LOCAL LORE: “Gypsies" in Edgewood

While researching the history of Edgewood and Metropolis View, I came across an 1895 story in the Washington Times headlined “Where the Gypsies Live.” Although the term “gypsy" is today considered an ethnic slur by many, it has long been a common term used for any dark-skinned nomadic peoples, whether of Romani origin, or from Turkey or South America or even Ireland. In this particular story from 1895, three different colonies had set up camp in what was then called Berry’s Woods, near Glenwood Cemetery in present-day Edgewood.

1888 photo  from the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge. 

I had never fully realized just how extensive the nomadic life was in this country at that time, nor how regular was the occurence of these encampments in the Washington area. Bladensburg, Congress Heights, Rock Creek and Berry’s Woods were all places where many clans frequently spent the winters.  

Another surprise for me was the tone of the article in the Washington Times. It was a feature piece that displayed local residents' fascination with an intriguing, exotic culture. Going to a gypsy encampment to get one’s fortune told was a very popular pastime and provided a major source of income for the nomads. Though allegations of thievery and myths of child kidnapping had long been associated with gypsies, there was no sense of distrust or suspicion in the article. In fact it pointed out their patriotism, the neatness of their wagons and campsites, the diversity of the different colonies. The reporter took the streetcar up 4th St NE, where he could see the colorful wagons and tents:

LOCAL LORE: Two Stories About Colonel Brooks - True or False?

jehielbrooks

As I’ve researched Brookland and vicinity over the years, I’ve come across a number of interesting little stories that don’t quite rise to the level of a full post. Here are a couple of nuggets about Colonel Jehiel Brooks (left), for whom Brookland was named. I think it’s safe to say the colonel was a man with a prickly temperament. Cantankerous, litigious, a lover of horticulture and a hater of most everything else, Brooks liked to be perceived as a wealthy gentleman, though the wealth in his family resided with his wife, Ann Queen, who inherited the property from her father. Jehiel himself was constantly worried about finances.

I discovered an interesting little story when I was researching the post on the Burnes family graves, which were on the Brooks property. Those graves were first mentioned in an article in the Evening Star in 1887, attributed to a writer named “Eastus.” In addition to alluding to the gravesite, he describes an interesting event told him by Colonel Brooks:  

The founder of this place was Col. Jehiel Brooks…. Often have I listened to him with pleasure,  for he was a page from the past, abounding in reminiscences of [Henry] Clay, [John] Calhoun, [Daniel] Webster, John Randolph, Davy Crockett, and others whose names have become historical…. President Tyler was a frequent visitor and made himself thoroughly at home, throwing off the cares of office and becoming the ordinary citizen; and indeed, did this President’s simplicity carry him to such an extent that on one occasion it came near getting him into a ludicrous position. It was a fine day, and Mr. Tyler, visiting at the Brooks’ mansion, was abandoning himself to the delights of outdoor country life, entering fully into the spirit of its freedom. While he was thus forgetting political cares a party of Congressmen called. After receiving his visitors Col. Brooks went in search of the President and found him sitting in a wheelbarrow, with a pretty girl, a relative of the family, pushing him about the grounds.

‘Mr. President,’ said the colonel, ‘a party of gentlemen are at the house who wish to see you.’

Jumping from the rude vehicle, Mr. Tyler exclaimed:

‘Did they see me?'

Upon first reading this story, I wondered whether it was true, or a tall tale invented by the Colonel. It’s difficult to imagine the thin, austere John Tyler (right, Library of Congress) gallivanting around in a wheelbarrow. It turns out that “Eastus” was the pen name of James Eastus Price, whose sister married a son of Col. Brooks, so he was part of the extended Brooks family. And looking through some of the Brooks papers held at the Catholic University Archives, it does appear that Brooks and Tyler were friendly, if not necessarily close friends. 

© Robert Malesky 2017