10 Things I Learned at the National Hobo Convention

Uncle Freddy and Minneapolis Jewel, new Hobo King & Queen

Rachel and I spent a whirlwind 24 hours at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, this last weekend. While the aroma of hundreds of gallons of mulligan stew (delicious) wafted through Britt, the week-long festival came to a head on Saturday with the coronation of this year’s Hobo King and Queen, Uncle Freddy and Minneapolis Jewel. Throughout it all, we met some of the most well-known hobos of the past few decades and learned quite a bit about this often maligned and misunderstood people and culture.

#10. Hobos can dance

We never got this guy’s name, but he didn’t stop moving the entire weekend of the Convention. He taunted the cars in front of him during the Hobo Days parade, shaking his booty and twirling his arms. Before the coronation, he carried a cardboard sign with the words “Wingnut for Hobo King” scribbled on with black marker.  We heard a story about a small firepit fire being put out by this guy kicking sand on top of it and dancing around to stifle the flames. For a 1-minute YouTube video of his dance moves, click here. I don’t know why the sound didn’t upload.

#9. Hobos can sing

During the hour long coronation ceremony, we heard many hobo speeches, some somber, some fun, but all stressing the importance of helping one another during difficult times and remembering the hobos of the past while looking to a future of still riding the “high iron,” still seeing the country one whistle-stop and job at a time. From the national anthem to hobo anthems of old, all sounded great. I can only guess that the true hobo lifestyle has a rich oral tradition, and that storytelling and the sharing of song and dance is a way to foster and embrace community during life on the road.

Hear hobo trio Serenity sing Ramblin Rudy’s song

Hobo trio Serenity

Hear hobo Luther the Jet sing a modern version of Joe Hill’s “Where the Fraser River Flows”

Luther the Jet

Hear hobo Virginia Slim sing “Wanderin’,” artist unknown

Virginia Slim

#8. Hobos can cook.

Gallons and gallons of mulligan stew

Mulligan stew is the catch-all name of the hobo’s typical meal, usually made with whatever is available, often cooked in a tin can. At the Convention, they made hundreds of gallons of the stuff, and people lined up for a block around, some with a single bowl, others with ice cream buckets to take home. It wasn’t the best stew I’ve ever had, but it was far from the worst. It was  tomato-based, with carrots, barley, onions, potatoes, and possibly a little chicken (something was a bit chewy). It sure smelled good, though, and no one complained about that as it wafted from the Britt City Park area to the coronation down the street. While speaking with Frog, King of the Hobos in 1997, he described the P-38 can opener, made popular by the Army, as one of the most valuable tools any hobo carries.

#7. Hobos are not tramps and certainly not bums.

In the homeless caste system, the hobo reigns supreme. A hobo is a traveling worker, thankful for work and helpful to those who help him. A tramp travels but doesn’t work. A bum, however, neither seeks work nor travels. Famous hobos include Burl Ives, Jack London, Winthrop Rockefeller, Louis L’Amour and Clark Gable.

#6. Hobos are generous.

Me and Frog. Frog and me.

Every hobo we spoke to was happy to tell a little of their tale. Frog bumped into us at the National Hobo Museum, and wasted no time giving us a few hobo dollars from when he was Hobo King, along with a picture of he and Minneapolis Jewel, voted Queen again for 2011. He came to the museum to inspect his likeness in charcoal by fellow hobo Whiskey Tom. That’s me with Frog and his portrait.

#5. Hobos live by an unspoken code of goodwill, and have a system of symbols to inform fellow hobos about particular people or places.

Can you find "Religous Talk Gets Free Meal?"

Most known hobo stops in cities large and small have a hobo jungle, a place where hobos can meet and share train-jumpin’ stories and strategies. Frog gave us almost one hour of his time to talk about his life, and tell us how he got to hoboing, or “catching up.” He jumped his first train as a teenager in the ’50s under the tutelage of Pinky, a hobo mentor and friend. At the museum, a denim patchwork quilt displays the most common hobo symbols.

#4. Hobos don’t die. They “catch the Westbound.”

