Rebellion of the Working Hobo
Around 1900 and shortly after, West of the Mississippi and the Upper Mid-West the on going Industrialization affected the extractive industries and transportation industry. This particularly affected the railroads in the West and along the Great Lakes and the Pacific coasts. To meet the labor needs of seasonal markets there developed a large population of migrant worker. Along with the migrant worker there developed a deep abhorrence and alarm of the migrant by the rest of the more settled society. By 1908 the US was in yet another serious economic down turn and in some regions the unemployment rate was nearing forty percent. The number of migrants traveling across the country looking for seasonal employment greatly increased. These workers were willing to take any kind of employment they could find. This increased their vulnerability to become super-exploited, by employers looking for cheap labor with no legal protection or public sympathy.
They traveled by freight train chasing one job after another. It was estimated by railroad officials there might have been about one million Hobos traveling this way in any one year. The first five years of the 20th century about 25,000 people were killed hopping freights. During the same years another 25,000 would be seriously injured. This trend continued until the US entered World War One.
The railroad police would use any means they could to throw the “Bums off”. If caught a common sentence was to give the migrant a ruling of sixty days of working for free for the county chain gang. “Man Hunters” would insure a steady supply of labor for county projects. The Hobo being an industrial worker and a vagabond was perfect labor source. Because of this class of drifter the issue became that the needs of the industrialist and farmer was balanced with that of the county.
Mostly they were native-born Anglos rejected by their own society. The Hobo learned to survive by their wits, and a desire for a freedom of the road. The hobo worked until the job was over and then moved on, never feeling a need to set down roots. They were the “Hoe Boys” of the farm workers, day laborers in the woods, mills, mines, docks, and “gandy dancers” for the railroads. Their only home was their bedroll with their few belonging rolled up inside. They called themselves “Working Stiffs”.
Any community of any size in the West had its own Hobo Jungle. This was where the Working Stiffs set up camp. This was an actual community with its own rules, social order and division of labor. Each member was to contribute something the rest of the members of the community. For example, stews were a collective project. Those who could, would find ground coffee wherever they could no coffee were too strong. Everyone shared in the responsibility of keeping the camp clean. When the camp broke up the place was left clean for the next time was to be set up, except there would always be a pot with fresh coffee grounds left for the next crew.
Being a Hobo was a way of life, with its own legal code enforced by common agreement. It was a crime to light a fire after dark, as this would call attention to the camp bringing the police to close it down. All members of the community shared in the collective punishment anyone caught robbing another person in the community. Everyone was required to share in gathering the firewood and everyone was to contribute what they could to the collective meal shared by all. Because there was no official police or courts in the camp these roles were a collective responsibility.
The camp fire was the town hall, the community church and the opera house all rolled into one. Around the fire weather permitting the “Bums’ would hold community sing alongs. They would compose complex epic poems, and exchange the latest news of their world and the state of the world as they saw it.
Hobos obtained work through employment agents. These agents would set up shop in the skid row part of town near the Jungles. The employment agents set up large blackboards listing any day laboring jobs in the area. Sometimes the agents would haul the Day Laborers to the work site, but mostly the Bum had to find his own way there. The agents charged the employer and the employee for job information. The agents were called sharks because they would provide the employer more possible candidates then was needed. The employer would have a choice who to hire and who not to hire. Of course there was no refunds for the unsuccessful candidates. Sometimes the agents would sell crews of workers to boarding companies who could provide an employer a whole crew. The boarding company would not only charge the employer for the crew, but would also charge the crew room and board even if the crew camped outside.
During booms in the economy mining companies could hire added workers to work the pits, the mills and the smelters as day laborers. Of course as soon as the marked slowed there would be no need for these supplemental workers. Being unskilled they could be used in the most dangerous jobs. Often working under conditions the owners would not risk the lives of the skilled workers. Often temperatures over hundred degrees, and the risks of cave-ins were greater than would be tolerated with the regular crew. Both cave-ins and explosions were common occurrences. Bums had little value to the owners.
In the Northwood’s and forests of the North West they became the loggers hired when the market demanded turn loose when things slowed down. When working they lived in infested and overcrowded bunkhouses without sanitation. They were called timber beasts because like a stray dog they were covered with biting fleas. The work was seasonal, food was poor and the accident rate was even hire than in the mines.
As farm workers they worked long hours weeding and harvesting. Some farmers provided lodging and food, as long they needed the farmers needed farm workers. Many other farmers did not provide anything, the workers had to pay the farmer the right to camp at the job site and the workers had get their own food anyway they could. I was told Montana was the best place to work and California was the worst.
Though the some immigrant families, like mine, of the time would later adopt the survivors as part of their families, the Bums belong to no one and were always a rebel spirits and loved the goddess liberty throughout their lives.
After the Great War many of these Hobos settled down a few married and became the grandfathers of my generation. Others became the bachelors. Every family had its own bachelor who became the storytellers of my generation. I know the Hobos continue on into the 1920’s, the Great Depression of the 1930’s and on into the 1950’s. But, those were other groups of Hobos and that is another story for another time.