Copyright © 1999 Errol Lincoln Uys. All rights reserved.
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Leaving home was often the most wrenching decision theboxcar boys and girls faced in their young lives. They hadwitnessed the slow impoverishment of their families, as fatherswent from half-time to no time at all, and mothers struggled toput food on the table for them and their siblings. Some had alwaysknown poverty: children whose fathers earned starvationwages in depressed coal-mining regions of West Virginia, orwhose families eked out a living as tenant farmers sharecroppingin the South.
There were traditional runaways, like those fleeing an abusivestepfather or cruel stepmother, and orphans escaping institutionsthat treated their wards with Dickensian ferocity. There wererunaways from happy homes, still enjoying all the comforts buthankering for a life of adventure, "for the magic carpetromancetheclick of the rails."
Girls especially never took the decision to hit the roadlightly, for they knew they were stepping into a world filledwith danger. It was the same for young African Americans, forwhom the beckoning rails could be doubly perilous should theylead into towns where the color of their skin would make themoutcasts.
Whatever the reason they left home, they each faced a definingmoment when they had to "catch out" and hop their first freight.From that point on, there was no turning back.
Camelot Crashed and Burned
"Glens Falls, New York was my Camelot. Toboggan slides andskating at the park in winter. Swimming at the lake in summer. Myfather was so smart. He put in the first phones, working withWestern Electric and AT&T. My mother was beautiful. My littlesister was fun."
Edward Vezolles cherished his boyhood memories of growing upin the small town of Glens Falls on the Hudson River. He was nineyears old when Western Electric laid off his father at the height ofthe Great Depression. "Camelot, as I knew it, crashed and burned.We had family at Louisville, Kentucky, and moved there. My Dadsupervised a WPA project for a year. Mother took in boarders atDerby time. My dad got sick. TB was the killer then. Dad died."
Edward, his mother, and his sister were living with his grandparentswhen the Flood of 1937 drove two hundred thousandLouisville residents from their homes. Even more relatives soughtshelter with his grandparents. Eleven people were staying in threebedrooms. Edward fell ill, half-blinded by an infection in his opticnerves. At fourteen, he was old enough to have a paper route withthe Louisville Times. His mother helped him deliver morning papersby reading the house numbers. At Christmas, Edward won a liveturkey in a subscription drive. Presented with the bird, he tied its legstogether and rode his bicycle home, the bird flopping on his back.
"`There must be something better than this,' I told myself. Ihung around the rail yards to find out how to catch a freight trainto Florida. I wanted warmth, sun, something exciting and free. Ipicked up and left."
The private crash of Edward Vezolles's world was repeated inmillions of American homes amid the human catastrophe unleashedby Wall Street in the five days from October 24 to October29, 1929. The panic on the New York Stock Exchange onBlack Tuesday convulsed preexisting fault lines of the Americaneconomy, society, and culture.
Through the Roaring Twenties, agriculture, energy, and soft-coalmining had been on shaky ground. In that decade the value of farmland fell 30 to 40 percent, even as farmers' indebtedness soared.Bank failures averaged six hundred a year. Mergers swallowed upsix thousand previously independent companies, leaving over halfof American industry controlled by two hundred corporations. By1929, the richest .01 percent of Americans had a combined incomeequal to the bottom 42 percent. More than half of all Americanslived on the edge ofor belowthe minimum subsistence level.
The productivity of industrial workers rose 43 percent from1919 to 1929, but while American producers could deliver thegoods, they were finding it increasingly difficult to sell their productsat home or overseas, where a fragile European consumer marketwas already shrinking.
The boom-and-bust land rushes in California and Florida in1923 and 1926 were indicators of the speculative mania aboundingthroughout the nation. The stock market began its spectacularrise in those years. When the day of reckoning arrived, a millionpeople held shares, not only the financiers of lower Manhattan,but small-town merchants, farmers, schoolteachers, and clergymen,all gambling on getting a piece of heaven on earth.
The tsunami that hit Wall Street in October 1929 swept everythingin its path until the economy hit rock bottom in 1933. Aboutnine thousand banks failed and $2.5 billion in deposits was lost.Unemployment rose from 1.5 million in 1929 to nearly 13 million,or about one in four of the labor force. Not since the Civil Warhad the American nation stared so deeply into the abyss.
