Twilight Of The Hoboes
Four days at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. Yes, hoboes still exist. But their numbers are dwindling.
The Kentucky Kid says he prefers .22s.
We're sitting out back at the J&D Hob Nob, the most popular bar on the short commercial strip of Main Street in Britt, Iowa. He's already shown us one of his knives, asked us to try to hoist his enormous backpack, and entreated us, many times, to touch his chest. "Feel that!" he says. He mostly kind of yells his sentences. "Feel my chest, feel my arms! I'm solid as a rock!!"
The Kentucky Kid, aka Backpack Jack, is impressively strong for a man of his age, in a wiry, lean kind of way; he won't tell us how old he is, but the grey hair and goatee and prescription John Lennon sunglasses and military slang that peppers his speech peg him as a Vietnam vet, somewhere in his mid 60s. Yet when he challenges one of the townies to arm wrestle at some point in the evening, my money's on the Kid.
He comes up to Matt and me while we're sitting at the bar, awkwardly sipping on gin and tonics and taking in the crowd at the Hob Nob (we were the only ones at the bar drinking G&Ts that night, possibly ever — it took our kindly bartender five minutes just to locate a dusty bottle of gin on the shelf). "You guys must be press," he says, and immediately invites us outside to give him cigarettes, check out his knife and then buy him shots.
Once we're out on the sidewalk, I realize that he's actually the first hobo we saw when we pulled off Highway 18 and into Britt, on our way to the annual National Hobo Convention. And while we've already met a few friendly hoboes at this point, the Kid bowls us over with his eagerness to talk about his life on the road.
He's wearing a olive cap with some kind of insignia on it, a custom T-shirt, jeans and boots, and feels safe leaving his enormous backpack in the bar, unattended. "No one's gonna make off with it — too heavy!" he says/shouts as we finish our cigarettes and head back inside.
We take turns hoisting the Kid's backpack. It's heavy, but then he's got most of his life in it. The gear's top notch: The pack looks like some kind of tactical, military grade issue, and he brags about his Hilleberg tent, a brand whose entry-level model tents start at $465. The Kid alternates between calling himself a hobo and a tramp (more on this below), but whatever you call him, he lives on the road, moving around at will.
Also, like many of the hoboes we meet, Kentucky Kid likes to talk, and he repeats himself a lot. His favorite phrases: "I hate Democrats AND Republicans. I'm an Independent, man!" "All us hoboes, we all go back to Muddy Waters!" "I eat raccoons and snakes; I don't care what anyone thinks about it!" After the first time he uses this last phrase, he asks Matt to smell him, saying "I take good care of myself, I'm clean!" Matt obliges and later reports that the Kentucky Kid, unsurprisingly, smells a lot like a man who sleeps outside and has a healthy dose of raccoon and snake meat in his diet.
Some time later, we're sitting in the back room of the Hob Nob drinking beer, and that's when I ask him if he carries a gun. "Have to," he says. It's for protection, of course. But I get the sense it also rounds out his kit, that he'd feel incomplete without it. He says he prefers the action on the .22, and that he's got one with a filed down trigger, and then makes a gun with his finger and fires imaginary shots into the Iowa night.
I get up and buy us another pitcher.
The National Hobo Convention has been held in Britt, Iowa, since 1900. Britt's a small, stolidly middle-class town of about 2,000, with seven churches, a dirt racetrack and the most impressive town pool/public water park I've ever seen. The houses are modest but well-kept, the streets are wide, and we never saw a stray pedestrian in four days there.
Hobo history is, for the most part, the history of migrant workers within the U.S. The word "hobo" predates the Depression by about forty years, and though the origin of the word is a subject of great debate, it seems to first have appeared in the 1890s in the northwestern U.S. There were estimated to be about 700,000 hobos in the U.S. by 1911, and their numbers ballooned once the Depression struck.
The idea of a hobo convention was, at first, a joke: A few Britt citizens approached the members of Tourists Union No. 63, itself a merely quasi-serious national hobo club, and asked them to hold their annual meeting in town with the aim of showing the world that "Britt was a lively little town capable of doing anything that larger cities could do." The stunt got Britt tongue-in-cheek coverage in dailies across the country — the big event was a hobo foot race, and the winner got $5 and a bottle of beer — but instead of just disappearing after that first year, the hoboes kept coming back, year after year, and the citizens came to embrace them and the notoriety they bestowed on their otherwise unremarkable little town.
