When tramps and Roma roamed the countryside, and break-ins were prevalent

— Photo from Guilderland Historical Society

Trained bears and their wandering keepers, very possibly part of a traveling Gypsy group, were photographed as they performed for members of the Cook family, who summered at their farm on Dunnsville Road. Always attracting curious onlookers, the men were hoping for coins to reward their performance.

Any strangers observed passing through Guilderland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were quickly spotted and carefully observed by the locals who were familiar with their own friends and neighbors. Respectable travelers and salesmen presented no problem, but certain other groups of transients were scrutinized warily: Gypsies, tramps, and thieves.

Gypsies, who today prefer to be called Roma, began immigrating to the United States from eastern Europe in large numbers after 1880. With the arrival of warm weather, bands of Gypsies, moving about in their brightly colored wagons, arrived on country roads, telling fortunes and trading horses.

Local columnists in The Enterprise often noted the presence of Gypsies, signaling to people in nearby communities that Gypsies were nearby and may be heading your way next. As early as 1886, the Guilderland column noted “plenty of Gypsies on the road nowadays.” People living along the Western Turnpike or Schoharie Road, Guilderland’s main roads at that time, were most likely to see outsiders wandering through.

Gypsies were regarded with both fascination and fear. The fascination was fueled by such stories as some printed in the early editions of  The Enterprise with titles like “The Gypsy Queen” (1884), “The Gypsy’s Story” (1887), and “A Gypsy’s Sad Life and Death” (1888).

Their reputation as fortune tellers attracted curious people to seek them out and for a time they set up fortune-telling tents at the Altamont Fair. Their mobile lifestyle, exotic dress, tents, and travel in their painted wagons may have even made local hard-working men and women leading their somewhat dull lives slightly envious of the excitement and constant change of scenery experienced by the Gypsies.

But there was also a dark side that caused communities to be quite wary. This may have been that era’s version of an urban legend, but children were seriously warned to beware of being kidnapped by the Gypsies, especially if there was one of their encampments in the area.

There was also fear of being cheated in sales, particularly that of horses. The story from South Berne of the man there who bargained for a horse from the Gypsies, and only “a few days after found the horse dead in the stable,” was enough to cause area farmers to be reluctant to have any business dealings with the Gypsies. When in 1908 the Guilderland Center correspondent noted that Gypsies were camping just outside the village near Becker’s Bridge, it may have been a coded warning.

Tramps were scorned or pitied

Tramps, the homeless men of that day who made up the second group of wanderers going through town singly or in groups, were greeted by the local residents with varying degrees of pity, scorn, and suspicion.

A Parkers Corners writer questioned, “Who will take care of all the tramps that are traveling the road and stopping at every house? They should be looked after by someone.”

In the opinion of the Fullers correspondent, “The alms house is the place for them.”

In one pathetic case, the body of a man characterized as an “imbecile tramp” who had been wandering in the area acting in a “strange and threatening manner,” was found on James B. Hilton’s farm near Altamont. After the coroner ruled that the unfortunate man probably died in a fit, he was interred in the Potter’s Field portion of Fairview Cemetery.

The Enterprise printed a piece of humor of the day, originating from an outside source written by a man who offered “a tramp suppressing or tramp dispensing device.” He suggested the tramp’s greatest fear is that of soap and water. Forcing a tramp to wash up will cause him to “dance, howl, shriek, and beat against his prison bars.” Once free he’ll make a “beeline” out of town, chalking a mark, warning away other tramps.

Tramps were viewed as nuisances, stopping by homes along the roads to ask for food. Their reputation for chalking mysterious symbols on fences or piling rocks a certain way to signal that food was usually available at this or that house was well known. Sometimes camping on farmers’ land, tramps caused problems as the one that occurred when their campfire set Ira Hurst’s woods on fire.

Suspicion was that, if opportunity presented itself, tramps would steal from householders and farmers. People in Fullers got the warning to “lock up your buildings as three or four old tramps are seen on the road daily.”