In the eyes of the young, what mattered was the odd dime ornickel for a movie matinee or a few "coppers" to toss away onTootsie Rolls and licorice sticks. Even an enterprising go-getterlike Edgar Bledsoe, who had his own business at eleven, didn'thave the foggiest notion of the goings-on on Wall Street. Edgarlived in Ardmore, Oklahoma, where a thousand people danced atthe city bandstand on Saturday nights, reveling in the prosperitybrought by oil and cotton. His parents' having divorced, Edgarstayed with his mother and sister. In March 1925, fire destroyedtheir home, forcing them to accept help from others. "It was awhile before I realized that charity was not a disgrace, but an oldLatin word for love," mused Edgar, reflecting on those days.
One day, Edgar was admiring the new lawn mowers in the windowof Lane's Hardware, when the owner came out and offered tosell him a mower. "Heck, Mr. Lane, I'm only a kid. I don't have thatkind of money," Edgar said. Lane asked for two dollars down, thebalance of eighteen dollars to be paid out of Edgar's earnings mowinglawns. He never missed a payment. Over the next four years, hebuilt up a lawn-mowing business that supplemented his mother'searnings as a seamstress: They never lacked for the necessities.
Then, one day in October 1929, Edgar heard a newsboy yelling,"Extra! Extra! Stock Market collapses."
"I ran home and told Mother that a cattle auction barn had collapsed.It must've killed many cattle and some people, too, becausethe newsboy sounded like it was pretty serious. That's whata stock market meant to me at the time."
By next summer, Edgar knew it was more serious than a barncaving in. Many local people had lost their jobs or were forced totake a salary cut. Others tightened their purse strings for fear theax could drop on them at any time. Edgar's customers began to cuttheir own lawns or reduce his pay by half.
"When I was sixteen, I couldn't earn as much as I could attwelve. When it got to where the money I was bringing in could notpay for the food I was consuming, I grew more and more restless."
Leo Truscon's father worked at Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn,Michigan. He had a sure indicator of when times were goodor bad. The smokestacks of the River Rouge power plant were visiblefrom all parts of Dearborn. When the stacks were pouring outsmoke, it meant full production, as happened with the changeoverfrom the Model T to the Model A in 1927. On a day in June 1931,when Truscon was fifteen, he saw but two stacks clouding the sky.A notice appeared on workers' time cards: "Do not punch time cardunless you agree to a 50 percent cut in your salary."
Truscon's father was laid off. "Our mortgage payments couldn'tbe met. We lost the house and moved to a small rented place," Leorecalled. "Later my father was assigned work as bricklayer on a WPAsewer project and received a food and rent allowance." When twofriends sent Leo a postcard from Los Angeles, the road beckoned.
James San Jule's father was a successful businessman in Tulsa,Oklahoma. James graduated from Tulsa Central High School in1929 at sixteen; he'd already been accepted at Amherst College inMassachusetts, and was planning to go on to Harvard Law School.Because of his youth, his father wanted him to wait a year andarranged for him to work as an office boy in the Exchange NationalBank at Tulsa, where the father was on the board of directors.
"I didn't think much of money in those days. It was just somethingwe had," said San Jule. "My father was probably a millionaire.We owned fancy cars, a fancy house, fancy everything. I ledthe ordinary life of a wealthy kid, nothing spectacular. He wasworking in the bank in October 1929 when the debacle began."Of course, you didn't believe it. `This is something that happens,'you thought. `It will pass.'"
The Crash wiped out San Jule's father financially and physically."It was a horrible, horrible period, about which I understood little.What's a kid to do? You have no worries about anything.You're going to Amherst and Harvard. All of sudden your life isblasted out of existence. It felt like being de-princed."
In the winter of 1930, San Jule ran away from home, not quitesure where he was going, or even why he was leaving. It justseemed the right thing to do.
