It’s the Hobo Life for Me . .
The hobo subculture was a significant part of American history and is worth remembering. Who knows . . . we could see it again.
(It needs to be noted early in this story that there is a difference between a hobo and a bum or tramp. Hobos were willing to work and were generally honorable people in desperate straits. Bums were just looking for a free handout. The expression of the time was “a hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, the bum drinks and wanders.”) So these days, what do we have? Hobos or bums?
During the Great Depression years, more than 2 million men and perhaps 8,000 women took to the hobo life out of necessity, trying desperately to find work. Many were Bonus Army veterans who had been recently chased out of DC at bayonet point (see Bonus Army story). Finding work and food was a constant job and going without food for several days at a time was a common occurrence. Back then, the quickest way to get someplace where there was a rumor of work available was to ride the rails, and that’s what they did by the millions. There just was no other choice in the search for work.
Says Vernon Chadwick from California: “I will always remember the vast numbers of people riding freight trains in those days. There were entire families going anywhere and everywhere to try and find any kind of work. There were tired and discouraged parents with ragged and hungry kids. The railroad officials made no attempt to keep them off the trains and they filled entire boxcars. They were lined along the track in Oklahoma City for what seemed a half a mile.”
Many family men left home in their search for rumored work and they would be dressed in their finest clothes to make a good impression on potential employers. They wore their Sunday suits, shoes with a high shine, and their finest warm coats. The tradition of “sizing up a man” by checking out his shoes was the bedrock of character analysis back then and continues in many parts of our culture today: the mark of a “good” man is the condition of his shoes. I know my own father adhered to that maxim all his life, and when meeting someone new, the first thing he noticed was the care the man had given to his shoes.
The danger of riding the rails was that the railroad lines would hire detectives (called ‘bulls” by the hobos) to keep the hobos off the trains, many times very viciously. As many as 6,500 hobos were killed in one year, either by accidents trying to jump on and off trains, hypothermia, or by the brutal bulls.
Hobo Wayne Gretzki: “Today wasn’t any different from any other day, savaging for food, desperately looking for a job,and just flat out staying alive. In the morning I made sure I boiled up my clothes real good so I don’t get no infection due to those darn lice. After that I was spearing biscuits (looking for food in garbage cans) for breakfast, ever since the crash and with it leaving me without a job, food was scarce.”
Hobos were often welcomed to areas where their labor was required such as agricultural areas and several railroad companies would attach empty box cars to freight trains to accommodate the large numbers of hobos. Sometimes when one train was passing another going in the opposite direction, the hobos would be yelling to each other back and forth asking where the work was.
Hobo Larry Kuebel, Nebraska: “In those days many of my friends were heading for California. All you needed was an old car that would run, a five gallon can and an “Oklahoma credit card” (about 4 feet of garden hose). You would be out of gas along the road (all gravel), and someone would stop and let you siphon a couple of gallons from their gas tank.”
There were a great many kids joining the hobo ranks as well:
Hobo Clyde Wesley Creech, Sr: “I was just a kid. I had no strings, no ties whatsoever to keep me in one place. I enjoyed myself, getting out and traveling, making my own way. ‘Course when I left home, there was nothing in the house to eat because the folks had nothing. Them was Depression times, and things was tough. I figured that if I got out, there would be one less mouth to feed . . “
As jobs became more and more scarce, it affected women severely. As the Depression wore on, working women became the target of intense animosity. Some cities refused to hire married women, thinking they were taking a precious job from men. School districts even adopted a policy of letting go newly married female employees since they were considered to have a source of income (their husbands). Thousands of unemployed women, unable to support themselves, had no choice but to join the hobo ranks in the search for work. They cut their hair short, dressed in men’s clothes to hide their gender, and hit the rails.
Many of the kind women who regularly fed hobos felt that if one of those hobos was their son or husband, they would like to think someone was giving him a bowl of soup or a sandwich. Patricia Schreiner of Michigan, a young girl at the time, relates: “Summer saw them wearing the most tattered clothes I ever saw, and there were lots of bare feet. . . These men were hungry, and they were dirty, but not one of them ever behaved in any but the politest manner, and all they asked for was something to eat, offering work in return. My mother, and all the other women in our neighborhood, always gave them food.”
The hobo life became such a massive subculture with so many people traveling all over the country that, of necessity, they developed their own communication system to leave messages for others. The hobo culture influenced the American language with a wave of new lingo or slang that they used and much of it is still used today. They communicated through symbols which would be drawn on fence posts, gates, sidewalks, porches, barns or wherever they would be encountered by other “wanderers” coming into a new community, who would look for these symbols and know who to avoid and who was sympathetic to their plight. Hobo signs were a secret language, they gave direction and advice on where to find work, a handout, a meal, clean water, a place to sleep or a doctor – and also indicated places/people who were not friendly to hobos.
