Tag Archives: hobo





National Hobo Convention
August 3-9, 2015

Hobos and Town Answer the Call

Movin’ on, movin’ on, movin’ on…the steam engines beckoned as they built up momentum heading towards a new horizon, towards an adventure.

Many a man heard that call, when the rules become too hard to take. This man, born to dream not conform, that man without a job and out of luck – they heard the call, movin’ on…movin’ on. The solders drawn from home and done with war were often lured to travel by the train’s call.

Movin’ on made some men famous, caused others to lose their lives. Movin’ on set some men free while binding them to a brotherhood stronger than roots, the brotherhood of the hobos.

Hobos they’re called, a word with as many possible origins as there are reasons to join the fraternity. The Latin words homo bonus mean “good man” and could have been coined to make the term hobo. Some say that soldiers returning from the Civil War would be asked where they were headed and they replied “homeward bound”. Migratory agricultural workers of the eighteenth century were referred to as “hoe boys”, and since hobos worked as they traveled, it was concluded they were the original ‘boes.

Ask a veteran hobo at a convention jungle what a hobo is and you’ll receive a definite answer. The hobo is a migratory worker, some with a special skill or trade, others ready to work at any task, but always willing to work to make his way.

The tramp, they’ll tell you, is a traveling non-worker, moving from town to town, but never willing to work for the handouts that he begs for. A bum is the lowest class, too lazy to roam around and never works.

Misunderstood and mistreated, the wandering hobos have come to find understanding and friendship in the town of Britt, Iowa

1900 – Britt and the Hobos
This friendship began with the aspirations of three Britt men, Thomas A. Way, T.A. Potter, and W.E. Bradford, in 1900. Their desire was to gain some attention for the small Iowa town to “do something different to show the world that Britt was a lively little town capable of doing anything that larger cities could do.”

Way and Potter read a report in the Chicago paper that Tourists Union No. 63 had elected as officers Onion Cotton, of Danville, Illinois and Grand Head Pipe Charles F. Noe, of Sycamore, Illinois. They wrote to Noe and invited him to bring the Hobo Convention to Britt in 1900. Noe wrote them that he would come out to Britt and look the ground over, providing Way and Potter would defray his carfare and expenses. They agreed.

It was an autumn day in 1899 that Noe arrived at the Milwaukee depot and was met by Way and Potter. They wined and dined the Grand Head Pipe, then called in an attorney, W.E. Bradford, to guide the proceedings and see that they were legal. They also invited Phil Reed, a newspaper man connected with the Britt News. The four men must have guaranteed that the Hobo Convention would go over big in Britt, for Noe agreed to bring the convention to Britt in 1900 and the 22nd day of August was set as the date.

Bailey of Britt, a nationally known humorist and an ardent conventioneer, assumed the publicity end of the promotion, and various other men took responsible positions on the committees. The novelty of the convention appealed to newspaper reporters everywhere, and everyone talked it up, taking the matter as a joke – except the promoters.



Hobo’s Meditation by JIMMIE RODGERS (1932)



Hobo, 1894

images (11)xxsximages (14)images (13)images (12)

Hard Times in America
In the period from 1893 to 1896 America suffered a severe economic meltdown that was surpassed in its tragic impact only by the Great Depression that followed four decades later. The causes were complex. They included a public panic to cash in paper currency for gold, a subsequent depletion in the country’s gold reserve and bankers calling in their loans to private industry as the value of the dollar continued to decline.
Members of Coxey’s Army on their way
to Washington, 1893

A domino effect resulted as major companies such as the Northern Pacific Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe declared bankruptcy. An estimated 15,000 companies failed. The price of farm products plummeted, forcing many farmers to loose their farms and their livelihood. The crush of so many defaulted loans led some 500 banks to close their doors – taking their depositors’ life savings with them. Unemployment soared.

There was no government assistance. In Ohio, Jacob S. Coxey – owner of a failed business – decided to take matters into his own hands. In a move that foreshadowed the Bonus Army of 1932, he began a march on Washington in order to force the government to provide relief for the unemployed. As he made his way to the capital he was joined by what he proclaimed was an army of 100,000 destitute. However, when he entered the city he had a following of only 500. His plea fell on deaf ears as both the President and Congress refused to meet his demands. Coxey and his followers were subsequently arrested for trespassing.

The nation’s roads and railways were filled with the unemployed searching for a better life. They became hoboes, panhandling their way across the country in search of a job. Among them was eighteen-year-old Jack London, future author of Call of the Wild (1903).

“Thirty days, said his Honor, and called another hobo’s name.”