There Was Never Any Money
For the young boy or girl born on the other side of the tracks,Black Tuesday darkened an already bleak existence. William Wallacewas twelve years old in 1933, staying in Okmulgee, Oklahoma,with his mother, stepfather, and fifteen-year-old sister,Fannie. Looking back on that awful year, Wallace states bluntly,"Living didn't seem to be for me."
Wallace's stepfather, Evert Stubblefield, worked for Oklahomagovernor W. B. Pine, on the governor's hog ranch. Bertie Frances,his mother, was employed in the Okmulgee city cannery, wherehog meat and produce was canned for families on relief.
"Fannie and I would walk to the grease-rendering plant, wherethey cooked the hog meat. They gave away the rinds for free, allyou could carry. We would take balloon jars to a sugarcane milland buy sorghum molasses for fifty cents a gallon. We collectedfruit and vegetables thrown out at a warehouse. My mother wouldcan these for winter."
Wallace's flight from Okmulgee began in the winter of 1933,when Bertie Frances received a letter from her brother in California.He offered Frances and Evert jobs, provided they arrived withintwo months. The family decided to leave that night, each memberdressing in two sets of clothing and taking whatever possessionsthey could carry. They had $4.50 to get to the promised land.
Christine Wolfrum's father was a miner for seventeen years untilthe Depression. "There was never any money," recalled Christine,who was born in Kentucky in 1921. "School paper cost thirty-fivecents a year. It would take me all year to get the money, a few centsat a time. Teachers would embarrass you continually asking whenyou would bring it in. You figured, `probably never.'" When Christinewas eleven, she went on the road with her family, includingher nine-year-old brother and her sickly mother. They trekkedthrough Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Ohio on herfather's search for work. "We told our friends we were travelingby bus or train, but we were really hitchhiking."
Lee Leer, a grocer's son, found home to be no more than "aplace of existence." His father's general store at Olive, Oklahoma,failed in the early 1930s. Lee's parents, who had six children,moved to an abandoned cotton farm a few miles outside town.They eked out a living, working to raise the food they ate and afew extra bales of cotton for cash. On a spring morning in 1937,when Lee's mother ordered him to fetch stove wood, he took hissavings earned from picking cotton and selling a pig, collected hisbedroll, and left to begin life as a hobo: "Little did I realize thatlife could be worse than on that forty-acre cotton farm, and that Iwould even become homesick," he recalled later.
While children might have had difficulty comprehending theslow unraveling of home life, a single defining moment could captureit all. Coyle Case's family were "Sooners," who had stakedout their claim in the first Oklahoma land rush of 1889. Growingup in the town of Padua, Coyle saw the land literally blown awayin the "black blizzards" of the Dust Bowl, which desiccated thewestern Great Plains in the early 1930s. He watched as friends andneighbors were dispossessed. "They swept and shoveled, plantedand prayed, but finally the banks moved in like vultures," Coylerecollects. "My friends left in battered cars and trucks piled highwith children and dogs and mattresses and cooking utensils."
His grandfather, Wallace Case, held no debts and owned theland on which he raised cattle. The income from the sale of thecattle and cream kept the family from starving.
"Poppa Case was my hero. A giant tree higher than any otheron my childhood landscape. On a day I recall vividly, I met mygrandfather at the edge of a canyon, sobbing as though his heartwould break," says Coyle. His grandparents had witnessed governmentagents shoot his cattle herd, a forced stock liquidation incompliance with the Agricultural Adjustment Act aimed at stabilizingprices. "Poppa Case was the rock to which our very existencewas anchored. I had never seen him cry before. I knewsomething was wrong."
Brooklyn teenager Harold Dropkin would never forget February1, 1933. Around noon that day, he was sitting in the kitchenof his home when there was a knock at the door. A well-dressedyoung man asked his mother for something to eat. Invited inside,the stranger sat down at the table. Harold's mother asked her sonto get a can of tuna fish from the refrigerator. Opening the fridge,Harold saw only one item: the can of tuna fish. His mother spreadthe tuna on three slices of bread and gave one to their guest. Whenhe finished, the young man thanked them and left. "I walked overto the refrigerator and looked inside. Nothing. Nada," Harold rememberedmore than sixty years later.
