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Depression Hobos and Aunt Annie Mae

The two-story boarding house proudly graced the corner of Green Street and Boyce Street in Union, South Carolina. It faced the Union Mill.

     Painted white, like all of the other mill village houses, the windows sparkled in the June sun. Annie Mae Bobo was an excellent cook, but she also took pride in keeping her household spic-and-span.

     Her eight male boarders felt blessed to pay room and board for one dollar a week. Two men shared each of the four upstairs rooms. The bachelor’s ages extended from sixteen to nineteen.

     Annie Mae and her daughter Noddie, a family nickname for Norma, washed the sheets and swept the rooms once a week. She provided her own handmade quilts for warmth in the winter. Opening the two windows in each room brought in fresh, and sometimes cool, air in the spring and summer. Available for spit baths and shaving were a pitcher, bowl, mirror, and towels.

          A single, light bulb in a brass socket, dangling from the ceiling, provided pale light at night. Two, black wires loosely crawled up the walls and across to the socket from the switch beside the door. Green tape partially held the two wires together.

     The outhouse was only yards from the back door. That forty-yard dash was not inconvenient to anyone, and it was a two-hole necessary house.

These are the opening lines of the short story, “Annie Mae” in my new book, Tales of a Cosmic Possum. (available October 14, 2017) Annie Mae was one of my husband John’s aunts, and she had a open heart. She often reminded her children, as well as all within earshot, to “do right by the good Lord, he’p yer own kin, he’p others ye meet along the way.”

Hobos lived a life on-the-go; most of them traveled from one job to another by train.

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In the hobo villages, family safety was a concern, and ingenuity was the answer.

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Finding food was a constant problem. Hobos often begged for food at a local farmhouse. If the farmer was generous, the hobo would mark the lane so that later hoboes would know this was a good place to beg. They took jobs no one else would take.

Hobos created items to sell for some spare change. This cup was made from a tin can, a hollow stick, and some copper wire.

The Hobo Code was quickly learned; it was a survival tool. 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.

The diverse symbols in the Hobo Code were scrawled in coal or chalk all across the country, near rail yards and in other places where hobos were likely to convene. The purpose of the code was not only to help other hobos find what they needed, but to keep the entire lifestyle possible for everyone. Hobos warned each other when authorities were cracking down on vagrants or when a particular town had had its fill of beggars; such helpful messages told other hobos to lie low and avoid causing trouble until their kind was no longer quite so unwelcome in those parts.

Since Annie Mae and her husband Roy’s house wasn’t far from the railroad, their home would have seen many of these hobos. This couple had little in the way of worldly possessions or ready-money, but they believed in and daily lived out the Golden Rule.

Matthew 7:12 (NIV) “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets.”

Whether a cup of cold water from their well, several apples picked from the apple tree in the back, or a left over biscuit from breakfast, Annie Mae shared what she had. She loved her neighbor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Perhaps the question for me and you today is “Who is my neighbor?” Annie Mae would tell us anyone we meet “along the way.”





Riding the Rails During the Great Depression

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A hobo is a traveling worker who has little and is homeless. Unlike a “tramp”, who works only when forced to, and a “bum”, who does not  work at all. They carried their worldly goods in a bindle; this was their term for a bundle of bedding carried in a sack.

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During the Great Depression, people went across the country in search of work. But without a job, they didn’t have money to pay for transportation. The only way to get across the country, and potentially get the job, was riding the rails. This is how the hobos of the Great Depression lived from day-to-day.

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The above image illustrates the panic and reality that men faced in trying to feed themselves on the road and their families at home.

Sometimes families traveled together and made-do with camping along creek banks for a water source. They carried what they had with them, and often children had an essential to carry along.

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They had to think about food all the time. Finding it was a daily task, and they all knew it. Hobos developed a series of symbols in order to “talk” to each other, leaving messages so other hobos would get information. Friendly farms where they could find work and food were marked, as were the unfriendly farms where they would find neither.

John’s aunt Jenny Belle, who I write about in Tales of a Cosmic Possum, ran a boarding house in Union, South Carolina. Because of her kindness and proximity to the railroad, sometimes hobos stopped at her home. She always made sure they left her house with something to eat, even if she couldn’t help them any other way. If any farmers needed help, she would share that information with them, too.

In a list of thousands of men and women who rode the rails are names of many who later became famous –

  • Novelists Louis L’Amour, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and James Michener
  • Actor Clark Gable
  • TV host Art Linkletter
  • Oil billionaire H. L. Hunt
  • Journalist Eric Sevareid
  • Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

Teens struck out on their own for an adventurous life riding from one place to another.

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Unbelievable, but true, many hoboes attended the 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis. The group constructed a strict ethical code for all hobos to follow. This is a partial listing of those rules.


“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.”


“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!

The hobo culture was amazing. Starting after the Civil War as people were displaced and continuing on until after WW II, this way of life appealed to some men, but for others it was a necessary choice. Even the danger of jumping on and off those trains couldn’t stop them from that leap.

I enjoyed finding out about hobos and their lives, but I know it would not have been one I would have chosen. But then Lulu, my grandmother, used to say “sometimes you do what you have to do.”

“I grew up poor. I never had any money. I was a hobo, you know, ride the freights.” Art Linkletter