January 15, 2013

Hurdy Gurdys, Monkeys, and Trained Chickens in Uptown

Bill Matteson
Uptown Chicago History Correspondent

There was a woman known as the Hurdy Gurdy Woman, at least that's what we called her, for lack of a better title. She was ancient but still able to push this big hurdy gurdy all over Uptown. The hurdy gurdy stood about five feet tall and about five feet long and three feet wide and it was on wheels (this is to the best of my memory).

The Hurdy Gurdy Woman would stand at its side and crank in order to play a circus style music;
she would just appear then disappear. We never knew where she came from or where she lived, but we always dropped coins in the cigar box.

Then an organ grinder would come by with his trained little monkey; he had a much smaller instrument that had the crank on the side with straps that fit around his neck. We would throw coins and the monkey would pick them up and then tip his hat to us.

An old knife sharpener would push his cart through the alley ringing a bell, housewives would bring out knives and scissors for sharpening.

There were always the traveling musicians, two or three playing guitars and singing, doing requests; people tied money in a handkerchief and threw it down to them from their back porches. The musicians would take the money and leave the hanky on the fence.

On Broadway and Wilson was a guy with a trained chicken that could do all sorts of weird tricks. He would walk around with it on his shoulder.

There was the Vegetable Man with his plaintive cry "tooooooomatoeeeess and fresh fruit"; he had a horse drawn wagon.

The Ice Man also had a horse drawn wagon; we would all run down to the alley just to see the horse and get an ice chip.

We had the Ragman—"old raaags, neeeewspapers,scrap"—he had a horse also.

One thing we did was chew tar, not all the time but on occasion. Someone told us that tar was good for the teeth, so we would find where tar was placed along the streetcar tracks. We would scrape off the top dirty layer then cut off a piece of "clean" tar and then chew that. I did it and I'm still alive. Today I would scream at kid's if I saw them do that.

Meanwhile back at the barber shop, I couldn't wait until I got old enough to get a "singe." Finally I was thirteen and the barber gave me a singe. Now I don't know what a singe did; I just figured it was a rite of passage to enter adulthood. The barber would light a wick then he would carefully singe the edges of your hair. I haven't the slightest idea why, nor do I know what good it did. Hair cuts cost fifty cents.

The last Barber shop in my town just closed; another trade committed to memory.


Gail said...

I remember the organ grinder with the monkey. And also the knife man.

Anonymous said...

I remember the knife man, the fruit and vegetable man, he would give us a piece of fruit for free. I also remember the ice man with the big black rubber thing he would put over his shoulder so he could carry the big block of ice. I remember the milk man too. When he would take his metal container from the truck with his milk and other items in it to deliver, we would get in the truck and swipe a chunk of ice to suck on. There was also a person that would come with a pony that was like a palamino and they would put chaps on you, a vest and a hat and take your picture. They would come down the alley behind where I lived at 852 Lawrence Ave.

Cheryl Peck Deters


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