In September 1932, Duval Edwards was looking forward to hissenior year in high school at Alexandria, Louisiana. He knewtimes were tough for his family, though he didn't realize the difficultyhis father was having in bringing home enough money forthem to live on.
"Dad was a Texan, a true longhorn born on the Texas frontierin 1874. He could barely write his own name, but he developedan exceptional skill. He could look at a steer or cow and figure itsweight with uncanny accuracy. In good times, he made a fairprofit buying and selling cattle," Duval wrote in a personal memoir.Before the Depression, his father owned a slaughterhouse.He'd been forced to close it in 1930. He used his old Model T tohaul, buy, and sell cattle as an independent, but as the economycontinued to slide, the price of beef on the hoof plummeted to fivecents a pound. Duval remained unaware of his father's struggleuntil the roof fell in.
"I overheard Mother ask Dad for grocery money. I saw himpull out a single wrinkled and torn dollar bill and hand it to her.He left without saying a word, grim-faced, his battered cowboyhat on his head. I watched him get into the old truck, set thehand brake, the spark and gas levers. He climbed out to turn thecrank, then hopped back in and slowly rattled off. For the firsttime my eyes opened all the way. The full extent of our situationdawned on me. It was desperate."
Go Fend for Yourself
The realization that a child's family was flat broke, or just hardpressed to put food on the table, was the reason many boys decidedto "hit the road." One less mouth to feed would lessen the burdenon their parents, they believed, and in many homes it was true.
In the summer of 1933, Leslie Paul was eighteen years old,newly graduated from high school in Duluth, Minnesota, the sonand stepson of railroad men. His house was close by a railroadyard, where Paul often played a cat-and-mouse game with the"bulls"the railroad detectives. Walking through the yard oneday that summer, he saw a bundle laying on a pile of switch ties.He picked it up and unfolded it: A hobo's blanket had been sewntogether to make a sleeping bag.
"It was the Depression and I could find no work. I was a burdenon Mother and Gus, my stepfather. I knew then what I mustdo," says Paul.
He took the blanket and went home. He said nothing to hismother, only that he was going to the store to buy a box of cigarettes.When he returned home, he announced his departure.
"Mother didn't fight it, but she was sad. She owned no suitcaseor tote; she gave me a black satin bag, the size of a pillowcase, tocarry my things. I jammed my `sleeping bag' inside, three or fourpairs of socks, shorts, an old sweater. Mother handed me all themoney in her purse: seventy-two cents. I gave her a big kiss and along, tight hug. The tears were streaming down her face. I left withthe black satin bag over my shoulder. Had I been brave enough toturn around, I would have been coward enough to go back."
By age eight, Clarence Lee was responsible for caring for ayounger brother and sister while his mother washed and ironedclothes for others. Times got so bad for the family that they leftBaton Rouge and went into sharecropping. When Clarence Leewas sixteen, his father told him he would have to leave home.
"The landowners put a mortgage on our lives," said Clarence."We were degraded from people down to merchandise. We werebought and sold over and over again."
Clarence recalls his family's sharecropping slavery as "the darkdays." Lying in bed at night in total darkness, getting up in themorning before sunrise and beginning work, working until the sungoes down and never seeing a dollarto Clarence, even at highnoon, it was dark.
"I lived like that until I was sixteen years old. I wanted to stayhome and fight the poverty with my family, but my father told meI had to leave. `Go fend for yourself,' he said. `I can't afford tohave you around any longer.' It was very hurting, but I had to go."
For Robert Chaney, one of ten children, the parental advice hereceived at seventeen was just as direct: "If I were a strong, healthyboy like you, I wouldn't hang around here and eat off my old man,I would go to California," he was told. The next evening, Robertleft Wadsworth, Ohio, with a friend. His mother had given himfifty cents and a lunch bag filled with fried green tomatoes andpeanut butter sandwiches.
