Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What makes a modern day hobo?

Former hobo king, Iron Horse Brad, has held his share of jobs, but love of the road brought him to Britt.

What makes a modern day hobo?

Of the News-Tribune

While hanging out down at the Hobo Jungle I heard someone comment, “These aren't hobos!” after they asked if I could point out a hobo for them to photograph.

I don't know what they expected a hobo to look like, but it did get me to thinking - what makes a hobo and why do they choose this lifestyle.

The hobos visiting the yearly convention in Britt are certainly not the traveling workers of the 1930s, driven by necessity to hop a train to the next job.

Many of today's hobos have never ridden the rails at all, preferring to travel by car or bus. Many have jobs or are retired. These “hobos at heart,” as some like to call themselves, feel the pull of the lifestyle and just like to commune with kindred spirits.

“I grew up with trains and Mom used to feed hobos. I had an uncle that was a hobo,” said Brad “Iron Horse Brad” Villars. “I doubt there is anyone living here that doesn't have a relative who's been a hobo. During the Depression everyone was looking for work.”

Iron Horse Brad, who hails from Indiana, was National Hobo King from 2005 -2006. He has been coming to the Britt convention for 22 years, ever since being invited by hobo patriarch Steamtrain Maury Graham.

“In the Depression men traveled to work, now they work to travel,” he said, adding that not everyone at the Jungle agreed with his assessment.

“We're just family. In a true sense the people here are not hobos, but we're as close as you're going to get,” Iron Horse said. “We're trying to keep a tradition going.”

Iron Horse, who just turned 69, said he has picked apples in Washington, dug ditches in Arkansas and drove a semi.

“It's just the travel . I enjoyed hitchhiking, you can see things you can't see traveling 70 miles-per-hour on the road,” he said.

“As long as there are trains running someone is gonna get on it,” Iron Horse said. “Until they pull the rails up there will be a rail rider somewhere..”

Almost, if not all, the real hobos are gone now, the ones who had the wanderlust so bad it wouldn't let them settle down.

In October 1966 The Pennsylvania Kid was quoted as saying, “The docs tell me I got the wanderlust. It's a disease, like alcoholism. I gotta keep moving. Why, I can go coast to coast on a piece of toast - get it?”

Betty “Connecticut Shorty” Moylan, who lives part-time in Britt, understands the above sentiment all too well.

She was just a little girl when her father left them, but she said her siblings and herself never thought too much about it. “We were just normal kids without a father,” she said.

She had the opportunity to reunite with her father when she was 38 years-old and had a family of her own.

“I saw an article, ‘Last real hobo calls it quits,'” she said. The story was about her father and his 44 years on the road.

She said she and her father were friends for over 10 years until his death in February 1990.

She had met Steamtrain the previous year and had already promised him that when it came time she would send her father's ashes to Britt.

Moylan and her sister, Maggie “New York Maggie” Malone, who made the trip to Britt for the first time in August 1990, were welcomed into the hobo community by all their father's friends and they finally understood what being a hobo meant.

“They are people who are different, they need to travel, it's a calling,” Shorty said. “They can't live a conventional lifestyle. That was probably the biggest problem between my father and mother.”

Once the sisters retired they embraced the hobo lifestyle.

“It's the last free adventure in America. It's the wanderlust, the spirit of adventure, to hop a freight train. Sometimes you know where it is going and sometimes you don't,” Shorty said with a broad smile. “It's risky and it's illegal and you can get hurt, but it is still a great adventure.”

Some folks were led to the hobo, or nomadic, lifestyle - not because they were looking for work, but because they had so many opportunities it was hard to stay in just one place.

That's the way it was for Karl “Tramp Printer” Schwede, 72 of California.

“I traveled from one side of the United States to the other from early 1950 through the 1970s,” he said.

“I was with the Topographical Union and worked at papers in San Francisco, St. Louis and the New York Times. I could do that because I had a trade,” Tramp Printer said proudly.

An excerpt from the book Tramp Printers by John Howells and Marion Dearman (Discovery Press, copyright 1996, 2003), reads, “Rarely if ever in the history of work and labor has a group of craftsmen enjoyed as much freedom, dignity, and mobility as those engaged in the art of printing.

To properly master the art of printing-after finishing several years of apprenticeship-it was almost obligatory to journey from one shop to another, from one town to another, even between countries.

Jobs and opportunities expanded with each new printshop established. Printers knew they were in demand and were tempted to change jobs frequently, knowing they could travel from place to place with ease, that their skills were always in demand.”

“Ones who never settled in one place were called tramps. If I was working somewhere and didn't like it, I'd move,” Tramp Printer said. “Then automation came in and wiped us all out in the 1980s. I've been retired 10 years, but I had a good life.”

With the advent of computers and software in the 1960s the relationship between printers and newspapers began to change until abruptly, in the latter half of the 20th century, their skills were no longer needed.

The International Typographical Union, which had been the oldest, the strongest, the most active labor union in the history of the American labor movement, folded after 134 years and faded into history.

The way of the hobo isn't so very different, except there are those who don't believe this unique part of American history should be allowed to die.

Tramp Printer read about the National Hobo Convention in Britt in National Geographic over 25 years ago and wanted to see for himself what it was all about.

Knowing that he had found folks like himself he has been returning to Britt off and on over the years.

According to Fran DeLorenzo, also known as The Hobo Minstrel and the Grand Duke of cyberspace, there are a lot of different ideas of what makes a person a Hobo.

However, the consistent theme relates to independence and traveling around the county, no matter the method.

“A dysfunctional family situation has put youngsters on the road and other unfortunate circumstance has made a hobo out of many men,” DeLorenzo wrote.

Many hobos who traveled from job to job throughout the 1930s settled back into a routine life after the economy picked back up - others didn't.

Today there are many people who feel more comfortable on the road and away from mainstream society and one by one they all seem to find their way to Britt each year.

Story created Aug 19, 2008 - 10:12:52 CDT.

No comments: