Remembering John Respess McClaud

Published 5:02 pm Monday, July 25, 2022

My friend Stephen Ferrell, the Reference Specialist/Genealogist at Brown Library, recently shared news clippings about John Respess McClaud, a street vendor born of formerly enslaved parents in Hyde County in 1875. John’s legacy is worth remembering. For 30 years, John drove a cart pulled by goats, later a pony, and he would meet every train as it rolled into Washington. He became an institution at the train depot, offering confections such as candies, cigars, and fruit for sale to the passengers as they deboarded the train. But what made John McClaud remarkable was his determination to live free and clear of public assistance despite his physical challenges.

John Bragaw, in a column from the 1950s, recalls McClaud’s story, “John was a hefty fellow, earning his bread by the sweat of his brow… Staunch legs and muscles like an ox… One bitter cold day in winter someone found him – either in a ditch full of ice or in a snowdrift.” He was rushed to the County Home, and a doctor was summoned. “He will come out of it, I think, but there won’t be much left of him. Those legs are frozen, they will have to come off above the knees. So will the arm, up to the elbow.”

John remained in the County Home for several months recovering from his surgeries, meanwhile learning to “walk” on the remnants of his legs, assisted by his one good arm. County officials offered to let him reside in the home for as long as he wished, but John replied, “Much obliged, but I’d rather make my living like I always have.” Asked how he would do so, John answered he didn’t know exactly, but he would do something.

Somehow, he managed to get a goat, a cart, a stock of candy, apples, and chewing gum, and he went about town selling his wares. After a time, he was successful enough to acquire two goats, a larger cart, later a horse, and a wagon. Eventually, John married Asa Wilkins in 1898 and raised a family of one son and a daughter.

Bragaw recounts John McClaud’s character, “Nobody ever heard him complain of his physical deformity. He neither exploited it nor apologized for it… He just lived, and worked, and minded his own business, and asked no odds, and broke no laws, and did no railing against fate, and never whined. I knew a number of men who would quit complaining, and shut up and feel ashamed, when John and his wagon went by on the street.”

John was such a beloved resident that the Washington Daily News announced his passing in January 1940, “Uncle John died at his home late Thursday night following a brief illness. He had suffered ill health for some months, but he never once, in the memory of those who knew him, did he miss the arrival of a local train, rain or shine, in the past quarter century. John will not meet any more trains, but his perpetual visits to the station will long be remembered.”

Ray Midgett is a Washington historian and past president of the Historic Port of Washington Project.