1. The town of Britt, Iowa, is known as the hobo capital of the world.
The 2,000-person town in northern Iowa has been hosting the National Hobo Convention for 112 years.
The Hobo Convention happens the 2nd weekend in August. The railroad runs right through town.
The coolest part about Britt is that it has 3 bars for 2,000 people!!
2. A hobo jungle is a place where hoboes camp.
Hobo jungles aren’t really as big as they used to be back in their heyday (in the ’70s).
At the Hobo Convention we camped in the hobo jungle. In this picture, some hoboes are sleeping under a railcar.
3. The difference between hoboes, tramps and bums. Hoboes are not bums!
I learned that…
Hoboes are people who travel to work.
Tramps are people who travel and don’t work.
Bums are people who don’t travel and don’t work.
The guy in this picture is Iowegian Rick aka Uncle Weej. He is a tramp and very proud of it. Weej told me, “A hobo will shit in your paper. A tramp will read your paper and then shit in it.”
There’s a lot of pride in what you call yourself.
4. Hoboes don’t like bums.
Most hoboes hate New York because of all the bums. They basically hate any cities with a bunch of bums because they take up all the resources. Hoboes also think they’re lazy.
5. There are four types of people who attend the Hobo Convention.
1. The actual travelers (hoboes and tramps).
2. Retired hoboes, or people who used to ride the rails but have since stopped.
3. Hobo enthusiasts, or people who are really into hobo culture. A bunch of these people had parents who were hoboes. These people are also known as “hoboes at heart.”
4. Part time hoboes, or people who ride the rails occasionally.
6. When a hobo dies they are said to have “caught the Westbound.”
We heard a lot about hoboes that had ridden the Westbound. It was a tough year for the hobo community. They lost a bunch of family.
7. Burlap plays a significant part in hobo memorial ceremonies.
One of the most important events at the Hobo Convention, besides the crowning of the Hobo King and Queen, is the hobo memorial ceremony.
At the ceremony everyone wears a strip of burlap.
8. The memorial ceremony is actually pretty emotional.
I wasn’t expecting to be moved by it, but the hoboes are basically one big family. The man in this picture’s brother passed away just before last year’s convention. His brother, Railroad Randy, was killed by a drunk driver while biking to the Convention.
9. Hoboes have an incredible respect for their dead.
There was also a makeshift memorial for a hobo named Dogman Tony who died during the past year. Everyone said he was kind of an asshole with a temper, but deep down he had a good heart.
10. Hoboes show respect for their dead by tapping their walking sticks on gravestones.
11. Riding a train really loosens your bladder.
Trains shake A LOT. A bunch of hoboes told us that it’s very important to pee before you get on the train. You could pee out the side of the car, but then you risk being seen and falling out.
12. The sparkly hobo shirt is a surprisingly popular shirt.
I saw quite a few sparkly hobo shirts on the townspeople of Britt. This one was my favorite because yeah.
13. Everything is free at the Hobo Jungle.
Even Red Bull!
14. Hoboes can make some great food, and they eat a lot of beans.
Breakfast and dinner is served for free at the convention. This was my Friday night dinner. It was delicious.
15. The entire Hobo Convention is completely public except for one Hobo Council meeting.
Non-hoboes are not allowed.
I found out from an inside source (a hobo) that during this meeting they voted on the Hobo Council. The Hobo Council is made up of 3 men who are nominated by the hoboes. The Hobo Council screens the Hobo King candidates (not the Queens because the Queens do not have to be screened).
16. Even hoboes know “Call Me Maybe.”
Every night for 3 hours hoboes would entertain the crowd with music. A hobo named Pied Piper always played songs on his recorder. Two standout songs he did were Call Me Maybe and Love Fool by The Cardigans.
Also, you won’t be able to get his version out of your head. Sorry!
17. One of the best parts of winning Hobo King or Queen is that this lady paints your portrait.
78-year-old Leanne Castillo has painted every past Hobo King and Queen. She started painting them in 1994. Leanne was able to draw the old time Hobo Kings and Queens based off of old newspaper clippings.
A sampling of her paintings. They’re pretty awesome.
18. A cat in hobo symbol language means “a kindhearted lady lives here.”
There were a few of these on businesses around town.
See the whole hobo symbol code here.
19. Bags made of Capri Suns exist.
One of the booths at the Hobo Days festivals sold them. They also had Koolaid ones.
20. Hobo autographs are a hot commodity.
In this picture, a little girl is getting the autograph of a 24-year-old hobo named Bolty. Groups of schoolchildren visited the hobo jungle to get their autographs.
It was a little strange to see children interacting with drunk hoboes and asking for their autographs.
21. You can make a giant fireball if you fill your mouth with corn starch, spit it out, and light it on fire.
There were a few carnie hobos at the convention. Carnie hoboes are hoboes that travel from carnival to carnival by train.
22. Backwoods Hobo Jack is kind of a reality TV star.
He was on an episode of American Pickers.
