Okay, how does one go about explaining a hobo convention? The place to start is with definitions. What exactly is a hobo? Despite what Webster or other dictionaries might say, the only one that counts is how hoboes themselves define a hobo. Their definitions are:
A Hobo is a man who Travels to work.
A Tramp is a man who travels and won’t work.
A Bum is a man who won’t travel or work.
*The last one, a bum, they sometimes include that he’s apt to have problems with alcohol or drugs.
There’s some confusion about the early hobo conventions with some thinking that they were held in Chicago. Actually, the first two were held in Twin Oaks, Michigan. The reason for the confusion is that the four orginal members of the Tourist Union 63 were from Chicago. They had travelled to Twin Oaks for the convention. The other point adding to the confusion was that when the town fathers of Britt, Iowa were looking for something to stimulate their local economy, they travelled to Chicago to meet with the original four members in an effort to get them to move the convention to Britt. After they brought the 4 members to Britt to look the place over it was agreed that the convention would meet there in 1900. It’s been held there each year since 1900 and will probably remain there for the foreseeable future.
So what is the purpose of a hobo convention? A better question might be, “why does it need to have a purpose?” Actually it does. It’s the event where as many as can congregate not only to have fun swapping stories, but they do conclude one “official” bit of business. Each year they elect the new King and Queen of the hoboes, who will reign as royalty for the next year.
Another point of confusion is the titles of King and Queen. Offically the title of the king is Head Pipe, and no one seems to know why the Queen is called the Queen rather than the Head Pipette or Head Pipe Cleaner or something else more colorful. Meaning no disrespect to the Head Pipe, for purposes here, I’ll use the title of King as it only requires typing one word rather than two.
Tourist Union 63 was founded by one Charles Noe and three others in 1900. They were four young men of little responsibiltiy and a love of travel. While preparing for the trip to the first convention to be held in Britt, Iowa, they founded the Tourist Union 63, evidently for the purposes of at least appearing they were organized in some form or fashion. The reason for the 63, is that was the number of the first membership list. Again…”list” implies at least, organization.
The conditions for membership were pretty simple, especially for the time. To gain membership, you had to swear an oath that:
You’d ridden the rods (rails/steel) for 1,000 miles.
That during that 1,000 miles, you’d survived only by panhandling dookies the entire time.
That if you were ever elected to Congress, you’d promise legislation to require soup kitchens at every railroad yard, and better and bigger free beers.
Today the first two requirements are waived with the payment of $5; however you do still have to swear to the last one….they seem pretty firm about that one. After paying my $5, and swearing to the latter requirement I became for the first time in my life, a card-carrying union member, officially I guess making me a hobo. Loving travel I figure it fits me well.
So, what did I expect for my first hobo convention? I don’t know. I had decided to keep an open mind about it all and limit my preconceived ideas or biases. I’m glad I did because it left me more able to enjoy the environment. First, they weren’t all dirty and smelly as most of us would think. Yes, their clothes are in many cases pretty worn, but I only saw one, who would actually qualify as unkempt.
Because I blew and tire and had to buy a new set for the rear and feeling waaay under the weather I didn’t arrive until Thursday afternoon. Feeling bad, I just checked into a local campground and went to bed in the hope of feeling good enough to venture to the convention the next day.
By Friday afternoon I wasn’t feeling good but I could at least get around a bit so decided to venture over to the hobo festivities. I only made it to the main street of town where there was a street bazaar going on. After walking about half of it, I decided to return to my campground and go back to bed, which turned out to be the wise move as Saturday morning I woke up feeling pretty decent allowing me to head to the convention.
The festivities center around the hobo jungle which is held in one of Britt’s parks named Hobo Park. The first thing you notice is that while unwelcome in most communities, the opposite is true in Britt.
