The American HOBO An Extinct Species

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Courtenay, North Dakota 58426

Few of today's elderly citizens who happened to live in any of the small towns located on the mainline railroads in the Northwest before or after the turn of the century, will have difficulty recalling the hoards of transient laborers who swarmed into their towns or villages each autumn. They came in groups and droves, both large and small these homeless wanderers who made their annual exodus to the Northwest for the fall harvest. Their means of transportation was the westbound freight trains. They rode the 'empties', the 'tops', the 'rods' and a few bold ones among them rode the engine's tender. But mostly they rode the 'empties', which were frequently grain or coal cars being returned to the Northwest for reloading. They were generally ignored by the train crew, and for a good reason. These 'passengers' often far outnumbered the train crew itself.

Like their predecessors the buffalo and the passenger pigeon, they made their annual appearance without fail, and like the same predecessors they were simply taken for granted. In our thoughtless innocence we assumed that was the way it had to be, and would always be. Time and the forces of change have long since proven how wrong one can be.

Although nearly all of the towns and villages along the main line railroads of the Northwest were affected by their coming, yet it was the towns that made up the many division points that felt the real brunt of their coming. It was here that the through freights take on or leave off cars of freight. It was these small towns that had their population swollen noticeably each fall by the coming of these transients. Let us pause here to give credit where credit is due. Although they arrived in large numbers and could easily have overpowered the local police (which often consisted of only one man) and taken over the town with little effort, yet they did not. For the most part and with few exceptions, they were relatively peaceful men. In some of the larger towns the railroad company employed their own police to police the railroad yards. However, his authority was limited to the railroad property and did not include the town. Needless to say, there was little brotherly love between the hobos and the railroad 'bull' as he was called.

As might be expected, these men were often short of cash, and until they found employment (generally on a steam threshing rig where board was furnished) it was necessary that they feed themselves, and as cheaply as possible. This brought into existence the 'bums camp' or 'jungles' as they were often called, generally located at the edge of town. Here men camped in the open and cooked food bought at the local store, and sometimes supplemented by a few vegetables 'borrowed' from a nearby garden. Generally they slept in the empty boxcars left standing on the sidings, or in the hay of the stockyards which the railroads furnished for the shipping of livestock before the advent of the truck. Each town, however small was not without its stockyards. Seldom, if ever, could one of these men afford to patronize even the cheapest hotel. They slept in the clothes they wore and seldom did one carry a blanket. However, considering the extremely rugged conditions in which they lived, they were surprisingly well groomed. Dressed in working clothes, with faces shaved and hair trimmed, they presented, for the most part, a rather neat appearance, and in sharp contrast to some of the styles seen upon our streets today.

As might be expected, they were of no one type or pattern-in fact, they were as diverse and different as any segment of our population could be. They had but one thing in common they were all homeless wanderers. There was the young hobo, scarcely more than a boy, who felt that with much profanity and loud talk he could earn the title of hobo. There was the grizzly old veteran hobo who had bummed for more years, and had been to more places than he could remember. For him, it was not necessary to lift the voice or put on an act. A glance would tell that he was the genuine tramp. There were men possessing a high degree of intelligence and some education, neither of which would be put to good use. And there was the poor unfortunate possessing neither, who was doomed to struggle all of his life for a bare subsistence.

These transients seldom saw the interior of a house. In the era of the large threshing crews the men were fed in a 'cook-car', a portable commissary on wheels, seating 15 or 20 men, and hauled from farm to farm by two or more horses. The haymow over the horse barn served as sleeping quarters and a meeting place during wet weather. Here these rough men gathered, swore, chewed their tobacco, and talked of work, women and far away places. Here many experiences were aired (perhaps some true and some fictional) as old veterans of the endless trail told of places they had been and things they had seen. Here too, the cunning took advantage of the innocent, and the shrewd lived off the sweat of the unfortunate. It was the scene of the nightly poker game where, by the feeble light of a smoky kerosene lantern men gambled away by night, the wages they earned in the heat and dust of the day.

In an era long before the coming of the combine, when the threshing was done by the huge threshing rigs, in order to get and hold a job on such a machine, a man not only had to be able to handle a pitchfork, but he needed also to be able to handle horses. This separated the men from the boys the experienced from the inexperienced. Many of these men had been raised in the cities, (although not always in the slums) and had no experience with either fork nor horse. Many amusing and sometimes hair-raising experience took place when a man attempted to handle a team for the first time. Generally speaking, most of them did an honest day's work while on the job, although as in all groups, there were a few 'gold bricks' who lowered the average of the crew. While there was at times, some friction and dissatisfaction between the thresher and the crew, in all fairness to both, all of the blame could not, and should not, be placed upon the hoboes. Often the thresher or the farmer were fully as much to blame as were the men. However, they often proved irresponsible and unpredictable. Although they might work faithfully for a few days in order to earn a grub stake, they might suddenly answer the call of the wander lust, and without warning or reason, quit their jobs, leaving their employer shorthanded or completely without help.

Occasionally, a few of them would remain the entire fall and would often prove quite congenial and likeable as they mixed with the local men and boys who made up the large threshing crews of those days. During the long fall's run there was ample time for all members of the crew to become well acquainted, resulting in much banter and kidding. It was after the fall's work was completed, and time for the drifters to again answer the call of the open road, that we came to realize how some of these strangers had found their way into our lives and our hearts. Therefore, it was often with a profound feeling of sadness and nostalgia that we bid them goodbye, knowing full well that we would never see them again. All this for homeless wanderers who by sheer accident, drifted into our lives, paused briefly among us, then drifted on!

Whatever became of those men who once rode the freight trains of our nation, or walked its roads? Those sometimes likeable, often irresponsible people who never put down roots, nor had a home, family or property, and whose lives they wasted. These men to whom physical neglect was a way of life. What became of them in their old age when they were no longer able to earn a grub stake, or journey toward that elusive destination just beyond the horizon? In the era both before and after the turn of the century when present-day forms of relief or aid to the needy was unheard of, how indeed did their lives end? Did they subside on the one bowl of thin soup served daily in a bread line or soup kitchen run by some charitable organization, until they were no longer able to beg for foodand no longer cared to? Were they often found dead in a cheap flop house, box car or alley? Did they receive a decent burial? What, what indeed became of them! These are questions that we of today can only ask, but can not answer. All that we know is that they, like the passenger pigeon before them, come no more and that they are extinct.

What brought into existence this segment of our population which we chose to call the hobo? What circumstance or group of circumstances produced him, and by the same token, what negative circumstances caused his extinction? These are thought provoking questions.

Granted, they had their short-comings and imperfections as have we all, but before we class them all as worthless vagrants, let us consider the vast amount of service they rendered. Let us remember that at a crucial time each year the hobo was much needed in the Great Northwest. What finer thing can we say for him than that when he was needed he was there! The American hobo, how could we have managed without him!