23. Frog is my favorite former Hobo King. He is also one of the most powerful hoboes.
Frog is the man. He lost his leg a couple years ago.
The other most powerful hobo is Tuck. Frog and Tuck were basically the law around the hobo jungle. They got some guy named Glen kicked out because he was being a drunk fool.
24. Hobo Lump is my favorite former Hobo Queen.
She’s also the oldest living reigning Hobo Queen. Hobo Lump won Queen of the Hoboes in 1981, 1983, and 1987. She is one of the most respected hoboes.
This is Hobo Lump in 1981 when she first won Queen. Hobo Kings and Queens only have their portraits painted once, regardless of how many times they win.
25. She also may be a hoarder.
Hobo Lump spent a couple of hours at the free stuff table. She told me she was a “collector.”
26. Hoboes have their own creed, and they take it very seriously.
Wrong Way, the guy in this photo, told me he started making jewelry because of the Hobo Creed. The fifth entry on the hobo creed says: “When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.” Wrong Way said he started making jewelry when he couldn’t find any work where he was.
He also said he will never forget the day he was able to buy a cheeseburger with fries with his own money. It was one of the best feelings ever.
27. Don’t party with hoboes.
You will be hungover the next day.
The first night we befriended a hobo named Kentucky Kid. He made us buy him shots and a pitcher of beer. I was very, VERY sick the next day.
28. The best time to hear hobo stories is at night around the campfire.
The later the better. One night the hoboes were totally geeking out about types of trains they ride. The campfire is definitely one of the best parts of the convention.
29. The Crumb Boss has the most stressful job at the hobo jungle. They also have the best parking spot.
The Crumb Boss is in charge of making and/or coordinating the food at the hobo jungle.
They have a reserved sign/spot for parking right near the hobo pavilion.
30. Hoboes have awesome names and everyone should have one because they are so much better than real names.
For example, this is a portrait of a famous hobo named Mountain Dew. He was called Mountain Dew because he only drank soft drinks. No alcohol.
Other names I heard were…
- Half Track
- Minneapolis Jewel
- Hobo Lump
- Texas Hobo Mike
- Connecticut Tootsie
- New York Shorty
- Grain Car George
- Marshmallow Kid
- Angie Dirty Feet
- Tan Man
- Pied Piper
- The Serenity Sisters (3 hoboes that always performed together)
- Tattoo Slim
And my absolute favorite name was Tiny Legend.
31. Don’t pay for your hobo name.
Tiny Legend was giving hobo names to people who went on the rail car, so I gave him a dollar and he gave me this. Rail Mattress?!
32. The most popular attire for current younger hoboes are these overalls.
These overalls are perfect for peeing off a train. One hobo can hold the back of the other hobo’s overalls so he doesn’t fall out while the train is moving.
33. Hoboeing became more difficult after 9/11.
A hobo named Tuck said he stopped riding trains after 9/11 because of the extra security on the rails.
34. Hobo is not a derogatory word. Hoboes are VERY proud of being hoboes.
There is A LOT of hobo pride. Hoboes, former hoboes, tramps, and hoboes-at-heart all strive to spread the culture and history of the hobo. It’s what the National Hobo Convention is all about.
It was weird going up to people and asking them about being a “hobo.” Non-hoboes have been raised to think the word hobo is a derogatory/negative word but it’s not.
35. Some hoboes are millionaires.
Adman is one of the most controversial hoboes because he has a lot of money.
Hoboes generally ride the rails when they’re younger, and then at some point, they settle down and raise a family. This is what happened to Adman, and he was able to really make something of himself. It’s well known that Adman lives in a million dollar house in Minnesota.
And he still likes riding trains.
The funny thing about this whole thing is that Adman was arrested on his way down to the convention from Minneapolis. At 64, he is retiring from the rails.
36. It’s much easier to be Hobo Queen than Hobo King.
There are guidelines to running for Hobo King or Queen. One of the biggest differences between running for King and Queen is that King candidates must have ridden the rails at one point or another. Queens do not.
Basically, any woman can be a Queen.
These are the rules for running for Hobo Queen.
37. Most hoboes have big, awesome beards.
A hobo made fun of my “puny little beard” and told me to “pour water on it and pray that it grows.”
38. There is an “Unknown Hobo.”
The Unknown Hobo is a hobo that was found dead in a railroad car in Minneapolis in 2004. The hoboes have taken it upon themselves to find out who he is.
39. The best way to get a ride when hitchhiking is to just lay down on the side of the road.
Someone will stop.
Bolty told me this one. Most hoboes nowadays hitchhike and ride the rails. It’s called rubber tramping.
40. Hoboes are really good at memorizing poems.
Friday night was hobo poetry. I was surprised by the number of hoboes who memorized 3-5 minute long poems. Very impressive.
41. Hoboes fall into the fire fairly often.
I saw two hoboes fall into the camp fire.
