NOTE: This story is about a loosely-defined ethnic group that was commonly called “Gypsies” over six hundred years ago; there is absolutely no intent here to cast aspersions on any particular nationality or social group. No one was sure then exactly who they were; and I certainly have no idea other than that they were a colorful, opportunistic, resourceful and nomadic group that taught everyone what caveat emptor meant.
Ever wonder where the expression horse tradin’ came from? It’s been a colloquialism applied to the car business for over fifty years and had its origins in the livery business during the 1800s. Most people used horses in their daily lives back then, but there were those who made buying, selling, renting and caring for these creatures their actual trade. A livery stable was found in virtually every town up until the early 1900s, and the proprietor always considered himself an exceptional judge of ‘horseflesh.’-- he had to be, since his business success depended on it. Normal activities would have included buying animals to use in carriage rentals and for sale to townspeople, and also providing all the ‘services’ that went along with the creatures’ needs—boarding, blacksmithing, tack repair, etc. Basically, the same assistance that is provided by automobile dealers to support our transportation in this era.
My grandfather was one of those liverymen. He had begun the business in a little town in the Catskill Mountains of rural New York during the late 1800s. The business did well not only because of local support, but also because the Erie railroad ran through the town, which made it something of a commercial center for the surrounding area. Traveling salesmen would disembark and hawk their wares through the community before travelling to the next large village. These ‘drummers,’ as they were called, and some of the trainmen needed lodging; so my granddad built a boarding house in front of the large barn that housed the livery stable. The ground floor of the boarding house was a saloon--which was run by my grandmother. She was a tough old bird and worth a story herself, but today we’re talking about horses.
Naturally, my grandfather considered himself an expert judge of horses. If someone dropped in with a horse they wanted to sell, he needed to be able to look at its teeth, hooves, gait, behavior and general health to determine its age and its market value. I have no idea what exactly one looks for in a ‘good’ horse, but supposedly he did. With his success came no small measure of pride; he knew horses. That’s when the trouble started.
Shortly after the turn of the century, when my father was just a boy, granddad began swapping horses with the Gypsies. Whether these individuals were truly ‘Gypsies’ or not, I have no way of knowing; suffice it to say that they had an Eastern-European background, spoke to each other in Germanic languages and ‘looked’ like, well, Gypsies. As I grew up in that same small town, my dad would occasionally tell me about his father’s adventures with the Gypsies. Every summer itinerant bands of these folks would meander through the Catskills, running card games at night and picking up odd jobs and anything that wasn’t nailed down by day. Some would put on variety shows in the taverns and some of their women would lure bar patrons into more intimate encounters, but what they did best was deal in horses. The men were widely regarded as the sharpest horse traders around; and one had to be careful dealing with them, as they usually wound up on top. They would buy a horse that had some problem in one town, buff him up really well to mask whatever the problem was and then sell him in the next town down the road to some gullible buyer. Sensible people didn’t buy horses from the Gypsies, but my grandfather was convinced he was too smart for them and actually looked forward to matching wits. In fact, he would often come across a horse himself that had the heaves or some other malady, and he would wait to hoodwink the Gypsies with it.
So, on some bright summer day a band would come into town with their wagon and wind up at the stable. While the womenfolk went to ply their trades in the bar, the patriarch would mention that he had a horse that didn’t suit his needs somehow and was interested in perhaps doing some trading. Granddad couldn’t resist. He’d look the horse over extra carefully and perhaps find a loose shoe or some other minor flaw and then, thinking he knew just what they had, would offer up his horse. The Gypsy would look it over, haggle long and loud and eventually strike a deal. The group would leave town; and the next day, whatever they had given their horse to perk him up would wear off and the terminal diarrhea or whatever else he had would come back; or whatever they had given him to calm him down would wear off and he would begin biting everyone in sight, kicking his stall apart or refusing to be saddled or hitched up. It was always a much bigger problem than whatever the horse they wound up with had, of course.
Here’s a few of the more memorable horse tradin’ tales I remember being told about:
There was the young, healthy-looking horse that was perfectly behaved, had a good coat, bright eyes, clean teeth, etc. Granddad smugly congratulated himself for finally having put one over on the Gypsies, since the horse he traded for it had colic or worms or something. A couple of days later a drummer rented a carriage and this horse to travel around making his calls. Everything went fine until he was passing through a neighboring town and the fire alarm began to sound. The horse put his ears back and broke into a full gallop, refusing to answer the reins. No matter what the salesman did, the horse ran as hard as he could until the rig skidded into a rut, broke a wheel and overturned, destroying the carriage and tossing the salesman and his merchandise all over the road. He had been a fire horse, of course, trained to run like the wind whenever he heard the bells ring—that’s why the gypsies had bought him cheaply in another city!
There was an equally strong-looking gelding that had discovered he could dodge work by acting lame whenever he was hitched up. No amount of coaxing or threats would make him do any more than limp slowly—until he was released back into the pasture. There were others who would nip or bite any other horse that they were hitched in team with; some that would go wild at the touch of a whip; and another that would incessantly gnaw the wooden slats in the stable, swallow the splinters and suffer huge gastronomical problems as a result. None of these undesirable behaviors could be determined in the course of a normal inspection and each experience only served to fuel my grandfather’s determination to out-swindle the Gypsies the next time they came to town. He rarely did. Instead, he was usually trying to trade off whatever unfortunate creature the last band of Gypsies had suckered him with.
Early in the 1900s when my father was a young man, he recognized that automobiles were going to render horses obsolete, and he began to cater to the mechanical needs of the early cars that began to show up in town. By 1919 he had obtained a Ford franchise and gotten rid of the last vestiges of literal horsepower around the family businesses. Thirty-some years later, when I was growing up in this same town, the old boarding house and saloon had been boarded up for a long time; but my dad had begun teaching me how to look over used automobiles to find what problems might be hiding under a shiny, pimped-up exterior. He also taught me that the ‘horses’ you sell to your friends and neighbors had better be a cut above any you might be planning to swap with the Gypsies! So, I guess it was some sort of predestination that led me to dealing in cars that have a prancing stallion on the nose.
While all this took place nearly a hundred years ago, I’ve noticed that there’s a new generation of ‘Gypsies’ operating today. They’re not swapping horses anymore, but have also moved on to automobiles. They don’t come into town in wagons with harness bells tinkling and wearing colorful bandanas, either. Instead, they pounce into your home through the internet modem! The anonymity that today’s technology affords is an ideal medium through which less-than-scrupulous individuals market their shabby wares. I have cautioned before about the risks that careless due diligence can result in when buying costly things like cars over the internet. Yes, there are many very professional and trustworthy businesses marketing over the ‘net; just make sure you are dealing with one of them or you’re going to be horse tradin’ with the Gypsies, just like my granddad did!
-- Bill Orth --
Fondly dedicated to Denise Hetherington and her desire to own a horse!