Recently some interesting information fell into my hands. What is a HOBO?

Growing up we considered a hobo nothing more than a bum. It was an easy costume for a quick and easy getup for Halloween.

In my day, barely past their heyday, we didn’t understand what they were made of—many assumed they were simply lazy vagrants but times were extremely hard and they were too proud to become a burden on families and loved ones. Others were envious as their carefree lifestyle was romanticized.

Originally the word hobo was a shortened slang word for Home Boy, Homeward Bound, Hoe Boy or Homeless Boy. They searched far and wide to find work.

As the Civil War ended hobos became prominent as discharged veterans sought a way home only to discover everything was gone.

Generally penniless and seeking work, they hopped empty boxcars on freight trains hoping for a job as the westward American Frontier expanded.

During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s their numbers soared as they reached their rise in fame, or infamy. Estimates reveal as many as 20,000 people lived a hobo life in American at one point.

With no prospects for work at home, many travelled for free by train or walked the railroad tracks in quest of better luck elsewhere.

Though often romanticized for their seemingly carefree, life of ease, nobody to answer to, existence a hobo’s life was dangerous.

Often itinerant, poor and far from home and moral support, they encountered hostility from most train crews. While some had a blind eye of compassion most security staff for the railroads was brutal. They became known as Bulls based on reputations of violence against freeloading trespassers.

Many hobos lost a foot at the wheel, got trapped between cars or froze to death in harsh weather.

A subculture emerged from the hobo community and developed its own vocabulary. Definitions such as Banjo for a small frying pan, Bullets for beans and Cannon Ball for a fast train became commonplace vernacular.

They also created a system of symbols. Three diagonal lines meant “This is not a safe place.” Other symbols signaled which homes might feed you, etc.

By the end of World War II railroads were transitioning from steam to diesel locomotives which made jumping freight trains even more difficult and dangerous.

At the peak of postwar prosperity, the number of jobs available increased exponentially resulting in a dwindling hobo population.

Modern freight trains are so much faster and more challenging to ride though some still board them. Current security and verifiable locking mechanisms in place make riding the rails far less likely and problematic.

Sometime ago I saved a newspaper clipping giving me a new respect for hobos.

The Hobo Ethical Code – 1889

1 – Decide your own life, do not let another person run or rule you.

2 – When in town, always respect the local law and officials and try to stay a gentleman.

3 – Do not take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locally or other hobos.

4 – Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along but ensure employment should you return to that town again.

5 – When no employment is available, do your own work by using your added talents at crafts.

6 – Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.

7 – When jungling in town, respect handouts. Do not wear them out; another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly if not more.

8 – Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.

9 – If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help. Try to stay clean and boil up wherever possible.

10 – When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad. Act like an extra crew member.

11 – Do not cause problems in a train yard; another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through it.

12 – Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities. They are the worst garbage to infest society.

13 – Help all runaway children and try to induce them to return home.

14 – Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed; you may need their help someday. Respect and protect female hobos always.

15 – If present at a hobo court give your testimony whether for or against the accused. Your voice counts!

We are all beggars because we rely on a higher power for our sustenance. Be grateful, nonjudgmental and give a handup to those less fortunate. You will sleep better at night.

— Hill describes herself as a cook and cookbook author, jack of all trades and master of none, a Christian wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

Trending Video

Recommended for you