Fishbones Stevens & The National Hobo Convention

Beneath the emblem of the Hobo Convention are symbols for a draw pin and link coupler, fixtures that tied early railcars together.

Sometimes a hobo writes a verse

Oft’ times he makes it rhyme,

In boxcar jargon poetry

He spends his precious time. 

–Hobo Bill

This weekend, I’ll be traveling south to the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I won’t be ridin’ the “high iron” of the trans-American railways as the storied hobos of the past were accustomed to, but I hope to learn about life on the road nonetheless.

 

 

Fishbones' book, "Hoboing in the 1930s"

 

I got in touch with Hobo Museum curator Linda Hughes, whose museum features a Depression-era “hobo-style” cribbage board under glass. It was donated in the late 90s by the family of Irving “Fishbones” Stevens, after he caught the Westbound to that final rail destination in the sky. Crowned King of the Hobos in 1988, Fishbones was one of the most famous hobos, renowned for his knowledge of life on the road and venerable journeyman spirit. Like many men of his time, he took to the road during the Depression and never looked back. Though he didn’t spend his entire life as a traveling worker, he did write about his experience in his self-published book, Fishbones: Hoboing in the 1930s. I hope the museum has a copy, and that I’m able to learn more about Fishbones and the hobo way of life.

During my time at the Convention, I plan to see the annual Hobo Parade (“Some in rags, some in tags, some in velvet gowns”),  Vagabond Craft Show, Doc Anderson’s Medicine Show, Hobo Art Gallery, Mulligan Stew Feed, Hobo Games, the first Hobo BBQ Cook-off, and finally witness the crowning of the new Hobo King and Queen. Fishbones’ daughter, Connie “Blue Moon Bo” Hall, was crowned Queen in 1993, so there may be a chance she’s at the Convention and could tell me more. Not surprisingly, I was unable to line up any hobo interviews beforehand. They’re kind of hard to contact.

One of the first people I interviewed for this project, Lloyd MacDonald, told me cribbage is “an itinerant’s game,” and I hope the Hobo Convention further confirms Lloyd’s affirmation. After all, many of us are accustomed to throwing a board in a duffel bag or back of the car for a weekend excursion, but how many have carried the board as a traveling worker? Did Fishbones use this curious game as a social lubricant to ease his way into the employment and hearts of those who would help him? I hope to find out.

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