Northwoods Moment In History: Gypsies in the Northwoods

Jan 22, 2020

In this week’s Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz talks about who the Romani people are and tells of their history in the Northwoods.

The United States is a country of immigrants, but not all immigrant groups have been treated the same.  Some immigrants have been welcomed with open arms while others have been subjected to discrimination.  One group, however, has been subjected to such intense discrimination that even the federal government does not recognize them as either an ethnic or racial group.  This effectively denies them the ability to organize for political action.  These are the Romani people, who are often called by the derogatory name of Gypsies.

The Romani have been in North America since Columbus brought the first ones over as slaves, but most came over in the late nineteenth century as the Ottoman Empire’s grip on Eastern Europe began to weaken.  There are many stereotypes associated with the Romani, not least of which is that they are all beggars and thieves.  These are untrue, but the stereotypes followed the Romani everywhere they went, including the Northwoods.

It wasn’t long after the large immigration wave of the late nineteenth century that Romani caravans began showing up in the Northwoods.  They did not receive a warm welcome.  In 1918 a caravan of Romani travelers arrived in Rhinelander.  Chief of Police Straub immediately accused them of picking pockets and forced the entire caravan to leave or suffer the consequences.

Another caravan arrived in 1932.  The Rhinelander press reported that “local police always try to be courteous to tourists, but that welcome is not extended to Gypsy bands, and Chief Maurice Straub ordered the group to leave town pronto.”  Langlade County police accused the group, without any evidence, of “gypping” the people of Antigo.  The Romani travelers were given a police escort through Oneida County.  They received the same reception in Vilas County and were escorted through Eagle River and sent on their way further north.  It is curious how many people found things suddenly missing when a Gypsy band arrived even though the caravan was surrounded by police for the entire time it was in the county.

Another band arrived in 1959 and received the same reception.  A group traveling on Highway 8 was met at the Oneida County line by Sheriff Drivas and escorted nonstop to the Forrest County line.  The Forrest County Sheriff took over, and the Caravan was escorted throughout the night through Forrest, Oconto, and Brown Counties.

While discrimination against the Romani was not unique to the Northwoods, what makes incidents like these particularly intriguing is that throughout this time period people liked to appropriate exotic elements of Romani culture and romanticize about it.  Gypsy parties, where people dressed up in Romani-style costumes, motorcycle Gypsy tours and rallies, and school performances of Gypsy songs and dances were not uncommon in the Northwoods and other parts of Wisconsin.  Stevens Point even had a sports team called The Gypsies.

Today it is estimated that there are one-million Romani living in the U.S.  Most live in settled communities, but there are still a few Travelers living their lives in caravans.