We spent a night in Austin, MN, home of the world famous Spam Museum. We’d visited the museum before along with lots of other Roadside Americana in Minnesota (take a look), so we gave it a pass this time and headed to the J C Hormel Nature Center for a long and pleasant, albeit very hot and muggy walk. We were on the road early for the final 62 miles to our campground in Crystal Lake … home of the world’s largest bullhead, by the way. We snagged a good campsite, paid our fees and headed the nine miles via circuitous back roads to Britt, Iowa
I’d read about the Hobo Convention sometime last year and convinced David (which wasn’t difficult) that this might be a fun road trip. The more I read, and I read lots, the more I was interested in attending the convention. And at last, here we were at the 118th National Hobo Convention.
First, the word ‘hobo’. There are lots of theories as to the derivation of the word. The one I think sounds most credible is this one. After the US Civil War, the country and the world, suffered a severe economic depression. Displaced, unemployed men traveled from town to town as migrant workers, hoes on their shoulders, finding any work that was available. They soon became known as ‘hoe boys’ which later morphed to ‘hobo’. The fastest form of transportation at the time was via train and, despite the railroad's efforts to 'discourage' free rides, hobos rode the rails.
Hobos make a clear distinction between hobos, tramps and bums. Hobos work, but prefer to travel. Tramps travel, but prefer not to work when they can avoid it. Bums neither work nor travel preferring to panhandle or take hand-outs. Some rather famous men who once lived the hobo life: Merle Haggard, William Douglas, Jack London, Burl Ives, Roger Miller, Clark Gable, James Michener, Red Skelton, Louis L’Amour and Eric Sevareid among others.
Here’s a little Britt hobo history according to Dennis, an 88 year old Britt resident with whom we chatted. In the late-1800s, 63 hobos formed a union in order to avoid prosecution for vagrancy. They named the union Tourist Union 63 and decided they’d get the members together each year to share stories and information, elect leaders (a king and queen) and renew acquaintances. Initially, the meetings were held in Chicago, but in the late 1890s, a prominent Britt businessman acknowledged that many of the hobos that visited were skilled men … masons, carpenters, farriers, etc. Though they never stayed long, their work was good and the town actually looked forward to their arrival. To thank the hobos and encourage them to return to Britt, the businessman invited the hobos to celebrate their annual national get-together in Britt. Now in its 118th year, ‘The National Hobo Convention is the largest gathering of hobos, rail-riders, and tramps who gather to celebrate the American traveling worker.'
Britt’s main street was cordoned off and lined with vendor booths and local food stands on one end. A small carnival complete with kiddy rides,‘games of skill’ and all things fried (pickles, Oreos, funnel cakes … you name it) had been set up on the other end. The mood was festive and there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. We walked and roamed, got our bearings and tried to take it all in.
Our first stop was the Hobo Museum. Described as ‘informative, wonderfully eclectic and unpretentious’, the museum’s collection of hobo artifacts, photos and memorabilia is all that and more. The museum is the realization of a dream of three lifelong hobos who wanted to ensure that the history, culture and ways of hobo life were preserved. Along with the town of Britt, these three fellows worked to raise funds and convert the Chief Movie Theatre into a museum. We watched an interesting and eye-opening documentary film on the hobo life, then wandered through the displays, appreciating the tramp art, studying the candid photos and identifying with these lives of wanderlust.
Burlap banners with hobo symbols hang from the ceiling towards the back of the museum. We’d seen these before at the National Cryptologic Museum and perhaps that’s where my interest in hobos was first piqued.
There was something going on every minute in town. A one man band walked and played and sang on the main street. A country western band belted out tunes on a park stage. The streets were crowded with people. A cow chip flinging contest was in progress and we watched as one of the local constables participated.
We took this occasion for a photo opp with the current Hobo Queen Minnesota Jewel and King Tuck. Jewel & Tuck were elected at last year's convention and served as King & Queen of the Hobos for 2017-18. This was the first time a married couple had been elected and they took their responsibilities seriously.
We had missed an earlier hobo ceremony in the town’s Evergreen Cemetery and walked down to pay homage to hobos who had ‘caught the Westbound’ and were buried in Britt. To our surprise, there were a great many of them … all with markers and well-maintained grave sites. Many hobos who had espoused the wandering life in the past had done well for themselves in later years. Along with the town’s contributions, generous hobo donations insured every hobo was remembered and had a respectable final resting place ... even a place for the unknown hobo.
Though we felt a bit apprehensive entering the hobo jungle, we decided it was a ‘must experience’ on our way back into town. Local townspeople had donated land along the railroad tracks specifically for the jungle … the hobo hangout. Tents and campers were set up everywhere. Groups of people congregated around cooking fires engaged in chat.
Many of these hobos had known each other for years and we were newcomers and felt out of place. We weren’t sure what kind of welcome we would receive. We wandered over to a circle of men, sitting, chatting and laughing. Unsure of ourselves, we hesitated for a minute. A man who introduced himself as Stumpy immediately invited us to sit. Everyone stopped their conversation and welcomed us. They asked where we were from and why we were in Britt. We eventually confessed to our nearly two decades of wandering around the world. Not so different a wandering life than many of these folks have led.
Another hobo asked if we wanted to try some moose meat that he’d been stewing.
I politely declined. “Thanks, but I don’t eat red meat.”
“No problem, it’s moose. Try some.” He speared a piece on a stick and handed it to me, waiting expectantly for kudos. The others watched.
I just couldn't say no. I shared a small piece with David … it wasn’t bad as far as moose goes, but then I’m really no judge. "Pretty good ... what's your recipe?" He was pleased we liked it, but admitted he really didn't have a recipe. He just cooked it up with what he had available and he wasn't really sure what had been available. We chatted for some time, asking questions of them and answering their questions about us. When we stood to go, Stumpy reminded us "Be sure to come back later for the entertainment. You'll enjoy it." We assured them we'd be back.
An old boxcar had been moved into the jungle. Some 'bos slept in the car; some slept under it. There was a ladder to climb inside, but when they rode the rails, hobos had to run along side the train, toss in their bindle (pack) and hoist themselves up into a car. We gauged how far they would have had to jump ... chest high on David ... and doubted we could do it.
There’s so much more to tell and share. Check back next time for Part II of Hobo Days in Britt, Iowa ... a smudging, a dubbing, a parade, an election, a coronation and Mulligan Stew!