London described his experiences as a hobo in a book entitled The Road. We join his story as he arrives in Niagara Falls, NY aboard a freight train. Walking into town in search of food, he runs afoul of the law:

‘What hotel are you stopping at?’ he queried.“The town was asleep when I entered it. As I came along the quiet street, I saw three men coming toward me along the sidewalk. They were walking abreast. Hoboes, I decided, like myself, who had got up early. In this surmise I was not quite correct. . . The men on each side were hoboes all right, but the man in the middle wasn’t. . . At some word from the man in the centre, all three halted, and he of the centre addressed me. He was a ‘fly-cop’ and the two hoboes were his prisoners.

He had me. I wasn’t stopping at any hotel, and, since I did not know the name of a hotel in the place, I could not claim residence in any of them. Also, I was up too early in the morning. Everything was against me.

‘I just arrived,’ I said.

‘Well, you turn around and walk in front of me, and not too far in front. There’s somebody wants to see you.’

I was ‘pinched.’ I knew who wanted to see me. With that ‘fly-cop’ and the two hoboes at my heels, and under the direction of the former, I led the way to the city jail. There we were searched and our names registered. I have forgotten, now, under which name I was registered.

From the office we were led to the ‘Hobo’ and locked in. The ‘Hobo’ is that part of a prison where the minor offenders are confined together in a large iron cage. Since hoboes constitute the principal division of the minor offenders, the aforesaid iron cage is called the Hobo. Here we met several hoboes who had already been pinched that morning, and every little while the door was unlocked and two or three more were thrust in on us. At last, when we totaled sixteen, we were led upstairs into the courtroom. . .

In the court-room were the sixteen prisoners, the judge, and two bailiffs. The judge seemed to act as his own clerk. There were no witnesses. There were no citizens of Niagara Falls present to look on and see how justice was administered in their community. The judge glanced at the list of cases before him and called out a name. A hobo stood up. The judge glanced at a bailiff. ‘Vagrancy, your Honor,’ said the bailiff. ‘Thirty days,’ said his Honor. The hobo sat down, and the judge was calling another name and another hobo was rising to his feet.

The trial of that hobo had taken just about fifteen seconds. The trial of the next hobo came off with equal celerity. The bailiff said, ‘Vagrancy, your Honor,’ and his Honor said, ‘Thirty days.’ Thus it went like clockwork, fifteen seconds to a hobo and thirty days.

They are poor dumb cattle, I thought to myself. But wait till my turn comes; I’ll give his Honor a ‘spiel.’ Part way along in the performance, his Honor, moved by some whim, gave one of us an opportunity to speak. As chance would have it, this man was not a genuine hobo. He bore none of the ear- marks of the professional ‘stiff.’ Had he approached the rest of us, while waiting at a water-tank for a freight, we should have unhesitatingly classified him as a ‘gay-cat.’ Gay-cat is the synonym for tenderfoot in Hobo Land. This gay-cat was well along in years — somewhere around forty-five, I should judge. His shoulders were humped a trifle, and his face was seamed by weather-beat.

For many years, according to his story, he had driven team for some firm in (if I remember rightly) Lockport, New York. The firm had ceased to prosper, and finally, in the hard times of 1893, had gone out of business. He had been kept on to the last, though toward the last his work had been very irregular. He went on and explained at length his difficulties in getting work (when so many were out of work) during the succeeding months. In the end, deciding that he would find better opportunities for work on the Lakes, he had started for Buffalo. Of course he was ‘broke,’ and there he was. That was all.

‘Thirty days,’ said his Honor, and called another hobo’s name.

Said hobo got up. ‘Vagrancy, your Honor,’ said the bailiff, and his Honor said, ‘Thirty days.’ And so it went, fifteen seconds and thirty days to each hobo. The machine of justice was grinding smoothly. Most likely, considering how early it was in the morning, his Honor had not yet had his breakfast and was in a hurry.

But my American blood was up. Behind me were the many generations of my American ancestry. One of the kinds of liberty those ancestors of mine had fought and died for was the right of trial by jury. This was my heritage, stained sacred by their blood, and it devolved upon me to stand up for it. All right, I threatened to myself; just wait till he gets to me.

Jack London

He got to me. My name, whatever it was, was called, and I stood up. The bailiff said, ‘Vagrancy, your Honor,’ and I began to talk. But the judge began talking at the same time, and he said, ‘Thirty days.’ I started to protest, but at that moment his Honor was calling the name of the next hobo on the list. His Honor paused long enough to say to me, ‘Shut up!’ The bailiff forced me to sit down. And the next moment that next hobo had received thirty days and the succeeding hobo was just in process of getting his.

When we had all been disposed of, thirty days to each stiff, his Honor, just as he was about to dismiss us, suddenly turned to the teamster from Lockport — the one man he had allowed to talk.

‘Why did you quit your job?’ his Honor asked.

Now the teamster had already explained how his job had quit him, and the question took him aback.

