This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.
The origins of Americans riding the rails in search of work trace back to shortly after the Civil War, when ex-soldiers and others sought work on the frontier. Their numbers rose sharply during the Great Depression, when jobs and money were scarce. These hobos became common sights in transportation hubs like Waco.
Charles and Ruth Armstrong, both longtime Waco residents, explain their impressions of hobos during the thirties:
C. Armstrong: "Most of them was good people. They was kind of like the homeless. They wasn't out to hurt anybody."
R. Armstrong: "At that time, see, it wasn't anything unusual. I mean, everybody was in about the same boat because everybody was having a hard time."
C. Armstrong: "And, see, they called them ‘hobos' regardless. Some of them was hobos all they wanted to be, kind of like the homeless. There's some of them that want to be. And some of them was traveling south to get out of the cold or get them a job."
Mr. Armstrong describes how hobos communicated with each other:
"And what they'd do, they'd venture off from the tracks down there and come through the neighborhood and come to your house and knock on the door and said, I'm going to so-and-so. I'm catching a train down there, and said, I need something to eat. And Mama never turned nobody down. They'd go down as far as they could. And what they'd do, they'd mark—they'd have them some chalk, an old chalk rock—they'd mark a spot on a house, you know, on the—not on the house, but on the curb, if they had a curb, or a sidewalk. And as they'd go back they'd keep it marked. And the guys would come in and they'd know where to go get something to eat. They'd know that woman there or man would feed them, and they'd keep it marked. And one guy might feed ten or twelve guys a month. And nobody else would never get—they'd go to a house and they didn't get nothing, they wouldn't mark them—or put ‘0' or something like it."
The way families treated hobos made strong impressions on their children, as Waco philanthropist Bernard Rapoport recalls:
"We lived by the railroad tracks, you know. We were very poor. And these hobos in the—in '29, thirties, you know, early thirties, hobos would come by the house, and Mama would give them a peanut butter sandwich. And one day I said to Mama, ‘I mean,' I said, ‘Mama, some of these people don't deserve that sandwich.' She says, ‘It's better to feed all than to miss one that needs.' Now, I mean, now she imbued that kind of philosophy within me. And so if somebody needs help and I help them and they fool me and I lose, that doesn't discourage me. I know—I say, ‘Well, the next guy won't do that.'"
Although the railroad industry has dramatically changed since the thirties, with faster trains and fewer lines, hobos still exist, although the stringent security measures put in place after 9/11 nearly wiped out the practice. The current economy has seen hobos on the rise again but to a tiny fraction of the estimated 1.5 million men, women, and children who rode the rails during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For more information about this program or the Institute for Oral History, visit us at baylor.edu/livingstories.
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