Fathers and sons sometimes left home together in search ofwork. Berkeley "Bill" Hackett started selling newspapers on thestreets of Flint, Michigan, at the age of eight. One of six childrenliving with his mother and stepfather on a two-acre plot, all themembers of his family pitched in to help put food on the table.One night in summer 1929, when Bill was thirteen, his stepfathercame home wide-eyed with excitement. "I've found a job unloadingcoal cars in Kalamazoo," he said. The pay was twenty-fivecents an hour for a ten-hour day. Howard told the family that hewas taking Bill to work with him.
With no car and no money, the pair had to ride the rails to Kalamazoo,150 miles away. Bill remembered his mother taking all theclothes she could find and putting them on him. Then, "in the weemisty hours after midnight, Howard and I made our way to theswitchyard to find a train that would take us to that wonderfulpromise of employment."
Daniel Elliot's father lost the job he'd held for twenty years. Atthirteen, Daniel was out of school and helping his Dad, who'dmoved to Denver from Kansas. The only work he could find wasas a street vendor for the Denver Tamale Company. When his fathertook work on a ranch at Mountain Home, Wyoming, Danielwent with him, but this job also ended. Father and son walkedover the mountains to catch a freight at Laramie, Wyoming, headingfor the Idaho potato harvest, the first of many trains Danielwould ride as a young hobo.
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On the road with the young nomads in 1932, Thomas Minehanreported that more than three out of four boys and girls stated thathard times drove them away from home. One Ohio social workerdepicted these destitute children: "They have known no financialsecurity, have come from homes broken for that reason, harried,kicked around, and dazed by things beyond their control. Lost, resentfulbecause they have aged too quickly, they cry for somethingthey cannot get from their own group. They are too old and yettoo young. They have seen too much and know too muchhavethought too little. They may be sixteen to twenty-one in years, butin some things they are thirty, and in others ten."
Gene Wadsworth's father died when he was two years old, hismother when he was eleven, orphaning Gene and his four sisters.The children were farmed out to relatives. Gene landed up in asmall Western town with an uncle who had five children of hisown. From his first day with his new family, his aunt let himknow he was not welcome. The youngest child in the house, Genehad to milk his uncle's cows and feed other livestock. He turnedseventeen in 1932 and had just entered his second year in highschool when one of his cousins addressed him: "Why do youhang around here where you're not wanted?" That night Genestuffed his meager possessions in a flour sack and started downthe road. Years later, he still remembered his despair: "I wasabout as low as a kid could get as I walked over the Snake RiverBridge. I was thinking of suicide, looking down into the blackwater, but I kept walking. A freight train was pulling out of a littletown. I stopped to let it pass. I'll never know why I reachedout and grabbed a rung of a boxcar ladder. I climbed to the catwalkand hung on for dear life. I'd never been on a train beforeand was scared stiff."
James Pearson's stepfather had three boys and one girl. "Theycouldn't do anything wrong and I couldn't do anything right," Jimrecalls. He ran away from home in Newton, North Carolina, insummer 1931, when he was thirteen. He got as far as El Paso,when he became homesick. He panhandled a penny for a postcardand wrote home. "Mom, I'm coming back. Not because I have tobut because I want to. Love, Jim."
When he reached home, peace reigned for a while. Then hisstepfather was caught bootlegging whiskey. He was put on a chaingang for two months. Jim went to the welfare office, where he wasgiven a work-relief job for two days a week. He worked ninehours for a $1.80 food allowance at the A&P, plus a twenty-four-poundbag of flour doled out by the government. When his stepfatherwas released, he showed no gratitude to Jim, who'd beenthe sole support of his family. Their troubles flared up again.
"This time I hugged my mom and told her I'd keep in touch,"said Jim. "I didn't want to leave, but felt I had no choice."
In the early 1930s, Betty Stone served as a caseworker at theBrace Newsboys Home, which opened its shelter to migrants arrivingin Manhattan. Ms. Stone observed, "Frequently the boys saidthey had left home because of a cruel stepmother, and sure enough,frequently social workers would write back that it was true."
Orphanages contributed heavily to the army of wandering boys.In July 1931, nine-year-old Richard Myers' mother, who wasgravely ill, signed him over to a Pittsburgh orphanage. The nextday Richard was on a train to Iowa, where he had been placedwith a farm family.