‘Your Honor,’ he began confusedly, ‘isn’t that a funny question to ask?’

‘Thirty days more for quitting your job,’ said his Honor, and the court was closed. That was the outcome. The teamster got sixty days all together, while the rest of us got thirty days.

London, Jack, The Road (1907).

How To Cite This Article:
“Hobo 1894: Hard Times in America”, EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2007).

images (10) images (9)  images (8)images (7) download (5) download (4)download (3)

 Boxcar Willie Getty David Redfern 1989

BOXCAR WILLIE : Hank And The Hobo (train country song)


Death of the American Hobo (Documentary)



Strangest Museums: Hobo Museum

Rachel Freundt
The Hobo Museum, Britt, IA
Housed in the former Chief Theater, the Hobo Museum celebrates the vagabond lifestyle, which happens to have a stringent code of ethics. It’s full of drifter memorabilia from the likes of Frisco Jack, Connecticut Slim, and Hard Rock Kid. Hobo crafts, art, photographs, and documentaries depicting the unorthodox way of life are also on display. It’s brought to you by the Hobo Foundation, which hosts an annual convention in town. hobo.com

What are Hobo Signs ?
Depression era symbols used by hoboes. In their travels for work, hoboes made marks with chalk, paint or coal on walls, sidewalks, fences and posts. The signs were meant to let others know what was ahead. (some call them the secrete language of the hoboes)

1. Good road to follow
2. Religious talk will get you a free meal
3. These people are rich (Silk hat and pile of gold)
4. Camp here
5. You may sleep in the hayloft here
6. Warning: Barking Dog
7. House is well-guarded
8. This is not a safe place
9. Good food available here, but you have to work for it
10. If you are sick, they’ll care for you here
11. This community is indifferent to a hobo’s presence
12. Authorities are alert: Be careful
13. Officer of the law lives here
14. Courthouse, precinct station
15. Jail
16. Free telephone (Bird)
17. Beware of four dogs
18. No use going this direction
19. Dangerous drinking water
20. Doubtful
21. A judge or magistrate lives here
22. Here. This is the place
23. A kind old lady (Cat)
24. Hit the road! Quick!
25. A beating awaits you here
26. A trolley stop
27. “Ok, alright”
28. This way
29. A gentleman lives here (Top Hat)
30. Police frown on hobos here (Handcuffs)
31. A man with a gun lives here
32. There is nothing to be gained here
33. The road is spoiled with other hobos and tramps
34. Good place to catch a train
35. Hold your tongue
36. A crime has been committed here. Not a safe place for strangers
37. Halt
38. Dangerous neighborhood
39. An ill-tempered man lives here
40. Be prepared to defend yourself
41. A doctor lives here. He won’t charge for his services
42. Keep quiet (Warns of day sleepers, babies)
43. The owner is in
44. The owner is out
45. There are thieves about
46. A dishonest person lives here
47. An easy mark, a sucker
48. Good place for hand out
49. There is alcohol in this town
50. Fresh water and a safe campsite

The hobo signs were copied out of a book called
“Hobo Signs by Stan Richards & Associates”


This is a rare example of tramp art in that I have found no references
in tramp art books to this wonderful pillow form.  Its rarity is further
exemplified by the materials used: cloth, heavy carpet-like fabric and a
stuffing of sawdust.  A great deal of time, skill and passion produced this
sturdy object.  It has the classic pyramidic shape repeated with precision in
row after row of a deep red heavy fabric on the top.  The edges where the top
meets the bottom are notched similar to tramp art woodcarvings. The bottom
exposes a smooth fabric that probably covers the entire object and displays a
light rust color.  The dimensions are 9″ x 9″ square and 4.5″ high, in the
middle. The pillow weighs just under two pounds – 1lb. 15 oz.

The following is a beautiful example of bottle art

done by Carl Worner at some time in the early 1900s.
see more at  http://sdjones.net/FolkArt/worner.html


The following are some examples of beautiful old
time wood carving.  Notice the intricate detail and the skillful carving of the
balls in cages and chain links.


   Next are some great carvings by our modern day
artist “The Tanner City Kid”.  Note that the chain links are fully functioning
links as in a steel chain and the balls in the cages are loose movable objects
that are carved from the interior wood during the hollowing out process.  I
think you’ll agree with me that Tanner’s work is as skillful as any of the old





Young Ride The Rails To Nowhere — New Hobos Find More Bleakness Than Romance

By Linda Keene

 HOPPING A TRAIN may sound like a romantic adventure. But for the teens and young adults forming a new generation of hobos, the reality is a rough, dangerous search for meaning beyond the streets.

With matted blond hair, soiled clothing and a faraway look, he stands on an overpass looking down on the Interbay rail yard and the freight trains he’s ridden for years.