“A suspicious character” was noticed lurking around Meadowdale’s general store. Harvey A. Vosburgh, Overseer of the Poor, fed a tramp one night who repaid his hospitality by stealing money from the pocket of Vosburgh’s hired man, then sneaking away. In one of the few cases where a thief was actually apprehended, the tramp was taken before Esq. McKown who sentenced him to three months in the penitentiary.

In quest of a good meal, tramps commonly made thefts of defenseless hens leading many farmers to keep a goose or two whose loud honking would give warning if an unwanted visitor entered the henhouse after dark.

Thieves: local or professional

Reports of thefts occurring in various parts of town were noted in The Enterprise’s local columns sporadically over the years. The perpetrators seemed to fall into three categories: tramps, light fingered locals and professional thieves.

 A Meadowdale housewife, upon discovering a tramp climbing out through a window of her home, gave chase only to have him get away with two gold rings. Many of the petty thefts like this from houses and barns noted in local columns were likely to have been tramps who kept on the move and were never caught.

Some of the thefts were definitely pulled off by local neighbors. Someone absconded with a turkey from Keenholts’ Altamont market. The Village & Town column in the next issue of  The Enterprise carried a sharp warning to the mystery person that he was well know and better either return the turkey or $2 by Saturday or “he will be exposed by one who saw him do it.”

When Emmit Blessing’s watch was stolen from his house, suspicion “pointed to a young man living near here.” Then there was the Guilderland Center man who pulled a switch, substituting an old pump for a new one at H. Van Auken’s well. “We know who you are,” was the blunt statement in the next Guilderland Center column, warning the culprit to return the pump to save himself trouble and embarrassment.

The threat of public humiliation and ruined reputation was probably enough of a deterrent to keep most of the neighbors honest.

Major break-ins must have been the work of professional criminals. Petinger’s Guilderland Center general store was burglarized by blowing open the safe, netting the criminals $35 in silver and a large number of postage stamps.

Another time, burglars used explosives to crack the safe at Guilderland Foundry. For all their effort, their haul was a disappointing $8.

W.S. Pitts’ general store in Altamont was broken into through a side window. The three men who did it carried off a goodly quantity of merchandise and, even though witnesses saw them flee, they managed to get away.

Thieves in McKownville hit the jackpot when in one night they managed to enter the Albany Country Club’s Clubhouse, Witbeck’s Hotel, and the schoolhouse, removing $150 worth of valuable silverware, clothing, and cigars.

In the years before World War I, thefts and break-ins targeted chiefly homes, barns, and businesses, but schools, railroad depots, and St. Lucy’s Chapel were also victims at one time or another. Commonly taken were things like cash, postage stamps, jewelry, men’s clothing and shoes, harnesses, and horse blankets.

But who stole the altar wine from St. Lucy’s? Books were carried off from schools on Settles Hill and from Guilderland, while at Altamont High School the most bizarre loot was pilfered — all the drawing compasses in the school! Various general stores and the foundry had been burglarized multiple times over the years.

Townsmen blustered in print about the consequences if the “miscreants,”  “Midnight marauders,” or the “chicken thief fraternity” were to be apprehended. Threats came from all over town that “house revolvers should be kept handy” and “if captured (he) will be summarily dealt with” or “A warm reception awaits the next company of midnight marauders.”

One man stormed, “If he caught the fellow who did it, he would make it hot for him.” Another advised, “Our citizens should oil their rusty revolvers and be ready for business.”

Frank Spurr seemed to be the only man to actually manage to fire off shots at a fleeing burglar who had broken into the barber shop and store in Guilderland. He missed!

Year by year, in those horse-and-buggy days, life in Guilderland was actually very safe and quiet, but every now and again unwelcome strangers caused some excitement, giving the local residents something interesting to talk about over the back fence, after church, or around the potbelly stove at the local general store.  Comfortable with each other, they did not regard unwelcome strangers kindly.