Hobos During the Great Depression — Sheila Ingle
Today I’m happy to welcome author Sheila Ingle as she shares some of the history behind her latest story. Read through to the end to find out how to enter for a chance to win Tales of a Cosmic Possum.
When the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, people lost everything. Not only their jobs and their money, but also their homes, cars, and peace of mind.
A hobo is a traveling vagabond who goes on and off trains looking for work. Hobos couldn’t buy tickets, so they sneaked onto trains. They would run beside the train, grab onto to it, and then climb in. Hence, the name riding the rails.
In Union, South Carolina, there was a hobo camp/jungle where the Buffalo Railroad came into town. Because of the proximity to Annie Mae Bobo’s boarding house, those looking for work often stopped by. In the short story about Annie Mae in Tales of a Cosmic Possum, I included two vignettes about hobos, but learned so much more. I thought you might be interested in this time in our history.
Many families were forced off their farms and out of their hometowns during the Great Depression. They would hear about work and ride the rails illegally. Statistics say that more than two million men, 8,000 women, and 250,000 boys and girls became hobos. For safety, girls often disguised themselves as boys. Families often travelled together. Whatever the gender or age, being hungry, cold, and miserable was daily fare.
Finding food was a constant problem. Hoboes often begged at local homes. If the homeowner was generous, a hobo would mark the house as one where generous people lived. Sometimes this was life-saving communication.
Hobo signs from the Great Depression
An adult hobo told a teenager, “Put your pride in your pocket, your hat in your hand, and tell them like it is.”
In Colliers, West Virginia, a grandson remembered. “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 from their garden. 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.”
Hobo life was no respecter of a person’s background or his future; people who rode the rails include many who later became famous: Louis L’Amour, Art Linkletter, Eric Sevareid, Justice William Douglas, Jack London, and Carl Sandburg.
“People don’t realize how easy they have it these days. Most kids have never known what it’s like to go without anything. They want something, they get it. If there isn’t enough money, they charge it. We never wanted anything because we never realized we could have anything. We never missed what we never had. Things were much simpler back then, and we were stronger for it. We worked together to keep the house in order, to put food on the table. We kept things going.” Clara Cannucciari, Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression
The hobo life and the Depression life were times of survival, and I admire those who survived without complaint. My grandparents and great grands endured by doing the next thing. What a legacy they lived!
Readers, leave a comment below for your chance to enter to win a free copy of Tales of a Cosmic Possum. (Contest is open to U.S. residents only)
About her book:
Tales of a Cosmic Possum is a group of short stories based on the history of eight women in my husband’s family who worked in the cotton mills of SC. They worked together in the mills, shared their gardens, attended church, and enjoyed the playing and singing of the songs from the Grand Ole Opry. When five of the brothers went off to war, those who couldn’t fight took care of their families. The Ingles stuck together, just like they were taught in the Appalachia.
Sheila Ingle is a native South Carolinian. She is a graduate of Converse College and chose teaching as her profession. At USC Upstate, she taught English and education courses. Her two grandmothers instilled in her a love of history and storytelling, which led her into membership in lineage societies. Professing to be a late bloomer, she now is an author and writes about her state’s history. “Courageous Kate,” “Fearless Martha,” “Brave Elizabeth,” and “Walking With Eliza” are her four books for young readers about SC heroines during the Revolutionary War. The SCDAR awarded “Kate” a Historical Preservation Award. She enjoys leading writing workshops and speaking. “Tales of a Cosmic Possum” was chosen as a 2017 fall SIBA Okra Pick. Louise Penny, John Hart, and Jan Karon are three of her many favorite authors.
Below is an excerpt from Tales of a Cosmic Possum that includes hobos that visited Annie Mae’s boarding house.
Looking down the dirt road, she glimpsed two men slowly walking. Sensing they would be her first visitors of the day, she continued to steadily rock. Annie Mae knew that all the biscuits were eaten for breakfast, except for the two in the warmer, and wondered if the strangers would stop.
As the men ambled closer, she noted the shuffling gait of one and the loose bandages falling from the other’s arm. The shuffler needed a shave, and a film of dust and dirt covered his shirt and pants. Suspenders kept up the khakis that were too large for him. His traveling companion wore mended and torn overalls that were too short for his long legs. Large safety pins kept the galluses attached.
“Good morning, ma’am,” said the red-haired shuffler. “Nice day, isn’t it?”
He wore his newfound poverty like the heavy shield of one of King Arthur’s knights. Annie Mae recognized a man of education and former means in his voice and manners.
The two tentatively stepped closer to her property line next to the road, but stopped before walking forward. These strangers paid attention to the invisible Private Property sign in front of her house. They also noted the small handwritten sign in front of the porch that said, “Welcome to Bobo’s Boarding House.”
“Howdy do, strangers. Hit’s a mighty fine day. Are ye’ headed fer town?” responded their prospective hostess. She spit over the rail, wiped her mouth with the hem of her patched apron, and sipped on her coffee.
“Yes’m, lookin’ fer work. About any kind will do. I’se right handy with machines,” answered the wounded man. “Saw that thar smoke from the mill’s stack. Thought to talk to the super about a job or two.” Pushing back his blond hair as he took off his tattered straw hat, he continued, “Jist got off the CC&O, the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railroad, that rolled in this mornin’.”