A group of young men posing with bedrolls. Picture scanned from the Everett Public Library Archives
I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ’round,
Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
–Woody Guthrie – I Ain’t Got No Home
Like the cowboy, the lumberjack, and the old prospector, the hobo is a figure from the American past that seems to have slipped into the realm of cartoons and folk heroes. What generally comes to mind when hobos are mentioned are sad clown paintings with patchy clothing, people cooking boot stew, and Charlie Chaplin playing a lovable tramp. Beneath the stereotypes and folklore is a more interesting story of a group of Americans who were vital to the expansion of non-Native settlement West, and the feeding of a young nation.
But first, a little lesson in classification. Hobo, tramp, and bum were originally not meant to be interchangeable terms; when the terms first became common, they had very different connotations. Hobos were people who generally lacked a permanent residence and traveled from town to town to work odd jobs. Tramps were individuals who lived on the road out of preference, and panhandled or stole to pay their way. Bums were folks who did not work, and stayed in one location. Today all three are generally referred to more politely as ‘homeless,’ though this term obscures the differences between the three social groups. If you are interested in learning some Depression-era hobo slang, Wikipedia actually has a pretty decent glossary.
The Everett Public Library’s collections have a lot of great resources that talk about the history and culture of American hobos. To learn more about this very fascinating chapter in American history, look up a couple of these titles:
Hoboing in the 1970’s: The Compleat Freighthopper’s Manual for North America by Daniel Leen
Hoboing in the 1970’s is an interesting combination of practical advice, photography, poetry, and ‘it ain’t like it used to be’ musings about the author’s experiences as a hobo. Anyone interested in trying to adopt the hobo lifestyle would be advised to read the author’s disclaimer entitled ‘Railroad Darwinism.’ A common theme in hobo memoirs is the recognition that conditions have drastically changed since the heyday of hobo living, and that traveling by hopping trains is no longer safe to attempt (not that it ever was, as you will see).
Yankee Hobo in the Orient by John Patric
This account details the travels of the sometimes controversial late Snohomish County eccentric John Patric as he moved through pre-World-War-II Japan. During his time in Japan Patric lived on a few cents a day, sleeping in his car and supporting his travels by selling rubber stamps and doing odd jobs. Patric also left a nearly complete manuscript of his time living as a hobo in the United States, called the Hobo Years, which can be viewed in the Northwest History Room.
Once a Hobo: The Autobiography of Monte holm by Monte Holm and Dennis L. Clay
Once a Hobo is the life story of a Moses Lake man who lived as a hobo to survive the Great Depression. This story follows Holm from birth, through his hobo years, and on to his reemergence into mainstream society. This book opens with a full-page disclaimer not to ride trains, explaining that conditions are drastically different from what they were in the early years of freighthopping.
Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West by Mark Wyman
If you were to read one book about the history of the American hobo, this would probably be your best pick. Wyman has done an exhaustive amount of research into the history of the American hobo and how he or she (men, women, and children lived as hobos during the Depression) had an important function in American society. Initially the territory of Americans of European origin, the hobo scene quickly became multicultural. During the early years of Western farming, hobos were vital to successfully bringing in the harvest because large farms were isolated operations that didn’t have enough manpower to bring in the crop before it spoiled. Despite the West’s reliance on hobo labor at harvest time, these itinerant workers were run out of town for being an ‘undesirable element’ as soon as the work was done. Far from being a romantic portrait of a drifter lifestyle, Hoboes details the brutality and hardship that hobos encountered as they moved from job to job.
Wanted: Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane! Fighting for Free Speech with the Hobo Agitators of the I.W.W. edited by John Duda
This book was compiled from firsthand accounts, speeches, and newspaper stories. Wanted isn’t strictly about hobos, but it includes the stories of people who lived a hobo lifestyle to travel from battleground to battleground in the I.W.W. free speech fight.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Into the Wild is the biography of a man named Christopher Johnson McCandless. In 1990 McCandless disappeared shortly after graduating from college. Years later his body, journal, and some undeveloped film were found in an abandoned bus in rural Alaska. Over time it was pieced together that he had traveled across the United States living and working as a hobo, and eventually made his way to Alaska to attempt to live off the land. This book was also recently made into a motion picture.
Four on a Flatcar by G.D. Jacobson
Set in the 1940’s, Four on a Flatcar tells the true story of four Seattle boys who choose to hop freight trains to travel across the country in search of a missing father.
Hard Traveling: A Portrait of Work Life in the New Northwest by Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes
While Hard Traveling isn’t exclusively about hobos there is a lot of really interesting information about itinerant workers and how they traveled in the early days of Northwestern industrialization. Readers can get an idea of the kinds of jobs that hobos worked as they traveled through the region, and have the chance to look at some great historic pictures.
Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck
In 1936, Steinbeck was commissioned by the San Francisco News to write a series of articles about farmers that had been forced into a life of itinerant labor by the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck’s research laid the groundwork for his landmark work of fiction, The Grapes of Wrath, which also discusses the hardships of living and working as a hobo.
Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac
Lonesome Traveler is part autobiographical sketch, part lament for the death of the American hobo lifestyle as it was in the Great Depression. Kerouac tells a series of stories about periods of his life that inspired his more famous works, and ends with a piece that discusses how changes in the American economy and culture have transformed the hobo from migrant laborer to homeless criminal.
The Road by Jack London
London wrote The Road about a period of his life, in the 1890’s, when he lived as a hobo. This is a collection of short stories, sketches really, about what life as a hobo was like before the Dust Bowl turned being a hobo from a choice to a necessity.
Riding the Rails
Riding the Rails is a PBS documentary that tells the story of teenage hobos during the Great Depression.
The Great Machines: Poems and Songs of the American Railroad edited by Robert Hedin
The Great Machines has a small collection of songs and poems written about hobo life. While some of these paint a more pop-culture ‘charming tramp’ picture of the lifestyle, others describe the brutality and struggle involved with a life lived on the rails.
Various Bits and Pieces of Hobo Culture