This guy fell into the fire shortly after I took this picture. Weej (# 3) fell into the fire late the first night. They were both wasted.
42. Mulligan stew is delicious.
Mulligan stew is like the official food of hoboes. Traditionally, mulligan stew was made of whatever they had down in the hobo jungle. During the Hobo Convention, the town of Britt makes a huge batch for free for everyone in the town. They serve it out of these huge barrels.
43. Ramen noodles are the best food to have for hoboeing.
It’s cheap and doesn’t perish. You can get free hot water from almost any gas station.
44. These VHS camcorders still work, and some people still use them.
This guy was a Britt, Iowa, local who filmed most of the hobo entertainment and ceremonies with his gigantic camcorder. I don’t think I’ve seen one of these in 15 years.
45. Hoboeing is like fishing.
I was told by many hoboes that they don’t really pick a destination or specific city to go to, they pick an area.
It’s like fishing. You throw your reel in the water and hope for the best. With riding trains, you pick an area and hope you can find some work there.
46. Good boots, long pants, and leather gloves are essential for train hopping.
- You need the pants because the train cars can get really hot in the summer and you can burn your legs.
- You need leather gloves because everything on the railroad is sharp and rusty and you don’t want to cut yourself.
- And you need boots because you’re living outdoors. You can’t hop trains in tennis shoes.
47. Hoboes have some awesome pick up lines.
The best one I heard, from a hobo named Slim who definitely isn’t slim anymore: “It takes 2 girls to hug me and a boxcar to love me.”
48. Police scanners are popular tools on the rails.
Hoboes spend a lot of time in jail. It’s inevitable that you’re going to be caught trespassing, and rules are different from state to state. Rules are also different from train line to train line.
The best tool you can use is a police scanner to see if any police officers are monitoring the railroad in the town you’re going to.
49. There are hoboes in Czechoslovakia.
There was a guy named Czech. You can read more about him here.
50. NEVER take pictures of Little Miss Britt.
Scott and I didn’t realize until after we did how creepy it was. I guess I’ve been watching too much Honey Boo Boo child. Sorry.
51. Hoboes have their own wedding ceremonies.
The first night of the convention Harpon Dan and Pie Lady got married.
52. Rhubarb plays a significant part in hobo weddings.
Instead of holding flowers, the bride and groom both hold a stick of rhubarb. They throw the leaves of the rhubarb in the fire because the leaves are the bitter part of the rhubarb. It symbolizes letting go of bad things.
This couple got married the second night.
Dancing around the campfire is also part of the ritual.
53. Hoboes even have their own vows.
If you can’t read that, it says:
We are in accord with the following:
1. You are the way you are, and, it’s OK for you to be that way.
2. May my love for you always be greater than my need for you.
3. May I always do what’s right even if it’s not what I want.
4. To help you be a success in your way.
54. Hobo Kings and Queens are legit royalty. The crowning of the Hobo King and Queen is the highlight of the convention.
The Hobo King and Queen race is HIGHLY contentious because winner will forever be a Hobo King or Queen. Once a Hobo King or Queen, always a Hobo King or Queen. There are 112 years of hobo royalty, and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
55. Campaign signs don’t guarantee a win.
Texas Hobo Mike had signs all over town (the laundromat, the diner, the barber), but he still lost the election to Minneapolis Jim who didn’t have any signs anywhere.
56. The best place to campaign for Hobo King and Queen is during the Britt city parade.
The people of Britt and hoboes decide the title, so it’s important to get your face seen in the parade! The whole town of Britt basically watches the parade.
The hoboes have their own float.
The King and Queen candidates follow the float holding their campaign signs.
57. Your speech is the most important part of being elected King or Queen.
Each candidate has about 30 seconds to tell the audience why they should clap for them. In this picture, Minneapolis Jim is pleading his case.
58. The Hobo King and Queen is determined by applause.
The election process happens in the middle of town. After each hobo gives their speech the audience cheers. The candidate with the loudest applause wins.
59. Minneapolis Jim was a favorite because he’s a bridger. A bridger is a hobo who rode both steam and diesel locomotives.
Bridgers are highly regarded in the hobo community. There aren’t many of them left.
60. I also learned some inside information about this year’s King and Queen.
So, Minneapolis Jim and Angel won this year’s King and Queen. Here’s why:
1. Angel is actually a member of the Britt, Iowa, community. She is known as the lady who collects the cans from garbages around town. Angel was championed to win because she’s an underdog; the hoboes wanted her to have her time to shine.
2. Minneapolis Jim actually has terminal cancer. This was kind of his last year to win King Of The Hoboes.
61. And last but not least, NEVER camp next to a sewer in a pile of garbage.
We camped in the old “Sinners Camp” location. Sinners Camp was where all the hoboes used to do drugs and drink a lot. Sinners Camp is no longer allowed.
Also garbage and sewers stink.
All photos by Matt Stopera.