Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gypsy Wagon

Several days ago I mentioned my gypsy wagon...and received several comments asking about its provenance.

In the late 1960s I worked on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in north central Montana. Rocky Boy's is a small reservation of Chippewa and Cree Indians. While there my wife and I were inspired to make an 18' Cree tipi. The tipi became the first home of the Village Craftsmen when we returned east and settled on Ocracoke, my ancestral home (it was the 70s, after all!).

On a subsequent visit to Montana in the early 1970s I met a family who were living in a sheep herder's wagon. I have always been interested in out-of-the-ordinary people and quirky lifestyles. The wagon so intrigued me that I decided to build one of my own (I needed a challenge since I already had a tipi!). However, I was also influenced by my mother's Hungarian heritage, and stories of gypsies.

In the mid 1980s I began construction of my gypsy wagon. It is built on the chassis of a Ford pickup truck. (You should have seen me carting fenders, a cargo bed, seats, and other parts to the dump.) I designed the superstructure myself, based on other vardos (the gypsy word for wagon) and photos I had access to.

Inside, the wagon was fitted out as a camper. It originally had a wood cook stove, satin curtains, and elaborate decorations. The fire engine red outside sported brass lanterns, etched glass windows, decorative iron braces, and carved vertical strips with bright yellow pin striping.

It was quite impressive, though it was too heavy and unwieldy to serve as a practical camping vehicle.

(Click on photo to view a larger image.)

After more than a quarter of a century the gypsy wagon is showing its age. It was repainted once, and the iron braces & lanterns were not reattached. Nor were the yellow decorations repainted. Some of the wood has begun to deteriorate.

The gypsy wagon still serves as an occasional spare bedroom, and gathering place for interesting people with quirky lifestyles. I will continue to enjoy it as long as it survives the depredations of weather and age. It rests behind the Village Craftsmen.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is Lou Ann's story of the Night Blooming Cereus Cactus. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous6:30 AM

    Do the beaurocrats of Hyde County charge you an annual "vehicle" tax?

  2. Dawn Taylor6:34 AM

    So how much you rent this for per night ? :P

  3. Anonymous7:34 AM

    Philip, your gypsy wagon reminds me of the one in an Andy Griffith tv episode back in the '60s!

    Honestly, I do believe there needs to be a movie made about the "quirky" and amazing life of Philip Howard! You have certainly accomplished a lot on that lifetime "bucket list"! :)

  4. You may well be the most interesting person I know!

  5. Do you know there is a vargo museum in rural central England? I'd hoped to visit when I was there this spring, but it didn't work out. I'm dreamed of traveling in a "gypsy" wagon like yours for years!

  6. OcracokeFan8:43 AM

    Mr. Howard, Look at all the interest this little wagon has attracted on your blog! I believe you could lovingly restore it to its original condition, perhaps with a few upgrades. You could probably rent it out nearly every day of the summer to guests looking for a quirky little place to stay. Decades from now it might just be parked outside the history museum as a historic reminder of Ocracoke's interesting past!

  7. Anonymous9:13 AM

    Some might consider you a tad quirky Philip, but you could never be accused of being boring. One of these days you must tell us some gypsy stories.

  8. Bear MacDonald10:25 AM

    One day, while at the Village Craftsmen, I noticed the wagon and treehouse. I also noticed a small sign attached to one of the support posts of the treehouse. Assuming that signs were meant to be read, I proceded back to investigate. It read, "Please respect our privacy." Just when it occurred to me that I was possibly tresspassing, Amy came out the back door and I was "busted." we had a very pleasant conversation, and I took some photographs.
    Hoping not to impose any more I was soon on my way.

    This is one of the countless pleasures that has gotten Ocracoke in my blood.

    Thanks to you, Amy, and many others.


  9. debbie s.2:38 PM

    i just love it!

  10. Anonymous7:06 PM


    I suspect that most of us who follow your blog and are fans of Ocracoke are a bit quirky in that we appreciate the island's solitary charms, away from the big box stores and sprawling developments. As Bear confessed his minor trespassing tale, however, perhaps we sometimes bring along a little of the boorish tourist with us as well. From your perspective, at least as this venue's voice of Ocracoke, can you pass along some constructive suggestions (or perhaps your own pet peeves) to help us all be better guests of the island?

    Sign me,

    Tempted to pick a prickly pear fruit but thought better of it.


  11. Anon 7:06 pm -- I will address your comment in a future blog. Thanks for the suggestion!

  12. Anonymous8:22 AM

    It would be great to see some photos of the inside, and I agree that restoring and/or preserving it would be a worthy exercise.

  13. Restoring and preserving the gypsy wagon is a great idea, but the task just seems overwhelming to me right now. We'll see!