I am a hobo. I may not fit the profile of what you imagined a hobo to be, but I am one. I’ve found that the hobo lifestyle provides clarity even more so now than it did back then. In a material world we are asked to become constant consumers, spenders and buyers of happiness, even though the only thing that really ever brings peace of mind is simplicity.
Years ago, during the Great Depression many young boys and girls had their childhood’s stolen from them during the economic collapse. Hundreds of thousands of people, kids aged 15 and up, war veterans and families traversed the United States looking for work. They hopped on trains that they had laid track for and headed in all directions across the country. With optimism and the American Dream these people formed many of the lessons that us travelers live by today.
HOBOES, TRAMPS AND BUMS
A hobo, tramp and a bum are three completely different things. Most of us have been educated to use the words interchangeably. We could not be more wrong. A bum is a drunk. A tramp is a deadbeat who steals what he needs instead of working. A hobo is a migrating worker who chases any honest dollar he can find.
LIFE AND HISTORY OF HOBOING
When the Great Depression hit hundreds of thousands were left without a job and a means to support themselves or their families. Some were just kids, an extra mouth that a family couldn’t feed. Others hoped they’d find their American Dream elsewhere. Some left and never returned. Some returned and then went back to the hobo lifestyle they had become addicted to. And others died.
When jobs became scarce able-bodied individuals hopped on trains and traveled the tracks of the U.S. hunting for jobs. Some were promised work elsewhere and went to see if it was true. Others went without an end destination in mind, stopping where ever they could get work. All bounced from short-term job to short-term job, scraping by, starving and barely surviving.
Hobos found jobs working on ranches, railroads, in mines and anywhere else that their physical strength and bodies could be used. When worked dried up they hopped on to the next train and moved on. It was economics, not leisure or adventure that guided the hobo.
Eighty-five per cent of the white youths said they were seeking work; for the African-Americans the percentage was even higher at 98 per cent. Fifty percent of the African-Americans had been unemployed for two years or longer.Riding the Rails by Errol Lincoln Uys
Don’t get me wrong, being a hobo had its excitement. Many, in fact, having tasted the freedom of bouncing from city to city without a home and on a whim, cherished their time spent hoboing. Others even returned to this lifestyle down the road, having tasted of the nectar of pure freedom and finding themselves unable to return to a “civilized” world and work.
There was also danger. Many died and were buried in unmarked graves. Some lost legs or arms from trying to hop on or off moving trains. Others broke ribs from falling out of trains, got shot or beaten from railroad security, or bulls. But the necessity to do whatever it took to make a living and provide for one’s family outweighed any risk.
In today’s world of government welfare programs the revelation of doing whatever is necessary to support yourself and your family is a forgotten ideal. There was no sense of entitlement, only the realization that the government couldn’t help you out of your jam. You had to rely on yourself. This self-reliance was a pinnacle of hobo culture. Hoboes didn’t steal, didn’t harm others to get what they wanted and didn’t destroy.
This is also the art of a traveler, to earn what he gets, work where he can find work and support himself, relying on no other man or government for undeserved handouts. While we typically don’t train hop today we still migrate across the country and world, taking odd jobs to keep us exploring new places and surviving. We know traveling is a lifestyle choice, and with it we cannot expect anyone to fund our way or show us unearned generosity. Those that ask for handouts are tramps and bums, following under the definitions above.
They worked hard when they could find a job, offered to always work in exchange for food or a place to stay the night and they showed compassion towards others in their situation. This was all part of the hobo code, a code separating them from tramps and bums and aiming at living like gentleman. In 1889 at a national hobo convention the following ethical code was established for all hoboes to follow:
- Decide your own life; don’t let another person run or rule you.
- When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
- Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
- Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
- When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
- Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
- When jungling (hobo slang describing a makeshift hobo settlement) in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.
- Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
- If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
- Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
- When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
- Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
- Do not allow other hobos to molest children; expose all molesters to authorities…they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
- Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
- Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
Being a hobo requires a specific philosophy of life. The ones outlined above capture many important life lessons that are lost to people who go about their day-to-day life today. Beneath the dirt, smell and poverty of many Hobos lies a people who aimed at living a respectable life. In many respects, they prove that you can’t judge a man’s character by how he looks but by what he does.
HOBOES SHAPING AMERICA
At a time when America was transitioning for a labor to a mechanized based society hoboes provided the infrastructure development to push America into the industrialized age. They dug ditches and roads, laid railroad tracks, mined precious metals and built buildings.
Heading west or east with optimism they believed in the American Dream. Leaving behind poverty and joblessness hobos sought a brighter future built on their hardworking. Many were uneducated and poor but believed that they could make something of themselves through hard work and persistence.
Excerpt from Al “Squibby” Henrich
“I bummed the harvest fields in Mitchell, SD. There were many times friends would just say let’s hitch a ride and we landed up many places. I got a job on a section gang and got to be cook’s helper. Ate my first good raisin pie there, and then on my way again. I often wonder about the good folks of those days. There were many things, and not any of them to be ashamed of.
I had 65 jobs before I got married in 1925 and did lose my wife after 60 years married. It is a great life and in July 92 I got married to a wonderful gal, Virginia. We are great pals and its never to late to say “I love you,” and mean it.”
Excerpt from Reverend Hodges, United Church of Christ
“Like every town and hamlet in America we had our quota of boys and men who hopped freights either for adventure or in quest of jobs. In hard times, more of the latter. Young men would ride freights to the wheat harvests of Texas and Oklahoma and then ride north to Canada, following the harvest jobs.
Please don’t forget to write about the MIA’s of the railroad era, the many males and some females, who were killed away from home and buried in nameless graves, killed by railroad accidents. Few ID cards carried back then, especially if a man was running away from something. Many a woman lay awake at night waiting for a husband, brother or son who never returned. I recall vividly seeing a young man lying on the floor of our little freight station and wondering whose husband or son he was. Local citizens took up an offering to pay for a cheap casket. No national registry of missing hoboes back then. Men we did not know we called hoboes.”
Memories by Billy Watkins
“As I was riding through Texas, a baby boy was born to a young girl in a box car that I happened to be in. A much older man, her grandfather probably, was with her.
There were three others besides myself riding along with them. An old “bindlestiff” (one who carries extra clothes in a bundle on his back )offered a clean white sock to tie around the baby’s middle.
Named the baby, Toyah, after the town that the train would be stopping at next and they were taken away by ambulance. I remember that they wouldn’t let the old man ride with them. Often I have wondered where the baby might be today.
Another time in Colorado, I got into a box car at night, unaware that a dead man was also inside; learned this later when I accidentally stumbled over him.
This was a terrifying experience. I stood in the doorway for miles, trying to think what I must do. The train did finally slow and stop to take on water; immediately I jumped out and ran as far and as fast as I could into a field.
There I waited until the train pulled out, by that time it was beginning to be daylight. I helped a work crew sort bolts and nuts for two days, for my meals.
A train stopped the second day for water, I got on it and got off at Pueblo, Co., where I overheard someone saying that a fellow that was found on the train had been stabbed in Elko, Nevada.
Somewhere in Oregon, when I climbed from a refrigerator car, there before me was the big beautiful Pacific Ocean, the first time to see an ocean. I was transfixed for several minutes, just watching those big waves roll in.”