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Hobo Convention Offers Glimpse of Culture 'Riding the Rails' - 2002-07-16

For more than a century, people have been hopping aboard freight trains to hitch a free ride from one place to another, often in search of work. The practice is illegal, but the lives of the so-called hobos have been celebrated throughout the years in story and song. A small group of hobos gathered recently in Chicago to talk and sing about their lives riding the rails.

Luther Gette, also known by his hobo name as "Luther the Jet," has been riding trains legally and illegally for most of his life. "When I was a kid I would hop a coal-hopper and hang on for dear life, for three or four miles (5km-6km) down the road," he recalled.

He would jump aboard slow-moving freight trains to get to school, find work, or just visit friends in other parts of the country. It is not a first-class way to travel. "It rains and it snows and it gets cold and it does this and it does that," Mr. Gette said. "And, you wait for the train and wait and wait and wait some more, and then it does not seem as much fun."

Hobos have been around almost as long as trains have. The name "hobo" dates back to the late 1800s, when men who had fought in the American Civil War roamed the country by train in search of work. They usually carried a hoe, hoping to find farm work, and became known as "hoe-boys."

About 30 hobos recently gathered in the Chicago neighborhood of Pullman, on the site of the factory that made Pullman railroad sleeper cars back when trains were the quickest way to travel. The annual gathering is a chance for hobos to meet old friends and make new ones.

Larry Penn is a Wisconsin folksinger and poet who is known as the "Hobo Troubadour." "It is a spike," he said, reading from his poetry, "a railroad spike, and the railroad don't need it no more. And after the ride, they just threw it aside and no one said, 'Thanks for the chore.'"

The songs, stories and poems romanticize the life of the hobo, but Luther Gette says the life is rough. True hobos often live under bridges near railroad yards or in the woods near tracks in so-called "hobo jungles." Longtime hobos would recognize fellow travelers, and they would look out for each other's safety. "There were camps, and they classified each other," he said. "They'd say, 'That guy, we don't know him, that guy is a bad actor,' [A shady character] and they would kick him out. The classic way they did that was to give him an unlighted match, and say, 'Go start your own fire someplace down the road.'"

Fred Starmer, also known as, "Banjo Fred," says there seems to be a renewed interest by young people in hopping aboard freight trains. He tries to discourage it. "I always tell people, 'Don't ride,'" he said. "It is illegal, it is dangerous, but if you have to, do not go by yourself. Find someone who knows how to do it."

He says many young people riding freight trains today are doing so for adventure or to escape boredom. But, Luther Gette says some people still sneak aboard trains in search of work. "There are still people out there, especially out West. You see migrants, Mexicans, coming up from the South," he said. "If you ride that line, the old SP through Dunsmuir up into Oregon. There are people traveling with just the shirt off their backs. Twelve, a dozen people in a boxcar."

Some communities have found that hobos can be good for tourism. The small town of Britt, Iowa, is home to a Hobo Museum. It also hosts an annual hobo convention in early August.