Tennessee Mountain Stories

Facts about Hobos

Isn’t it always amazing how once a term or subject is on your mind, how many times you hear or see it referenced?  Well, that’s what happened to me over the last week in regards to Hobos.  After writing last week’s short story, it seemed as though I couldn’t get away from hobo, therefore, we’ll talk about them again today.

Did it ever occur to you that hobos are unique to the railroads?  After all, there were no hobos on stagecoaches and we don’t see them on airplanes, buses or long-haul trucks.  Therefore, this character of American History could not exist until maybe the late nineteenth century.  In fact, Wikipedia cites the etymology of the very word as originating around 1890 in California.

I suppose if someone introduced himself today me as a hobo, with Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” echoing in the back of my mind, I might take a step back and tuck my purse a little tighter under my arm.  After all, that ballad of the hobo identified him as knowing “every lock that ain’t locked when no one’s around” and the four-bit room he bought himself doesn’t mention a bath, does it?  But the popular image of a vagabond or tramp is distinctly different that the real meaning of a hobo for hobos are traveling to find work.  And that is one of the things that came to my attention after writing last week’s short story.   The Hobo Minstrel, writing on Hobo.com, explains:

                              A Hobo is a person that travels to work. 
                              A Tramp is a person that travels and won’t work.
                              A Bum is a person that will neither travel [n]or work.

While it was unknown during most of his life, in his last days one of my great-uncles told of hoboing in his youth for the sole purpose of finding work. Growing up on the mountain, when he came of age there was simply no work to be found and coming from a family with very little means he struck out in search of gainful employment.  Born in 1911, Uncle T (as we always knew him) would have been looking for work in the very early days of The Depression. Unfortunately, there seems to be no record of where he traveled or how long he spent on the rails.  But he came home to the mountain and there married and started his family so apparently he found nothing to keep him elsewhere.

The lack of stories passed on seems to be a common thread.  Ruby Casteel, whose hobo days inspired last week’s story, never talked about his past and what little history they know was passed to his children from their mother.  However, the values he sought to instill in them were surely formed in those early years of neglect and I can’t help but wonder if he found a sense of brotherhood among men he met in his travels.  Uncle T said there were lots of men hopping trains to get to whatever town was rumored to have work available.  Another great uncle, Coy Key, told of trying to head out on the train.  However, he and the cousin he traveled with (he had scads of cousins and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten which one tagged along on this adventure) were quickly put off the train in Harriman by the bull.

Migrant workers still don’t get a good reputation among the rooted members of society – that prejudice no doubt has little more merit than any other prejudice.  I knew a lady who was raised in Wilder in the 1920’s and never knew her father; she lived with the rumors that he was a hobo, even one of a minority race.  Unfortunately that rather sounds like the kind of taunting that unkind school children come up with without a shred of evidence.  Yet the story survived and with no father to put up against such rumors, they seemed to take root in her heart, after all I heard about them fifty or sixty years later.  I guess we could have a huge discussion or even debate on the political ramifications of migrants and it’s always hard to look through antique lenses when we study history.  But I think it’s important to remember the situation that many honest and hard-working men faced in the 1930’s.  Remember that cities had men lined up for soup, American people were actually starving – that’s very different than not being able to afford dinner out on the town which is the extent of poverty many of us have faced.  Moreover, Americans in general were much, much less mobile than we are today.  There is a story of an entire family that passed through the area after walking all the way from Ohio.  They were headed to Florida where they had family and their situation was so dire up north that they were headed south by the only means available to them.  I don’t suppose a whole family can very successfully hobo from Ohio to Florida.

handwritten note on this photo dates it 1933

handwritten note on this photo dates it 1933

It is both sad and a little fascinating to think of these men resorting to this lonesome and dangerous mode of transport and I guess I am impressed by those who opt to be hobos rather than tramps or bums, as The Hobo Minstrel defines them.