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Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Hobos During The Great Depression

A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless person who is looking for work. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who does not work at all, a "hobo" is a travelling worker.

According to The National Heritage Museum, "During the Great Depression, 1929-1939, over 250,000 young people left home in hope and desperation and began riding freight trains or hitchhiking across America.  Most of the them were between 16 and 25 years of age."

Many young boys saw "riding the rails" and looking for work as romantic. They found out the hard way how hard the life of wandering really was. But for most, it was a necessity. During the Great Depression, there were no jobs, banks were closing, businesses folded. So it is estimated that some 2 million people were homeless. Some men couldn't take the failure. They couldn't provide for their families and couldn't stand to see them starve so they just left. The coward's way out but they left their families or committed suicide. Some left to find work anywhere, somewhere. They sent any money they made home and lived homeless in order to send as much home as they could. Many single men, left in order to fend for themselves so their families didn't have to provide for them. Some were orphan teenage boys who had no one else.

Experienced hobos often taught the newbies how to jump trains and how to find hobo camps or fend for themselves. Jumping trains was easier than walking where you were going but it also was VERY dangerous. At least 6,500 hobos were killed in one year. The railroads were rescued by the U.S. government and so were able to keep running. But jumping trains was costly to the railroads. The more men who were able to do it without paying for a ticket, the more men would try to do it. Before long they would have been covered up in hangers-on which would slow a train down and cost in fuel. Railroads were forced to hire security to run off the hobos from their rail yards and to keep them off the trains. Brutal men were often hired to beat the hobos off the trains. By necessity they had to be hired bullies. They needed the jobs and being brutal was a necessity to keep their jobs. It was a no win situation for railroad owners who had to compete in a down market; hired railroad security who had to successfully keep the hundreds of thousands of men off the trains and out of the yards; and the hobos who were desperate to find work and needed to travel to try to find work.

Hobo camps were often called Hobo jungles. They weren't far from the rails. They had to travel light if they were jumping trains. They would carry a bindle which was their bedroll wrapped around their only belongings.

Hobos would have been dependent on what they could find or scrounge or beg for food. Consider being homeless and riding the rails... what could you carry? It's not like you could carry a lot. A knife, a cup, maybe a pot? So eating out of tin cans (they can be heated up over a fire without a pot), eating with their knife, cooking with sticks to roast something would have been normal. In one of the family lines I have a story about a family member who was a hobo or tramp. His family had a soft touch when hobos knocked on their door because they lived near a railroad and they knew their family member was somewhere without food or a place to sleep. So all leftovers were carefully saved in case a hobo stopped by. When he did come home, he would do odd things like drinking his coffee straight from the coffee pot spout! He would sleep on the floor instead of a bed.

Just like with the trains, word would get around the homeless population as to who was nice to hobos or who gave them food. This made it dangerous for households because once it was known you were a soft touch, many followed and some were unscrupulous. They would kill someone or steal from them. So men often learned that being kind or generous to hobos who showed up on their doorstep could endanger their wives and children. It was very sad.

Many churches and charity organizations began to open up soup kitchens and visiting hobo camps with generosity. Of course, as most homeless organizations can attest to today, the organizations can be taken advantage of so they had to have rules and some don't do well with rules. They resented rules. It also could hurt their pride which they resented.

Mulligan stew is a type of stew said to have been prepared by American hobos in camps in the early 1900s. An Irish stew that includes meat, potatoes, vegetables, and whatever else can be begged, scavenged, found or stolen. The hobo jungle would have a large campfire and a pot into which each person would put in a portion of their food, to create a shared stew.

Sometimes their was wild game they caught, fish, bread they stole, some beans, fruit they picked, anything that grew wild and was edible like dandelions, lemon grass, sorrell, polk greens, nuts, etc. Basically they ate whatever they could find that day.

Every substance imaginable was used as a substitute for coffee, including ground acorns. Chicory roots were baked, ground, and used as a coffee substitute. C.W. Post combined toasted wheat, bran, and molasses to create Postum, a powdered breakfast drink mix that could be a coffee substitute.

Tramp Art is a mainly American genre of art using small pieces of wood, primarily from discarded cigar boxes, shipping crates, wooden matches which were whittled into layers, often in geometric shapes. They also used tin cans to make things. It was popular in the years between the 1870s to the 1940s. The artists used simple tools such as a pocket knife to carve the wood. Not all "tramp art" was made by the homeless men, but made by family men with settled home lives. Because it was made with simple tools and available materials it was made by anybody. Tramps and hobos often made pieces to sell for money.

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