The relationship with the town of Britt, IA is sort of symbiotic. The town not only tolerates them, but welcomes the hoboes in. They have a respect for them and it’s readily apparent that the hoboes feel the same way about the town. While the convention is going on, the hoboes want for nothing. On Saturday morning about 5am a farmer dropped off a dressed pig. By 6am, it was properly cooking over the fire and at 5pm, it was being served. In addition, various stores drop off bread, pastries, veggies, drinks (soft) and anything else that might be needed for a feast, open to all.
Hobo Park, the location of the jungle is at the edge of town near the railroad tracks. While all the rest of the street signs are in the usual green background with white lettering, the signs around Hobo Park are red with white lettering with a picture of the typical hobo image. There’s a boxcar located there permanently, that non hoboes aren’t allowed into except by invitation of a hobo. The town has built them a pavillion providing shade and tables and there are a bunch of old fridges I assume have been donated. It’s their place, the rest of us there are just welcomed guests.
Entering the Jungle
Hobo Universal Soup Bowl, Coffee Mug
Being my first time there, and especially not knowing how they might react to someone with a camera around their neck, I tried to remain as inconspicuous as I could hanging on the margins. That didn’t last long. An old hobo approached me and asked if I was taking pictures. I responded I’d hoped to but didn’t want to invade anyone’s privacy. He said…”don’t worry about it, we’re all used to it. I’m Bill…I’m a stealer, and an agent.”
With that, he handed me his card. He owns a structural steel company, hence the steeler, and then he pointed to 3 young women and said, he represents them. He went on to tell me that he’s in his mid-80′s and the young women have adopted him as their father and that he couldn’t be more proud of his “daughters”. It seems back in the early 90′s they had come to the convention kind of to honor their father who’d been a hobo and was buried in the town cemetery. He was there paying his respects for old hoboes he’d known that were buried there. They began talking and he learned they are a musical group of gospel singers. While they were planning on leaving, he encouraged them to stay and join in the evening festivities around the campfire. They stayed and have become a big part of the convention each year since, with him making the arrangements to get them there, picking them up at the airport etc. I’ve forgotten what the name of their group is 51 weeks of the year, but for the 1 week, they’re billed as the National Hobo Singers….and, they are quite good.
It should be mentioned here that most hoboes, don’t ride the rails all their lives. Most only do it for a few years and end up returning to the real world, many becoming very successful. Remember the 4 original members of Tourist Union 63 mentioned above? One went on to become a successful journalist, another ended up owning a chain of restaurants in Chicago, and I’ve forgotten what the other two ended up doing, but all ended up quite successful. While having a discussion with the 2010 King I asked if anyone knows how many hoboes there are today. He said, best guess is around 50,000, down from its depression high of over 1,000,000. He told me that most of those that take to the rails with the idea of doing it permanently finally have to give it up, either because they’re no longer fast enough to hop a train, or can no longer continue because of health reasons. He said it’s a hard life, and very hard on one’s general health. I listened to him relating a story where someone locked him in a freezer car where he ended up suffering frostbite before he finally was heard and let out. Each had stories of close calls, some caused by deliberate actions of others, and some just blunders on their part. When you listen to their stories you know, that for each of these that are around to tell them….many others aren’t.
I found virtually all of them to be quite nice and more than friendly. All are willing to have their photos taken. I also got to meet the oldest female hobo. She’s a very nice Black lady and is 87 yrs old. Though she no longer rides the rails, she’s still a hobo, as are all who have ever ridden the rods. Many there are no longer riding trains for a variety of reasons, but they all still identify themselves as hoboes, not former hoboes. Once a hobo, always a hobo.
The caricature heading this post of the carefree fellow carrying his bindle with his toes sticking out of his flopping soles was created in 1900 by a printer in Chicago and has remained as the standard since. It’s believed to be a caricature of Charles Noe, one of the original organizers of Tourist Union 63. You’ll see this fellow all over Britt on street signs, window displays and literature. He figures prominently in the hobo culture.
After a week of campaigning, on Saturday afternoon, the new Royalty is finally elected and crowned. The crown is fashioned from an old coffee can. They will reign over the rest of the fesivities and throughout the coming year.