Hobos Gather in Iowa

Saturday, August 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRITT, Iowa (AP) — They tapped their walking sticks and brushed their fingertips along the tops the headstones that marked the simple graves of their brethren, men like Mountain Dew, Lord Open Road and Hobo Herb Schaber.

While a flutist played ``The Wayfaring Stranger,'' the procession of 75 hobos and family members bowed their heads and walked silently in respect to a generation of migrant workers, men and women who shared a passion for freedom and the open railroad.

``Part of your spirit, part of your love will go through the walking stick and into the people who are buried here,'' said Texas Madman, who led the graveside memorial service.

About 150 people, many dressed in denim and burlap, gathered at the sun-splashed Evergreen Cemetery Friday, marking a somber moment during the 100th National Hobo Convention in this north-central Iowa town of 2,200.

While many Americans associate hobos with the long-gone days of the Great Depression, hobos and townspeople alike are hoping to keep the history of the transient workers alive.

About 20,000 tourists are expected to descend upon the town this weekend for carnival rides, tastes of Mulligan Stew and the coronation of this year's Hobo King and Queen.

``This is such a timepiece of Americana,'' said Rick Palieri, a musician from Hinesburg, Vt. ``This kind of thing is disappearing so quickly.''

The festival came to this small town along U.S. Highway 18 in 1900 when three Chicago hobos sought a small town to hold the annual gathering of Tourist Union No. 63, better known as the Hobo Convention.

While the town has provided a stronger police presence in recent years, community members said they have welcomed the hobos and tourists with open arms.

Crimson banners depicting a friendly hobo carrying a bindle stick decorate Main Avenue while The Hobo Museum and Gift Shop features a collection of photographs and a replica of a ``Hobo Jungle'' shack. Many residents also work with the Hobo Memorial Foundation, a charitable group dedicated to preserving the history of the hobo.

Today's generation of transients — many who take extended railroad trips during the summer months or mirror the lifestyle in vans or RVs — concede that a reduced dependency on manual labor and an increase in danger along the railways have made the lifestyle less appealing.

In addition, with more than 95 percent of the nation fully employed, they say the wanderlust of the post-Depression era may be over.

``We're a long way off from the cartoon tramp,'' said Captain Cloud, a Tennessee worker who carries on his shoulder a 3-year-old iguana named Mojo. ``There's a lot of us out here that's trying to maintain a piece of America.''

Errol Lincoln Uys, author of ``Riding the Rails,'' a collection of letters about teen-aged hobos during the Great Depression, said as many as 250,000 teen-agers and 4 million adults turned to a life of migrant labor along the railways between 1929 and the start of World War I.

Uys said the current generation frequently mistakes hobos for homeless. Historians believe the term ``hobo'' came from ``hoe boy,'' a term for a traveling laborer who would work in rural settings for weeks at a time before jumping a freight train for the next locale.

``You have to ask yourself, in today's context, in the suburbs, how many people, if a hobo comes down the driveway and knocks on the door, would not reach for the telephone and not dial 911?'' Uys said.

But others insist the torch will be passed to a generation of thrill-seekers and freedom addicts who wish to make the road their home without the restrictions of a 9-to-5 job.

``It's something that's going to endure and it's going to endure in another form,'' said Chris Smith, a University of Chicago graduate student researching migratory workers and the nation's tradition of hobos.

Not all hobos are represented in Britt. Buzz Potter, president of the National Hobo Association, said many of his members decided not to attend the event because they resented the police presence and the tourist atmosphere.

But many of the hobos in attendance said they planned to continue to visit Iowa each August for the convention — and eventually find their eternal reward.

``I'm all set,'' said Red Bird, a Pennsburg, Pa., truck driver, pointing to the blank marble grave stone at the Evergreen Cemetery. ``All I have to do is die now.''