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Remembering the hobos of the 1930s

The great depression of the 1930s held hardships for most American families. Distraught young and older men were forced to leave home in search of a job or something to eat. Often they rode the trains, jumping on and off (from the coal or cattle ...

The great depression of the 1930s held hardships for most American families. Distraught young and older men were forced to leave home in search of a job or something to eat. Often they rode the trains, jumping on and off (from the coal or cattle cars) wherever life might be better.

WORTHINGTON -- The term hobos is derivative from “hoe boys,” who used to do farm work, helping in the fields or in the household garden that nearly every family had then. The hoe boys showed up in the early spring to be able to work the gardens or farms, hoeing up those early weeds. Hobos worked for their wages or often bartered for food, whereas tramps or bums would simply ask for a handout.

As a child, I watched my dad start his own lumber yard. At first he had a load of tamarack poles from northern Minnesota. The farmers were replacing their fences and, by the late ’30s, the economy was on the rise. The poles sold and more lumber was added to the inventory. The business grew slowly but surely. My father, Daddy Cec, did all the work himself -- no employees. However, he was able to hire an extra hand when the hobos were in town.

Sometimes the hobos would set up a miniature camp. These camps were called “Hobo Jungles.” They consisted of a fire pit, logs to sit on and places to sleep. There was one near our end of Ortonville. In order to get to the Hobo Jungle we would have to walk through the low land -- swampy and weedy -- then climb the hill to the tracks. The camp was well hidden from any road. The Hobo Jungle was strictly off limits for all children, so of course we were intrigued and could not resist to look for the jungle.

My best friend Mary Catherine and I just had to go see it. We did get to the railroad tracks and peeked over the hill. We could see the camp. It was a large well-worn area with a fire pit in the center with a few scattered empty cans. Tree trunks cut were used as stools. Just when we got to top we heard a noise -- I don’t remember what it was, or how loud, but we were SCARED. We ran down the track embankment, stumbling all the way. We ran into the swampy land, and I lost my shoe. As if that was not bad enough, I would have to tell mother where I lost it!

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Hobos often found work and food at our house, the Kaercher home. Marking the homes that provided a job or food was a custom of the hobos. The railroad box cars were their means of transportation. Riding the rails was a dangerous part of the culture, yet many famous people struggled through the depression doing this to survive.

One of the hobos I liked was named Slim, and he ate supper with us at our home often. At the end of the meal he would tell my mother, “Yes, I will have a piece of apple pie.” We would all look at Mom and laugh, there was no pie. Pie was indeed a luxury no one had at the time.

Hobos made furniture from narrow limbs of trees and scraps of wood. They would hand make plant stands, picture frames, chairs, small tables and even benches. I remember Slim sitting down in the backyard making a chair out of twigs. In my later years I collected hobo furniture. It is truly an authentic American folk art.

The next time you head to the garden, think about whether you could have survived the life of a Hobo or Hogi (Hoe Girl ?).

“A hobo wanders and works, a tramp wanders and dreams and a bum neither wanders nor works.”  By anonymous.

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