from Tin Tub Baths and the Rag Man, A Living History of Northwest Pennsylvania

The Rag Man and His Old Chestnut Horse

By Barbara Smith of Erie, Pennsylvania

As a young child in the mid 1950s growing up in a quiet, quaint, Polish community on East 24th and Reed Streets in Erie, Pennsylvania, I remember the Rag Man.

The Rag Man was a very old, small, wrinkled man with thin gray hair and disheveled clothes who sat on the high seat of an open, weathered wagon drawn by one, old, huge, chestnut colored horse. Whenever the neighborhood children heard the sound of the clumping of the horse’s metal shoes on the pavement and the old man calling out “rags, rags,” in broken English, the children would stop what they were playing and run to the edge of the grass to watch the horse drawn wagon slowly pass by. It was a real treat and a little scary to see such a large animal prancing by our inner city house.

If we were lucky, some of the neighborhood women would come out holding armfuls of old clothes to give to the Rag Man, which gave us the opportunity to watch the horse for a longer time. The Rag Man would pull the reins to stop the horse and then he would jump down from his wagon perch and greet the women with a wrinkled smile and take their dirty, torn rags and gently place them in his weathered wagon as if they were a wonderful treasure. Once his job was done, he climbed back up on his ripped wagon seat and gently shook the reins for the horse to continue the slow trot down the middle of the street while the old man called out “rags, rags” in broken English.

The children would walk along the edge of the grass following and watching the horse and wagon until we heard our mother’s voices beckoning us to come back and play in our own yards. After one more quick glance at the old horse, we ran back to continue playing until the next time when we heard the familiar sound of the clumping of the horse shoes on the pavement and the tiny voice of the old man calling out “rags, rags” in broken English.

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