"They beat me and practically enslaved me," Richard recalled.After a month and a half, he ran away, but was picked up by thepolice and returned to his guardians. Within two weeks, he fledagain, riding the rails back to Pittsburgh. He found his mother outof danger and they were reunited.
John Gojack's mother had perished in the Great Flu Epidemicof 1918. His father, Janos, worked at the Dayton Pipe Company,laboring all day at a fiery drop-forge hammer. Unable to cope withsix children, Janos kept his three girls at home and put three boysin the care of the Sisters of the Precious Blood in Dayton. From theage of six, Gojack made repeated efforts to flee, on one occasionafter being beaten and having his head shaven for speaking inHungarian, his mother tongue. "My runaway attempts failed untilage twelve, when I discovered the railroad," Gojack wrote in hismemoirs. "It was no trick for a swift, skinny kid to grab the rungof a ladder on a slow-moving freight, then climb up on top orswing into an empty boxcar, going who knows where."
Gy Thomas was pushed out of the McCune Home for Boysnear Independence, Missouri, where he spent twelve of his childhoodyears. In 1937, the home released all boys over seventeen inan attempt to reduce costs. Thomas made his way to Kansas City,where he lived on the streets until he became disgusted with a lifeof begging. He made his way to the rail yards, where hopping afreight "came almost as second nature."
The majority of the youths riding the rails across the United Statesdid so out of desperation and hope, most fleeing abject poverty andwant. As the Great Depression wore on, these needy children werejoined by increasing numbers of youth out for adventure. Parentsoften gave their blessing to these "scenery bums," who hit the roadin summer to escape forced idleness and boredom at home.
In the summer of 1931, the "five 'boes" of Freeport, Illinois,struck out for the West in an old car bought for twenty-five dollars.The car got a flat tire before they reached the city limits, andfinally died on them at Rock Rapids, Iowa. The five hoboes, agessixteen to eighteen, rode the rails and hitchhiked to the GrandCanyon and other sights of the West. They made it all the way toSan Francisco and then back home across the Mojave Desert. Thesix-week adventure of Robert Schmelzle and his four companionsmade headlines in the Freeport Journal-Standard of August 10,1931. It told of their return and said, "the boys enjoyed the journeydespite the hardships and declared they wouldn't have missedthe experience for anything."
When James Carroll graduated from high school in 1932 andcouldn't find a job, he took his savings of twenty-four dollars andleft to discover the United States. "I rode the locomotive tenderout of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad station. The moonwas full, the sky was clear and the weather was perfect. I hadnever been more than thirty miles from home, and now I was free,on my own, beginning a wonderful adventure."
However, not every boy adventurer took off with mom or dad'sapproval. At Fort Worth, Texas, Claude Franklin, thirteen; hisbrother Charles, sixteen; and their friend Robert Brookshire, alsothirteen, planned their trip for three weeks. The night before departing,they put extra clothes in paper sacks, sneaked them out ofthe house, and buried them under bushes. They set out after lunchon Sunday, May 8, 1938, taking a supply of candy bars and fortycents. "We headed for the Texas and Pacific Railroad yards," saidClaude. "We left no note, because we didn't want to be stopped.What a cruel thing to do on Mother's Day!"
In New York City, two days after graduating from high schoolin 1932, Hank Kaban told his mother that he was going on a picnicwith friends. His mother packed a lunch for him. "I got on asubway train and was off to see the United States!" says Hank.
The impulse to wander could come from the experts themselvesveteranhoboes who could cast a spell over a red-bloodedboy, as Nels Anderson suggested in his 1923 study of juveniles. AtBrewton, Alabama, a small creek a quarter of a mile from the railroadtracks provided the local swimming hole, where Edgar Shanholtzerand his friends spent their summer days. It was also afavorite watering place for hoboes, who would "jungle up" therefor weeks. Edgar found the transients energetic and independent.Their stories of faraway places fascinated him. His father was anengineer on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and made agood wage. Whenever he could, Edgar lugged bags of potatoesand vegetables to the hoboes, a charity his father tried to discouragewith a razor strap. "The hoboes thought I was one of them,and in my heart I was," Edgar reminisced. The day school closedin 1937, Edgar, thirteen, hit the road. He asked a friend to take hisbike home and tell his father he would back in time for school.
