While writing about the women in John’s family who worked in upstate mills, I have learned many other things about America’s society.
His aunt Annie Mae loved to cook and loved to help hobos; it appears these two go together. During the Great Depression, there were many on the roads, including male and female teenagers. She sent those who stopped at her house off with a full stomach.
Hobos rode the rails and walked the roads, alone and in groups, but it was a solitary and lonely life. There was competition for jobs and for handouts. Sleeping under bridges or in a hobo jungle, where some lived together in community, the future was unknown.
But they also had an interesting code of conduct.
Surprisingly, the list of people who rode the rails includes many who later became famous –
Novelist Louis L’Amour
TV host Art Linkletter
Oil billionaire H. L. Hunt
Journalist Eric Sevareid
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
Poet Carl Sandburg
This group had their own language.
Because of their willingness to take the jobs that no one else wanted, hobos were tolerated by some. Regardless, life as a hobo was difficult and dangerous. To help each other out, these vagabonds developed their own secret language to direct other hobos to food, water, or work – or away from dangerous situations.
The Hobo Code helped add a small element of safety when traveling to new places. In their travels for work, hobos made marks with chalk, paint or coal on walls, sidewalks, fences and posts. The signs were meant to let others know what was ahead.
An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri. This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nation-wide Hobo Body; it reads this way:
- Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.
- When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
- Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
- Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
- When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
- Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
- 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 worse than you.
- Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
- If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
- Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
- When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
- Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
- Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
- Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
- Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
- If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!
Bankers without jobs and migrant families all jumped the rails looking for work and/or help to survive their situations. Though it was an independent life, it was not easy with the lack of daily stability.
In the 1930s, Albert Tackis’s family lived in the small West Virginia town of Colliers, where their house backed onto the Burgettstown Grade. Two-engined freight trains stopped at a water tank behind the house before starting the 30-mile haul to Burgettstown. In summer, Albert would see 60 or 70 hobos climb off the cars to stretch their legs, every train delivering as many as eight hobos who came to the Tackis home to ask for food.
“We were five people in our family: mother, father, grandpap, my sister and me. Grandpap grew all our fruit and vegetables in his garden. In season, mother canned vegetables and made jellies. Every week, she baked 21 loaves of bread.
Albert tells it this way:
“When grandpap saw the hobos coming to our house, he alerted mother who would start making egg sandwiches and packing bags with carrots, tomatoes, apples and peaches. Grandpap always had something for the hobos to do. There would be wood to chop, cans to pick bugs and insects in his garden, buckets to fetch water from a spring. The hobos worked for about 20 minutes and then hopped back on the train with a good meal in hand.”
Ann Walko was also deeply moved by her mother’s compassion for the downtrodden who came to their home at Wall, Pennsylvania where freight trains were broken up and re-routed.
“One day a man came to our door asking for food. Mother invited him in but he stood in silence for a moment.
“‘I have a family with me,’ he said.
“Mother said she would feed them too. He brought his wife and three children. They still refused to come inside so mother spread two rugs on the ground for them. They ate her home-made bread and baked beans and couldn’t thank us enough. In a way what a beautiful time it was.”
As Albert Schweitzer said, “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”
In every community and town, there are opportunities to serve. I wonder what they would look like if we all chose to “serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”