Riding the Rails to the Hobo Convention

They were kings of the road and rail during the depression, and this weekend they’re dressed in denim and burlap, riding Ferris wheels and eating Mulligan stew, an old hobo favorite. When it’s all over, they’ll elect a king and queen.

Good economic times may have just about put hobos out of business, but that doesn’t mean the convention is off.

A hobo convention?

Actually, it’s the 100th annual. Although most hobos got off the train years ago, they’re keeping the memory alive this weekend in Britt, Iowa — same place as the first hobo convention in 1900.

No place to go, but enjoying every minute they spent getting there, just like the old days.

Hobo-Tourism

About 20,000 tourists were expected this weekend to descend upon Britt, a north-central Iowa town of 2,200. Crimson banners depicting a friendly hobo carrying a bindle stick decorate Main Avenue, while The Hobo Museum and Gift Shop features a collection of photographs and a replica of a “Hobo Jungle” shack. Many residents also work with the Hobo Memorial Foundation, a charitable group dedicated to preserving the history of the hobo.

“This is such a timepiece of Americana,” says Rick Palieri, a musician from Hinesburg, Vt. “This kind of thing is disappearing so quickly.”

The festival came to this small town along U.S. Highway 18 in 1900 when three Chicago hobos sought a small town to hold the annual gathering of Tourist Union No. 63, better known as the Hobo Convention.

On Friday, a procession of about 75 hobos tapped their walking sticks and brushed their fingertips along the tops the headstones at the Evergreen Cemetery that marked the simple graves of their brethren, men like Mountain Dew, Lord Open Road and Hobo Herb Schaber.

While a flutist played “The Wayfaring Stranger,” the hobos and family members bowed their heads and walked silently in respect to a generation of migrant workers, men and women who shared a passion for freedom and the open railroad.

“Part of your spirit, part of your love will go through the walking stick and into the people who are buried here,” said Texas Madman, who led the graveside memorial service.

‘King Without a Crown’

Buzz Potter is president of the National Hobo Association. Yes, there really is one. He’s semi-retired now and runs a small mortgage company. But many years ago he was a hobo.

Potter misses “the freedom … freedom … freedom. God it was free. And you know, you were a king without a crown. You’d have ten bucks in your pocket and you were the richest man on earth.”

Potter says they weren’t bums or tramps, they just liked working freelance.

“The hobo was a wandering worker,” Potter says. “We were not mooches and we used the freight trains to get from place to place where the was work.”

Errol Lincoln Uys, author of Riding the Rails, a collection of letters about teenage hobos during the Great Depression, says as many as 250,000 teenagers and 4 million adults turned to a life of migrant labor along the railways between 1929 and the start of World War II.

Uys says the current generation frequently mistakes hobos for homeless, but Potter says there was a difference: “The hobo worked and wandered. The tramp wandered but didn’t work. And the bum neither wandered nor worked — he just hung around skid row and stayed drunk.”

Locomotive Job Search Engine

Historians believe the term “hobo” came from “hoe boy,” a term for a traveling laborer who would work in rural settings for weeks at a time before jumping a freight train for the next locale.

“You have to ask yourself, in today’s context, in the suburbs, how many people, if a hobo comes down the driveway and knocks on the door, would not reach for the telephone and not dial 911?” Uys says.

During the Great Depression, things were different. Sure, hobos rode the rails, but it was a kind of old-fashioned locomotive job search engine.

These days, you could look it up on their web site, www.hobo.org.

“If you’re talking about the guy who rides the freight trains and lives off his wits 12 months a year, there’s probably 20 of them, maybe 30,” Potter says. “But if you count all the people who once in a while ride a freight train, or that pursue this for recreational purposes, might be 2,000.”

Potter was expecting a decent size crowd this weekend, but the membership’s not what it used to be.

“Many of them are just wannabes,” he concedes. “It’s like the guys who dress up in Civil War clothes on weekends and emulate old Civil War battles.”

Once a Hobo, Always a Hobo

Potter says many of his members decided not to attend the event because they resented the police presence and the tourist atmosphere.

But many hobos say they plan to keep visiting Iowa each August for the convention — and to eventually find their eternal reward.

“I’m all set,” said Red Bird, a Pennsburg, Pa., truck driver, pointing to the blank marble grave stone at the Evergreen Cemetery. “All I have to do is die now.”

Although most of those Boxcar Willies no longer live that migrant lifestyle, many are still hobos at heart.

“There’s an old saying the old guys used to tell the young guys on their first or second trip,” Potter says. “Once you’ve heard that whistle blow, you’ll hear it all your life.”

ABCNEWS Radio’s Andy Field and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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