Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

September 25, 2012

Random Thoughts: Could economy spawn a new generation of hobos?

By Dorothy Copus Brush
Chronicle correspondent

CROSSVILLE — Economic news recently has brought memories of past times this country has lived through. There have always been bums and tramps but it is during serious troubled times that the hobo appears. Could today’s situation spawn a new generation of these displaced souls searching for jobs?     

The word hobo was invented following the Civil War as unemployed veterans and freed slaves began heading west to find employment. Riding the rails was free and became the answer to getting there. Some believe the term hobo came into use when people started calling them “hoe boys”  because of the tools they slung over their shoulders.

Many years later during the Great Depression thousands of unemployed became hoboes to survive. The dangers of riding the rails were many and a Chicago physician established Hobo College to teach survival skills. This huge travel free, close-knit society referred to those days as ‘bos glory years.

Many of those called hoboes had been tops in their trades and were desperate to work again. To call them bums was a mistake. Among those who were hoboes in the 1930s were former Supreme Court Justice William A. Douglas, writers Louis L’Amour, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway.

They developed and followed their Hobo philosophy of hard work, thrift, environmental awareness and sharing. They became role models symbolizing independence and freedom wherever they traveled. They learned patience as they stayed out of sight for hours in a freight yard or hunkering down along a steep grade of track in the Rocky Mountains until they grabbed a free train ride.

Nothing angers a true hobo more than being called a bum or tramp. Their Hobo Guide defines a hobo as a wanderer willing to work to make his way. A tramp is a traveling non-worker who begs for hand-outs and a bum is too lazy to work and never roams.

The remnants of hobo jungles can still be found. This is where these travelers of the open road gathered at night to share tips while the hobo stew simmers over an open fire.

A few years ago I saw a sweatshirt covered with 27 symbols of the language they used to communicate with each other. These hobo hieroglyphics sent messages of warning, encouragement, of good places for a handout, a dishonest man, don’t ask for work, a barn you can sleep in and so many other bits of information.  

Most hoboes dropped their true name and replaced it with something more colorful. There was Roadhog, Steam Train Maury, Fishbone, Slow Motion Shorty, Fry Pan Jack and each name told something about its owner.

The National Hobo Association has a membership of thousands. Last weekend they named Minnesota Jack and Angel the King and Queen of the Hoboes for the year during their annual convention in Britt, Iowa. They stay in touch through their paper, the Hobo News.

The membership stays high because younger generations were drawn to the open road through train hopping. The NHA does not publicly endorse this way of traveling because it is illegal. In spite of the risks there is an abundance of weekend adventurers who are “call-that-freight-car-my home hoboes.”

One young woman was introduced to freight cars by her hobo friend “Itchy Foot.” They hopped a car for a ride that lasted nine hours and this nutritional consultant said, “Being in that boxcar lived up to every fantasy I’ve ever had. Going by that open scenery was like being in another space or time.”               

May the hobo population never again explode because of bad times. The American History Project is making a documentary film about that Great Depression period and the “knights of the road” so younger generations learn and take the message from the past as a warning during these present troubles times.