In the intervening century plus, the convention has ebbed and flowed. In the ‘20s, it all but disappeared for a short time. In the years following the Great Depression, it would regularly attract over 20,000 visitors. The hoboes we met said that even in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the convention was a pretty big deal (writer Ted Conover estimated in his 1984 book about hoboes, Rolling Nowhere, that around 20,000 people were still riding the rails in America). The 2012 National Hobo Convention (referred to locally as "Britt Hobo Days") was a rather modest affair, with maybe two dozen current or former hobos, an equal number of groupies/fans/hoboes at heart, and the townspeople of Britt. And the half dozen visitors, like us, who were there as press.
We pull into the hobo jungle around five on Thursday afternoon, the sun still high. "Jungle" is just the hobo word for campground, in this case a large flat expanse of grass and a few trees on the north end of town, next to the Milwaukee Road railroad tracks and in the shadow of the two massive grain elevators that dominate the Britt skyline, such as it is. The land was donated to the hoboes by the Buss family in 1991 to form a permanent jungle. There's a picnic shelter on one end, with a dozen long tables set up there in the shade, a makeshift kitchen, and bathrooms with showers. The other end is marked by a single open boxcar sitting on a hundred feet of track (it's where the younger hoboes slept during the convention). In the middle of the jungle is the fire pit, ringed with bleachers and other seating, and it serves as the literal and metaphorical heart of the event. A fire is lit the first night and, as with the Olympics, must remain burning during the whole convention.
That is the only way in which the National Hobo Convention resembles the Olympics.
We're greeted right away by a garrulous hobo in a tie-dyed shirt named Tan Man. "Were you guys here last year?" He seems a little disappointed when we introduce ourselves using our given names. "Don't worry, we'll get you hobo names. Here, lemme introduce you around. There are more important people here than me, people you should meet."
In short order, he introduces us to what turns out to be the power trio of the Britt Hobo Convention: Minneapolis Jewel (at the time, the current Queen of the Hobos), her husband Tuck (Hobo King 2007), and a wheelchair bound former hobo named Frog (Hobo King 1997). Jewel and Tuck were friendly if distracted, but Frog wastes no time in giving us his take on this year's King and Queen contest ("Don't vote for Mad Mary. I have a personal grudge against her") and introducing us to more people he thinks we should meet, like Half Track (Hobo Queen, 2005) and Backwoods Jack (who, Frog tells us, was once on an episode of American Pickers.) They are all incredibly warm and welcoming.
We set up camp a little way down the road from the main jungle, in a low area that used to be called Sinner's Camp. Stretch (Hobo King 2008), the tall, bearded, deeply sunburnt hobo who directed us to our spot, says that Sinner's Camp really used to be where the party was at during the convention, that people would stay up all night drinking and playing music, but the cops cracked down on it and now things stay pretty quiet. I put up our tent next to a storm drain, with trash left over from the last heavy rain still scattered about our camp. We dub it the Trash Castle.
At 7 p.m., according to the schedule of events (following the Hobo King and Queen autograph session by the boxcar), it's time for the "Official Fire Lighting & Four Winds Ceremony at the Hobo Jungle and Entertainment." A hundred souls gather around the fire pit as a Hobo named Red Bird Express reads out the traditional hobo invocation:
"As the smoke from our fire gets in your clothes
and the light from our fire lights up your face,
you become one of us, and you join the brotherhood of the hobos.
This fire is the friendliest fire in this country tonight."
It's an eclectic evening: Campfire songs, poems, recitations, a version of "Call Me Maybe" being played on the recorder, a comedy/banjo act ("What kind of ears do trains have? Engineers!!"). And everyone is there: The older, retired hoboes; the young tramps staying in the boxcar; a dude named Glen, a semi-hobo, who gets booted the next night for drinking too much and causing trouble; local Britt retirees; families with babies; the Hobo Convention staff in their bright orange T-shirts; Mayor Jim and his wife.
