In the course of Troy’s history, there have been many interesting people of influence, power and ingenuity. Some people developed successful businesses which provided jobs and income, as well as tax dollars for the city. Others gave of their time volunteering for important projects, programs, or organizations. Of course, there were also individuals and families who made a difference in the community by what they gave to Troy, e.g., A.G. Stouder, Mary Jane Hayner, the Hobarts, etc..
But, also enduring in legacy are some individuals who were just colorful, interesting and memorable in how they lived their lives.
Don Brown contacted me this week and wrote that he remembered hearing about one of those people from the past that many Trojans may have heard about and he wondered if his story could be shared. So, here is the story of “Horseradish Charlie,” as far as I know it. So much legend has grown up around this individual over the years that sometimes it is hard to discern fact from fiction.
The horseradish plant is from the same plant family as mustard, wasabi, broccoli and cabbage. It is actually the large root which is used as a spice in various recipes, or utilized in making horseradish and horseradish sauce. The root itself has very little aroma, but when it is freshly grated or cut it gives off a pungent odor that can clear the sinuses faster than any Vicks formula.
Most people who remember Horseradish Charlie, or at least remember hearing about him, recall a gentleman from the 1930’s and 1940’s. But the story of Horseradish Charlie actually began before the U.S. Civil War in Fletcher.
William Wright, a native of New York State, was about 40 years old when he appeared in Miami County in late November 1848 and married Elizabeth Ennis. William and Elizabeth settled in Fletcher, in the northeastern part of Miami County, and lived the rest of their lives there. In September, 1849, the Wrights welcomed their first child, a boy, into their home.
Charles W. Wright did not follow in his father’s occupational footsteps as a shoemaker; rather he took on various tasks as a common laborer. One newspaper description stated he was a “Jack of all Trades.” But somewhere around the early-to-mid 1870’s, he began to harvest and sell horseradish to neighbors and in the city of Troy. Each market day in Troy, from about 1872 until 1904, “Horseradish Charlie,” as he was soon called, could be found near the steel fire escape, near the south corner of W. Main St. and the Public Square. He always had a cart loaded with the root vegetable and a grinding mechanism ready to serve up fresh horseradish. It is possible that he also sold other vegetables, but was remembered for his specialty, horseradish root.
Charlie ventured out to wet and swampy areas in the rural areas where the horseradish plant grew and harvested what he needed for his customers. Recollections of Charlie pictured him cutting and grinding the root at a fast pace for those who wanted the flavor enhancer. It seemed that he did a brisk business. After about 32 years of selling horseradish around Troy, he was known throughout most of the county.
Charlie was married twice: First, to Mary Jane Reeder, with whom he had three children; second, he married Mrs. Anna Collins, of Piqua.
When Charlie married Mrs. Collins, in 1904, the news stated that he was retiring from the business and that his son, Charles Frank Wright, born in 1875, would continue on in his stead.
The original Horseradish Charlie died in 1914 while living in Piqua. He was survived by his two sons, a daughter and a step daughter.
In a news article, Frank, who also became known in Troy as Horseradish Charlie, described himself exactly like his father, a “Jack of All Trades and a Master of None.” He often did odd jobs, such as hauling fertilizer and picking up scrap metal and junk around town to sell to scrap dealers.
Frank is the colorful character that older Trojans recall from their childhood, or at least, hearing their elders discussing. Just like his father, Frank could be found near the eastside of the Public Square, near the familiar steel fire escape, grinding his horseradish root for all customers that came to him. In later years, perhaps because there was no longer a weekly market or as a result of a city ordinance, Charlie pushed a cart strung with bells through town and would stop and grind his horseradish root whenever someone asked for some.
One of the stories about Horseradish Charlie was that because grinding the root releases pungent aromatic vapors that irritates the eyes and nose, much like an onion, and causes one’s nose to run, that some people remembered Charlie’s nose dripping into or onto his product sometimes while he ground the horseradish.
Another tale was that he did not bathe often. This may be true, but given the fact that he went into wet areas or swamps to gather the plants and that he was continuously around the horseradish odor, then it just may be that he had his own unique aroma.
Sometimes with interesting people such as Horseradish Charlie, they are loners and stay to themselves, perhaps, even acting so peculiar that people do not want to be around them. Not with this gentleman. A couple news accounts attest to the fact that Charlie was very friendly, saying hello to whomever he crossed paths with and engaging others in conversation and, of course, selling ground horseradish.
Horseradish Charlie, like his father, was twice married. He married Emma (Warner) Vore, when he was 49 years old and she was 43 years old. They divorced sometime after 1930. His second marriage in 1937 was to Lillian Van Zant, who was about 25 years, his junior. He did not have any children.
Charlie was a member of the Salvation Army and would often lead their parades in town, proudly wearing his “Army” cap.
He seemed to move around quite a bit, living at various times on Elm, Jackson, Sherman, and Lake Streets. According to a 1949 article, he lived in a little shack that he had built between Main and Sherman Streets, near the B & O railroad line. Another story related story stated that he was seen sleeping in the city park from time-to-time.
The one piece of advice he left for others was that kids stay in school and get an education. “I got mad and left school at 15 and never went back. If I had it to do again I would have stayed in school.” Almost 70 years later that is still sound advice today.
Charlie retired around 1938 and made ends meet on his $49 per month old age pension. But, he could still be seen making his way through town and resting at several stops in the downtown area.
Horseradish Charlie died July 15, 1959, in Piqua. Both “Horseradish Charlies,” father and son, are interred in the Forest Hill Cemetery in Piqua.
Years later, many have questioned if Horseradish Charlie was of European descent, African-American, or perhaps, even Native American. William Wright was born in New York and he and his family, including his son and grandson, are consistently recorded as being “white” in the federal census.
All-in-all, Horseradish Charlie, was a well-known and harmless gentleman who lived his life and did what he could to make a living. Obviously, his aroma, perhaps some peculiarities and visage would have been such that I am sure some of the kids of the day probably told untrue stories about him and had taunts aimed at him. But, by all accounts, he was a friendly old man, who became of Troy’s enduring legends.
Patrick D. Kennedy is archivist at the Troy-Miami County Public Library’s Local History Library, 100 W. Main St., Troy. He may be contacted by calling (937) 335-4082 or sending an email to email@example.com
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