But he is not an old grizzled tramp.

He is a homeless 22-year-old man named “Creek,” part of a new generation of young hobos riding the rails. Nevada, Utah, Nebraska and Iowa – he’s hopped trains to each state since he left his family’s West Seattle home at 14.

He and a friend peer into the rail yard as the setting sun glints off box cars and tracks that promise new sights and adventure. The young men won’t be riding tonight, but who’s to say what the future will bring? As hobos, freedom will call them again.

That may sound overly romantic, and it is. Although the notion of young hobos has a novel and appealing ring to it, the reality of their lives is bleak.

“Creek” and “Fre,” as the two call themselves, are homeless, jobless dropouts who drink away their self-doubts and ride the rails to escape dreary lives.

For years, they have slept in flop-houses or under freeway spans, as do many other young people now riding the trains.

Once the province of old tramps or immigrants who often found work at the end of the line, freight trains lure more and more teenagers and young adults who hop on in an elusive search for a life and meaning beyond the streets.

That’s how it is for the dozens who show up in Seattle each year, carrying little more than backpacks, bed rolls and maybe a guitar or skateboard. Usually, they make their way to the University District, where free dinners are served through the “Teen Feed” program run by the University Street Ministry.

It is there, in the basement of churches, where they meet and discuss their lives.

Fre and Creek, for example, both dropped out of high school and left home in their teens. Creek wears canvas tennis shoes wrapped in duct tape below yellow pants that are soiled and baggy. Fre has silver rings through his nose and ears. Chains encircle his neck and wrists.

Abby is another homeless rail rider, a 16-year-old girl with her long hair dyed purple and a ring through her nose.

In May, she took a freight train between Portland and San Francisco, carrying her farther from her home in Minneapolis. She sleeps at people’s houses, or in the parks.

Troy is 17. He rode into Seattle from Bellingham two weeks ago. He panhandles for food and alcohol. He has no idea where he’ll be in three years.

“Anything could happen,” he says with a shrug. “I could get run over by a train.”

There are dangers for young hobos, and Troy offers this advice: Bring warm clothing, food, water and a weapon for defense.

Rory Marcotte agrees there are hazards. “I’ve had to make bonfires to stay warm,” says the 21-year-old Spokane native, whose scalp is shaved in swaths between twigs of matted hair. “I’ve traveled with tramps, too – they’ll take your stuff and knife your throat.”

Most young rail-riders, however, save their most dire warnings for rail-yard security officers, known as “bulls.” Creek tells this story:

Two years ago, on a trip through North Platte, Neb., he had jumped off a train and was stopped by a rail-yard officer.

“I know you just got off the train and if I catch you again, you risk six months in jail,” the man told Creek.

Well, what is risk to a young transient?

Creek went for food, returned to the rail yard and hid under a bridge. He waited for a grain car, which has a small platform ideal for stowaways, but didn’t see one. So he and a traveling companion opted for a coal car. They climbed up and into the coal bin, wedging themselves down into a corner of the large, open container.

“The train started moving, and then it stopped,” said Creek. “All of a sudden, we saw two wrists come up over the edge, carrying guns. They told us to throw our backpacks out and get down. I was scared, man. I was scared.”

But rather than landing in jail, they were put in a truck and dropped off in a Nebraska corn field.

Jail time, fines await trespassers

Creek was lucky. Rail riding is criminal trespassing and punishable by varying jail terms and fines, depending on the local laws where the arrest is made.

Between May 1992 and May 1993, Burlington Northern Railroad discovered 6,656 trespassers on its trains or rail yards throughout the West.

Of those, 1,283 were arrested, said Bill Stairs, assistant chief special agent for the railroad. Most of those arrested were undocumented immigrants, but the company is starting to crack down on others.

“It’s really dangerous,” Stairs said. “The rail yards have a lot of heavy machinery; transients often get injured or run over by trains.”

Fatalities are high. Nationally, more than 500 trespassers are killed every year by moving trains or crushed between cars. In Washington, 36 trespassers have been killed in rail yards in the past two years.

More efficient than hitchhiking

Those dangers, however, don’t deter young riders who often have no other way to travel.

At Teen Feed, for example, most of the rail riders are jobless and homeless and live hand-to-mouth every day. They ride less for the glamour and thrill than the sheer necessity of getting a free ride somewhere. They are just as likely to hitchhike, although there are advantages to clambering aboard a train.

“You get there quicker,” Troy said. “Nevada, for example, would be impossible to hitchhike across.”

He has ridden freights across the desert there, or rumbled into the rail yards at Salt Lake City. The dry lands of eastern California have passed by his boxcar, as have the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Does that make him a hobo?

“Definitely,” he said. “If anybody’s going to call me anything, hobo’s the best.