FOR THE few of us, who can remember the Great Depression, many vivid memories linger.
Ye Old Columnist (YOC) is one of this “few group.” I cannot recall the entire event; however, I can remember some things as far back as 1931, when I was four years old. The Great Depression actually began on October 29, 1929. This was when the crash hit the New York Stock Market.
Within a week, the market lost $30 billion — 10 times the 1929 Federal Budget, and more dollars than the United States spent in World War I. Historians tell us the two most dismal years were 1933 and 1934.
Unemployment soared to 25 percent. Another 25 percent took wage cuts,
or had their working time reduced. The Gross National Product (GNP) fell 50 percent. The GNP measures the total market value of all goods and services during a prescribed period.
The unemployment figures did not fall below 10 percent until 1941.
Against this backdrop, a group called Hobos began to flourish. These were individuals, who were migratory workers. They primarily traveled by “hopping a ride” on a freight train.
In my hometown, Hobos would gather at what was called “Hobo Junction”. This was a place on the railroad tracks, north of town. It’s only access was a path, which followed the railroad tracks. This particular “Junction” was nestled between two small hills, which had been constructed when the rail line was originally built. The hills afforded the Hobos protection from the cold, winter winds, and tended to block the view of curious onlookers.
A curve in the track dictated to the train’s engineer to slow the train as it “rounded the curve.” The slow speed enabled the Hobos to jump from the freight or “catch” the freight at “Hobo Junction.”
My route to school carried me within about 100 yards of the “Junction.” My parents had given me strict instructions not to go near the place. When smoke would billow from “The Junction,” some of my school buddies would venture close enough to view the Hobos. Their cooking utensils were tin cans placed over an open fire, which burned wood and kindling.
Although our home was located about a mile from "Hobo Junction," Hobos would often come to our back door, asking for food. They never came to the front door. We always gave them a meal. In lieu of receiving a warm lunch, the Hobos often performed work around the house, such as cleaning the yard.
On most occasions, the Hobos would time their arrival to coincide with the lunch hour. They were polite and seemed to appreciate the meal. They did not come in the house, but preferred to eat outside.
They never came in pairs, but apparently chose to travel solo. When they had finished eating, they would wash the dish and/or bowl at an outside water faucet, and leave it on the back door steps. As a youngster, I would watch them through a window — they fascinated me.
A Hobo was not a tramp or a bum. They were workers, who wandered. Most had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression.
The Hobo population mushroomed in the early 1930s. With no work in their hometowns, many decided to travel free via freight trains in hope of finding work at some distant location.
One of the ironies of the Hobo era is the town of Britt, Iowa. The community hosts the National Hobo Convention. It is held each year in mid-August.
YOC sends his thanks to Robert Harper of Portland (San Patricio County), a retired Texas educator; and Bill Horick of Temple (Bell County), a retired Methodist minister, for generating the idea for this column. The three of us were classmates at Baylor University.
’TIL NEXT TIME — “A page of history is worth a volume of logic.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935), Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, 1902-1932).