Minneapolis Jewel performs the official hobo-name ceremony, bestowing honors on two nuns who traveled to Britt seemingly just for the evening (one gets the name Cross Ties, which Jewel notes is "especially appropriate for a nun.") An 18-year-old from Oklahoma who already has the hobo name Marshmallow Kid changes his handle to the simpler, more mysterious M.K.
Kensey, a local Britt 20-something who gets up to perform covers of popular modern country songs, comes to the jungle dressed up like a hobo, in overalls and with a bandana around her neck. We saw a lot of this at the Hobo Convention, regular folk dressing the part. There was an aspect to this play-acting that spoke to why the hobo is such an enduring figure: For sedate, reliable, middle-class folk from Britt, Iowa, there's no more exciting opposite than living life on the road.
After more songs and a few poems the sun sets, and we wander over towards Main Street to check out the local bar action. We settle in at the Hob Nob and soon run into the Kentucky Kid.
The next morning, I wake up, horribly hung over, to the sound of people walking past our tent. It's 8:45; at 9 the Hobo Memorial Service will start. Matt is also feeling terrible ("I haven't been this hung over since we went to the Gathering Of The Juggalos"), but we hurry to make it down to the Evergreen Cemetery to catch the service.
The day is overcast and breezy, and cold for August. In the distance, passing cars click down the grooved pavement of Highway 18. The hoboes slowly gather on the east side the cemetery, where the hobo memorial headstones are lined up in two long rows leading to a cross made of railroad ties.
The memorial was started in the ‘90s to be a central place where hoboes could gather and remember those who've died — in hobo parlance, those who've "caught the Westbound." 2012 was a tough year for the regulars at Britt. They lost two of their own, a hobo from Minneapolis who went by the handle Dog Man Tony, and the clearly much-loved Railroad Randy, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle at last year's Hobo Convention.
As Trucker Phil plays Go Rest High, a box of burlap straps circulates through the gathered. Minneapolis Jewel explains that they're meant as a symbol of the humility of the hoboes. Some people tie the burlap around their arms, others their necks or around their walking sticks. A handful of mourners go to the mic to share a few words about the dead, including Railroad Randy's normal, non-hobo brother. Adman is the last to speak, and offers a strange non-sequitur of a speech about how sorry he is to be arriving late (we later learned he'd been arrested for trespassing on his way to the convention). Off to one side, an older gentleman is filming everything on an ancient VHS camcorder. At some point, a grey and brown goat wanders through the crowd.
The service is somber. As Inkman — a heavily tatted-out hobo from Pennsylvania — read out the names of all the hoboes who've caught the Westbound in years past, the hoboes walk the rows of memorial stones, touching each one with a walking stick as they pass. Inkman's litany goes on for nearly ten minutes, and includes famous hobo names like Onion Cotton and Steam Train Maury as well as writers and artists like Jack London and Woodie Guthrie, and ends with "… and the face-painting lady, she was here last year, and she passed on, and we're gonna remember her, too."
After the ceremony, Tuck shooes all the non-hoboes out of the area, including us, an extremely pushy French TV crew and a guy from the BBC. "Hoboes only!" he warns, "Everybody else, you've got to leave."
We learn later from Frog exactly what actually went down.
Britt's National Hobo Museum is on Main Street, about a ten minute walk from the jungle. It's in a converted movie theater, the Chief, that had been abandoned for years before students from Iowa State, as part of a class, arrived to renovate the space and set up display cases.
The impression it leaves is part museum, part flea market, part your grandparents' basement. There's an unfinished quality to the ten display cases inside, but what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in volume. There are hobo ceramic figurines, old hobo outfits, modern hobo outfits, photos, journals, books of poetry, drawings, paintings, train signs, a fake hobo campfire, a version of the hobo code stitched in denim, newspaper stories, and in the back, a locked case displaying the robes and crowns of the King and Queen of the Hoboes. The pictures are largely of people we recognized by now, hoboes like Frog and Tuck and Minneapolis Jewel. In trying to raise the investigation of hobo life to the level of a museum, it actually underscored how small and provincial the Britt hobo scene actually is. There's also some nice irony in the entire project of the museum as a means of trying to legitimize a way of life that is entirely about never asking for permission.