We paid our respects to many of the hobos we read about in the museum at the Hobo Memorial on the east side of Britt, located, appropriately enough, east of Britt’s railroads and just south of highway 18. All hobo royalty can choose to be buried there free-of-charge. The gravestones featured most of the hobos’ real names, and certainly their hobo monikers. Some of the more famous hobos–Steam Train Maury, Fishbones, Preacher Steve, Mountain Dew, and others–are all there. Each year their plots are marked with a small flag and bandanna. Several yards away from the plots is a sign marked “National Hobo Memorial,” where aluminum pop-tops dangle in the breeze. Every time a hobo dies, a new top is cut and inscribed with his or her name, and tied to the memorial.

#3. Hobo kings and queens have a larger responsibility than English kings and queens.

Frog's portrait, 1997

Being elected Hobo King or Queen is no joke and far from merely symbolic. Any hobo or friend of the hobo is welcome to campaign; each gets two minutes to speak to the crowd, and elections are decided by the loudest applause. This year, Uncle Freddy and Minneapolis Jewel get to wear the capes and crowns at the Convention, but soon they’ll be returned to the museum as Freddy and Jewel head their separate ways, promoting good will among the hobos and ensuring the hobo lifestyle and culture are preserved. Each year, artist LeAnne Castillo captures their likenesses.

#2. Hobos are attuned to American political goings-on.

Hobo Adman gives an impassioned speech about the economy and hoboism.

Luther the Jet sang about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker taking away collective bargaining rights, while Frog and other hobos told us how proud they were when Iowa made same-sex marriage legal. Hobo Adman gave a very somber speech about the nature of the economy in 2011, and how important it is that hobos continue to support one another and the communities they find themselves in.

#1. Hobos play cribbage!

Fishbones' board

Why else would this list be on here, if not for this?! At the National Hobo Museum, I learned a little about Irving “Fishbones” Stevens, one of the most famous and loved hobos of the 20th century. Fishbones loved the game, and the museum has one of his boards. The metal board is driven through with five bronze pins, while a small screw hides four copper pegs. Fishbones was known to make many boards of wood, but this is the only metal one anyone knows about. I met his daughter, Connie “Blue Moon” Stevens, but she didn’t have much time to talk.

Our new hobo friend Frog, former King of the Hobos (1997), outside the hobo jungle and railcar

While speaking with Frog at the hobo jungle, his eyes lit up when I asked him about the game–Pinky taught him not only how to ride the rails, but to play the game.  He had played it once or twice with Fishbones, whom he described as “a genteel and kind-hearted wanderer.”  Of the muggins rule, Frog laughed, saying he liked to cheat…legally. “Only after the opponent has counted his points!”

All in all it was great time at the National Hobo Convention. Hoboism is increasingly recognized as a serious scholarly subject, as hobos constituted a huge part of the migratory work force in the late 19th century and early 20th century, helping build the intricate web of the railroad and road systems across the nation. I’m not sure if we’ll be back, but Frog did give me a way to keep in touch with him–rest assured I will!

Many but not all hobo names are tied to where they’re from–what would your hobo name be?

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10 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned at the National Hobo Convention

  1. Jordan, pleased to find your site about cribbage and its connection to hobo culture. That’s fantastic! Incidentally, you might be interested in my book of poems that takes off from my research of the hobo culture: Apocryphal Road Code. You can look me up at wanderingstiff.com/mainstem. Cheers!

  2. It’s been a wild ride for Britt. Over the years, since I attended only once in 1993, a new kind of tramp youth have taken to the rails–young women are even doing this. These youth are profane and have nothing to lose. Seeing past videos, it really got out of hand when they brought dogs in tow. Sadly, Britt authorities locked up the box car because of the sex, drugs and alcohol issue. Taking to the steel rails and camping out, takes an on edge person. I had to laugh about the mayor of Britt urging the tramp youth to bathe. Baths and bumming have always been anathema. Nice job with this blog entry.

    • Thanks Bryan–

      It was great to be able to meet Frog and chat with him and many other of the old-timers, and it says a lot about the town to actively promote and welcome such a diverse crowd for over three decades. I hope to make it to Britt again, and continue my work with Frog up here.

      Cheers, Jordan

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