came a little later. Mike Lauber was said to have “made a fortune” in horse trading. Some cite Lauber as one of the leaders of the community, even calling him “king” of the local Gypsies. In some cases horse trading and junk dealing might have led descendants into used car and auto recycling businesses.
Some of York’s Gypsies were Catholic, but others attended Bethany Moravian Church in the 600 block of East King Street. A non-Gypsy neighbor, Florence Young, remembered a Gypsy wedding at Bethany about 1920, attended by barefoot Gypsy women in gingham dresses, aprons and sunbonnets. She also said a local Gypsy woman sat on Bethany’s steps to tell fortunes.
Henry J. Young, then director of the Historical Society of York County (now the York County History Center) conducted an interview with his father James Alvin Young, his sister Florence and aunt Alice in 1945. The Youngs said the Gypsies got along well with the non-Gypsies in the community. They list some old Gypsy family names as Einsig, Myers, Nicholas, Lauber, Mauhn, Meinhart, Kahley, Barnhart, Reinhart, Ritter and Kleiman. Many of these names do appear as basket makers in census records. They also remembered the older Gypsies having dark complexions and going traveling during the summer, perhaps as late as the 1920s.
Even though Gypsies were friendly with non-Gypsies who lived in the neighborhood, with a good many intermarriages, those from outside the community sometimes did not fare as well. This seems to be especially true of young men. Community girls were said to have had dates drop them off at the railroad tracks near Fulton Street, kind of an unofficial boundary, to avoid fights.
Besides newspaper articles and personal accounts, other contemporary sources refer to the Gypsies. According to a 1941 Brethren history, in November 1897 York’s First Church of the Brethren established the East End Mission Sunday School in Charles Lehman’s home at 803 East King Street. It states that “the school closed July 1, 1898, because the ‘gypsie’ element in this locality left on their summer vacation.”
The York County History Center Library and Archives has a copy of “The Basket Makers of York, Pennsylvania c.1840-1930.” It was published in Dynamic Perspective: Proceedings of the 2002 Annual Meeting of the Gypsy Lore Society. [Budapest.] The eight-page paper was written by Sheila and Matt Salo, who did local research at HSYC/YCHC. They also used other sources in Europe and the United States, such as church, civil and governmental records; census; directories; passenger lists; property maps; obituaries and correspondence with descendants. The paper investigates European origins of York’s Gypsies, as well as studying their life here.
The Salos found that these York community members came mainly from the Wurttemberg area of south-west Germany. That corroborates information on U.S. census records. The first group, 16 members of two related families left the village of Imnau in 1839. Landing in Baltimore, they soon settled in York. Another group of 33 from Benzingen arrived in 1840. Over the next six years 45 more immigrated in groups, many interrelated and from other area villages of Nagold, Unterjesingen, Reusten and Bondorf. Today you can drive through five of those villages in less than an hour with the sixth only 45 minutes further. Most landed in Baltimore and some in New York, but they all made their way to the established community in York. They might have had local family ties. The Salos say that these families of 94 people who arrived by 1846 made up the York core community before 1860. Ages upon immigration ranged from a few months to 64. Basket making, brush making and scissors grinding were family occupations in Europe going back at least to the mid-1700s. Census records show they followed these trades here.
The Salos did not find proof that these European emigrants were actually of Roma or Sinti descent, but that they had followed the traveling lifestyle in their area of Germany. They found evidence that some, but not all, of these families were encouraged to emigrate, some with transportation paid. History tells us of economic depression in 1840s Germany. These wanderers were relatively poor, so instead of facing supporting them at home, communities subsidized some emigrants, perhaps even including clothing allowance, a stipend to establish them in America and transportation to the port, along with ship passage.
Most of rest of the Salos’ findings corroborate the local accounts quoted above. Though never large, and despite intermarriage with other local families, this distinct community is a unique part of York County history. Many residents today can trace their roots back to this intriguing settlement and lifestyle. The distinct neighborhood came to an abrupt halt in the late 1950s, however, with the advent of the Wellington housing project. Almost all of the Bullfrog alley houses were demolished for that project, except for a row of four that still stands on the south side of the 600 block of East King Street. These few very closely resemble the rows of houses in photos labeled “Bull Frog Alley in the palmy days of basket making,” at YCHC.
If you have roots in the Gypsies of York and would like to share information, please contact me at email@example.com.