When Harlan Peter was a boy, a hobo came to beg a handout atthe kitchen door of his parents' home in Wisconsin. While he waitedfor food, he sang a ditty about the "lemonade springs in a big rockcandy mountain" and an enchanted land to the west. "Just sleepunder a tree. In the morning, throw up a rock or two and downcomes breakfast," said the old fellow. "Years later I discovered thatold bum had a bad habit," said Harlan. "He told lies to little kids."
Partings could be especially poignant for parents strapped forcash and reluctant to let their children ride the rails. This was theonly way that Glen Law and his brother, Walt, could travel fromtheir home in Wenatchee, Washington, to college in Indiana, to enrollas freshmen in 1935. On the day of their departure, theirmother and father drove them to the Great Northern terminal tothe south of Wenatchee. The brothers climbed over the fence andtrudged across the tracks to an empty boxcar, where they settled inthe doorway. They watched their mother dabbing at her eyes as shespoke to their father, sitting in their old Model A Ford. Their fatherclimbed out and came across the tracks to them. Long after, GlenLaw could still hear his father's words: "`Take off those old raggedshoes, Glen. We can't have you starting college in them,' my fathersaid. I started to argue, but a look at Dad's rigid jaw stopped me.Without a word, I exchanged shoes and thanked him."
Ina Máki's father had ridden the rails from Minnesota to theDakotas for the wheat harvest. She knew boys in her town whohad traveled by boxcar. When Ina graduated from high school atVirginia, Minnesota, in 1939, she wanted to see the United Statesbefore attending college in the fall. She told her father she wasgoing to ride the freights. "Father always supported my projects,"Ina recalled. "`It will be dangerous,' was all he said, and he gaveme ten bucks." Before making her way to the rail yards in Duluth,Ina spent most of her money on a permanent wave. On her journey,she would be known as "Curly."
In 1935, Dobie Stadt and a girlfriend were set to strike out fromhome. Eighteen-year-old Dobie was a waitress and her friend, atheater cashier. They'd heard about the San Diego World's Fairopening that May and decided to hitchhike and ride the rails tothat exposition. "We left Miami dressed in skirts and blouses, tanand white saddle shoes and bobby socks, and white tams on ourheads," remembered Dobie. "We each carried a small suitcaseholding all our possessions."
Vivid images of boxcar girls remain with witnesses who sawthem on the freights. Joseph Rieden and his brother Ralph wereriding from Chicago to Idaho in 1930 when a man began botheringtwo young women in the boxcar. The brothers went over andtold the man to leave the girls alone. As they approached a town,the girls stood next to the brothers in the boxcar door. Ralph describedwhat happened next: "Suddenly one of the girls took outa gun and shot three of five crows sitting on the telegraph wire.Everyone had respect for them after that."
Clay Nedblake of Ohio was in a boxcar with forty people, includingfive or six women sitting close to the open door. Thewomen wore boots, and in their boots, all carried stilettos.
A few women rode the rails for love. Seventeen-year-old VioletPerry married at Harrisburg, Illinois, in July 1933. She left on herhoneymoon with her twenty-one-year-old husband, Floyd, ridingthe rails to "moonlit nights on the prairies, deserts, and mountains."
Young wives sometimes traveled cross-country with husbandswho where looking for work. Edith Walker was in her teens andmarried when she found herself living with her husband Bob'sfamily on a farm in Cullman, Alabama, in 1933. Other hard-pressedsiblings and their families had sought refuge on the farm.Fifteen people in all sat down at the dinner table there. "There aretoo many people living on Papa," Bob said to Edith that September."We are leaving."
Bob had friends who owned a restaurant in California, wherehe thought he might get work. Edith had an uncle and aunt inFlorida. They flipped a coin: Florida it was. They packed theirbelongings in Edith's suitcase. Edith owned a pair of shoes whichshe'd bought and not worn. On the way out of Cullman, she returnedthe shoes to the store for a refund of $1.95. With abankroll of $6.40, Edith and Bob started for Florida.
