Wanderlust rooted deep in hobo history

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From hopping trains and just living day-to-day, the hobo lifestyle’s deep history is still vibrant today.

By Carl Hesler

The hobo way of life has existed for more than a century, and according to hobo expert Linda Hughes, it shows no signs of stopping.

“With the way the economy is, we foresee this lifestyle to grow,” she said.

The standard definition of a hobo is “one who travels and works.” A tramp is one who travels but never works, and a bum never travels or works.

“‘Bum’ is a very big insult to hobos,” Hughes warned. “If you ride the rails for the first time, you have to be welcomed into the hobo community. You have to prove yourself.”

In a typical day, then, a hobo will ride trains to find work, Hughes said.

“They know all the trains,” said Hughes. “They know when they come and where they’re headed. They catch the right train and ride it to where they want to go. When they get to the town they want, they find some work to do — be it for a sandwich or a couple of cents.”

According to Hughes, hobo men usually work on farms, where they harvest wheat or beets. In the winter, many of them go to the southern United States to work in shipyards. Usually hobo women work part- or full-time jobs. Some of them even own homes and live normal lives. What sets hobos apart from everyone else, however, is their desire to live free in an obvious way.

“Steam Train Maury Graham, one of the great hobos, said that ‘Once you get that wanderlust in your heart, you have to go,’” Hughes explained. “But a hobo is a man before he is a hobo — don’t ever forget that. Hobos are exactly like the rest of us, except they have to be on the move all the time.”

While hobos value freedom and travel, they also feel a special bond with each other. Once a year, they gather by the hundreds in Britt, Iowa for the National Hobo Convention.

“It’s a town celebration,” said Hughes. “There’s a flea market, ‘Mulligan Stew,’ hobo games, a memorial service, a huge parade, and a car and truck show to end it on Sunday.”

The convention starts on a Thursday with an official fire lighting in Britt’s Hobo Jungle – a big campground where hobos spend the weekend. The Hobo King and Queen from the previous year give speeches and other hobos sing and read poetry. On Friday, hobos remember their forebears in a memorial service at the Hobo Cemetery in Britt. One of the previous Hobo Queens, Connecticut Shorty, conducts a tour of the cemetery.

On Saturday, Britt hosts a 5K/10K run and a parade, and hobos vote for the new king and queen. The weekend ends with a car show on Main Street and a craft show in the park.

The ties connecting Brookings and Brit, aside the first two letters of the names, are more than the celebration of the hobo tradition or reveling in freedom. Hughes said two past Hobo Queens — Adventurer Jan in 1975 and LuAnn Uhden in ’76 — had been SDSU students, at least according to rumor.

“It is talked about every year at [Britt’s] Hobo Day,” she said. “We always want some SDSU students to come out for the Convention.”