“I was in a jungle (hobo camp) one time and a short heavy bo (hobo) was singing with a beautiful voice. He sang ballads and railroad songs. Called himself the Way Faring Stranger. I found out later it was Burl Ives.” (H.B. Harmon)
Other famous people who lived the hobo lifestyle in that era before going on to great success include author Louis L’Amour, Art Linkletter, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, oil billionaire H. L. Hunt, Jack Dempsey, Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, author Jack London, actor Robert Mitchum, author George Orwell, poet Carl Sandburg and journalist Eric Sevareid.
“My experiences made me a lot more humble and I appreciate the smaller things in life – like a good bed and something to eat.
"Don’t grieve for me my bosom friend For I have listened to the wind Blow down the canyons in the night And chase the shadows in their flight. I’ve rode the rails of the old SP While the Lord above looked after me. I’ve look down from the mountains high And heard the screaming eagles cry. I’ve searched for gold and hunted bear I think I’ve been most everywhere." ~ hobo Archie Frost, Missouri.
Hobo Language Many hobo terms have become part of common language, such as “Big House”, “glad rags”, “main drag”, and others. You may recognize some of the vernacular even now.
|Accommodation car||the caboose of a train|
|Angellina||a young inexperienced child|
|Bad Road||a train line rendered useless by some hobo’s bad action or crime|
|Banjo||(1) a small portable frying pan; (2) a short, “D” handled shovel|
|Barnacle||a person who sticks to one job a year or more|
|Beachcomber||a hobo who hangs around docks or seaports|
|Bindle stick||a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick|
|Bindlestiff||a hobo who carries a bindle|
|Blowed-in-the-glass||a genuine, trustworthy individual|
|‘Bo||the common way one hobo referred to another: “I met that ‘Bo on the way to Bangor last spring.”|
|Boil Up||specifically, to boil one’s clothes to kill lice and their eggs; generally, to get oneself as clean as possible|
|Bone polisher||a mean dog|
|Bone orchard||a graveyard|
|Bull||a railroad officer|
|Buck||a Catholic priest, good for a dollar|
|C, H, and D||indicates an individual is Cold, Hungry, and Dry (thirsty)|
|California blankets||newspapers, intended to be used for bedding on a park bench|
|Calling in||using another’s campfire to warm up or cook|
|Cannonball||a fast train|
|Carrying the banner||keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing|
|Catch the Westbound||to die|
|Chuck a dummy||pretend to faint|
|Cover with the moon||sleep out in the open|
|Cow crate||a railroad stock car|
|Docandoberry||anything that grows on the side of a river that’s edible|
|Doggin’ it||traveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line|
|Easy mark||a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight|
|Elevated||under the influence of drugs or alcohol|
|Flip||to board a moving train|
|Flop||a place to sleep, by extension, “Flophouse“, a cheap hotel|
|Glad rags||one’s best clothes|
|Grease the track||to be run over by a train|
|Honey dipping||working with a shovel in the sewer|
|Hot||(1) a fugitive hobo; (2) a decent meal: “I could use three hots and a flop”|
|Hot Shot||a train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for “Cannonball”|
|Jungle||an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate|
|Jungle buzzard||a hobo or tramp who preys on his own|
|Knowledge bus||a school bus used for shelter|
|Maeve||a young hobo usually a girl|
|Main drag||the busiest road in a town|
|Moniker / Monica||a nickname|
|Mulligan||a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect|
|Nickel note||a five-dollar bill|
|On the fly||jumping a moving train|
|Padding the hoof||to travel by foot|
|Possum belly||to ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat, on his/her stomach, to avoid being blown off)|
|Pullman||a railroad sleeper car; most were made by George Pullman company|
|Punk||any young kid|
|Reefer||a compression or “refrigerator car“|
|Road kid||a young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road|
|Road stake||the small amount of money a hobo may have in case of an emergency|
|Rum dum||a drunkard|
|Sky pilot||a preacher or minister|
|Soup bowl||a place to get soup, bread and drinks|
|Snipes||cigarette butts “sniped” (e.g., in ashtrays)|
|Spare biscuits||looking for food in garbage can|
|Stemming||panhandling or begging along the streets|
|Tokay blanket||drinking alcohol to stay warm|
|Yegg||a traveling professional thief, or burglar|