The most useful and informative plaque, by far, is the one at the entrance to the museum:
Just kidding — that's just a great pitch for hobo swag, which the museum sells. The actually useful plaque was this one, which explained something I'd been wondering about since we met Kentucky Kid on the first night:
The undisputed high point of the Hobo Convention comes on Saturday, in the form of the one-two punch of free Mulligan stew at noon, followed by the coronation of the Hobo King and Queen at 1 p.m. Both events took place at City Park, just across from the Hobo Museum.
It would be difficult and dishonest to try to capture in words the vast amount of Mulligan Stew prepared for Hobo Days, beyond the recipe displayed in the museum:
Suffice it to say that the quantity makes sense only when you keep in mind the Convention used to draw 20,000 people. It's a rich broth of suspended meat, with a few vegetables skulking around the edges, but it's filling and served by friendly locals who don't seem at all put off by how many pictures we take of them ladling it out of half-sized oil barrels.
It's worth noting that this moment, the stew and coronation sequence, is really the only time that the Hobo Convention and Britt Hobo Days — that is, the event as the hoboes experienced it and the one playing out for the townsfolk — really seemed to synch up. Much of the weekend's events, like the 2 p.m. toilet bowl race, were just the kind of silly fun you'd find at any small town festival. No hoboes participated, nor were they really anywhere to be seen. On Saturday afternoon, there's a procession of school children into the hobo jungle, looking for autographs. But by and large, the town's focused on the main festivities downtown, and the hoboes entertain themselves.
But at the stew-cook, and then the coronation, everyone's interests aligned. The town wanted to vote in new royalty, and the hoboes were eager to campaign for their votes.
The process for becoming King or Queen of the Hoboes isn't spectacularly complex (and it's outlined in greater detail here), but basically each year the Hobo Council selects a few names, and those lucky men and women get to campaign for a few days, then give a short speech at the gazebo in City Park. Then the town votes, via their applause, and new royalty is chosen.
This year set a first: Hometown royalty. Hobo Angela (aka Joan Lamfers) is the first Britt resident ever to be awarded the Hobo crown. Her victory is emotional, for her and the hoboes, as it represented the recognition that she truly belongs to her adopted family of hoboes even though the town itself had rejected her.
Minnesota Jim, meanwhile, seems a little confused by the proceedings. His victory seemed, at least in part, based on his age. At 83, he's one of the few surviving bridgers — hoboes that rode on both steam- and diesel-powered trains during their time — and winning seemed to be a kind of lifetime achievement award. But he cautiously told the local paper that kids today shouldn't ride the rails. "The trains show no mercy."
After the coronation, we run into a German magazine writer on assignment from German GQ. He's planning to find a hobo who'd show him how to hop a train, who'd be his guide on an adventure on the rails. He asks us how we'd known about the Hobo Convention, and I told him that when we first came across it online, we weren't sure if it was a joke, and that we honestly hadn't realized there were still hoboes in America.
Our German GQ writer seems surprised at this, but to me it makes sense. There's nothing more terrifying to the American psyche than poverty, and the life of the hobo is poverty embodied. This explains why people tend to think of "hobo" as a slur — an outdated and vaguely classist term — even though the hoboes at the convention are extremely proud of being hoboes. We want to think of hoboes as things of the past, types relegated to history by the rising economy, as though we, as a country, had moved past it. We don't want to think that there are people who would willingly choose the life of the hobo in the country today.
But there are. And while we saw our fair share of hoboes with mental illness, with alcoholism, in the grips of a nasty addiction of one kind or another, the majority of the hoboes gathered at the convention were people who, for one reason or another, wanted the freedom to get up every day and wander into the morning with no explicitly clear plan for the future.
I saw Kentucky Kid briefly in the morning of our second day in Britt. He'd slept by bathrooms at the jungle, and had had a rough night ("I'm not used to drinking," he said without a trace of sheepishness). But by that evening's campfire entertainment, he'd gone, moved on to the next thing, whatever that would be. For some hoboes, even a convention is a little too conventional.