In March 1935, eighteen-year-old Norma Darrah's husband,Curly, lost his job in Kenyon, Minnesota. Curly's brother, a carpenterat Casper, Wyoming, offered him an apprenticeship. "Wegathered warm clothes, a frying pan, a pot, some knives and forks,our bedding, and my husband's shotgun and shells," wrote Norma."We had three one-dollar bills for the three of us, which we wantedto last until we reached Casper. What a vain hope that was!"
Harold Kolima's mother was one of many young women andgirls forced to take to the road alone. Harold recalls a hauntingscene: "A mom, three little boys, ages five, seven, nine, with bedrolls and a large suitcase, and a puppy dog tagging along, walkingthrough the rail yards at Omaha, Nebraska. They are looking fora freight headed west. The year is 1937." The Kolima boys andtheir mother were fleeing social workers, who sought to removethe children from their mother's custody. For the next four years,they lived a "Grapes of Wrath" existence in hobo jungles and harvestcamps, wintering in Sacramento, California, and taking boxcarsto and from Nebraska to follow the harvests.
Crushing financial and emotional burdens overwhelmed youngcouples. Young wives and husbands parted as the men drifted offto seek work in other states. This separation could often becomepermanent. Naomi Trout was twenty when she gave birth to a sonin Seattle in December 1930. Five months later, her husband waslaid off. They split up, Naomi and their baby returning to her parents'home in Idaho, her husband going to look for work inWyoming. It was two years before she received news that her husbandwas back in Seattle, where he had started a watch repairbusiness. "I sold the baby buggy my Dad and I had made out ofscrap for five dollars," Naomi recalled. "I bought rolled oats, cansof milk, spoons, metal cups, and bowls. I put them in an old hatboxand hit the road with Junior." On her journey with the toddler,Naomi would encounter both generosity and harassmentfrom fellow travelers, culminating in her husband's brutal dismissalof her and the baby when she reached Seattle: "He said wewere excess baggage and didn't need us anymore."
Lucille Asney was a child when her parents separated in the Depression."My memories are very bright when I think of my courageouslittle mother, Mary Elizabeth Anderson," says Lucille."Mother was a small woman, four feet ten inches, and neededhelp climbing up into the boxcars." Lucille's mother always carriedher cat with her in a box, going from town to town in Californiawith her children, selling crepe-paper roses.
Among the stories of the girls are occasional glimpses of chivalryand concern. Edward Kaufmann and another boxcar boy wereswapping off-color yarns when a man came over and told them tostop talking that way. Did they not know that there were womenaboard? Edward and his pal obeyed, having not noticed the girlswho had their hair tied up beneath their caps and wore coveralls.
In Hempstead, west Texas, nineteen-year-old Bill Aldridge waswaiting to board a freight train when a young woman asked himto hold her baby while she jumped into a boxcar. "I took the childin my arms before I realized what she was asking," Aldridge remembers.The woman caught the car in front of him. He caughtthe next one with one hand, holding the infant with the other."When I handed the baby to its happy mother, I wondered what Iwould have done had I not made that train."
Hopping Their First Freight
Whether it was the slow unraveling of their lives that finally boredown on them or it was a snap decision, the hour came when thenew nomads stood beside the railroad tracks, hearts pounding asthey waited to "catch out" and board their first train.
Bill Hackett remembers his excitement the night he left Flintwith his stepfather. Howard hoisted him up into an empty boxcar,where they huddled in a corner: "A switch engine shunted us thisway and that. I could see the red and green lights of signallanterns, but not the men who wielded them. Finally, the train wasready. My heart beat fast and the adrenaline flowed. With a greatspurt of steam, the locomotive got under way. Our boxcar creakedand groaned, shivered and shook, rattled and complained. Whatan incredible adventure! I felt as if I were Tom Sawyer, HuckleberryFinn, and the Swiss Family Robinson combined."
In Seattle, Weaver Dial listened to an older brother's storiesabout riding side-door Pullmans up and down the coast. When hewas twelve, Weaver encouraged a fourteen-year-old friend to ridethe rails with him. Weaver's brother showed the pair the waysouth. "Around eleven, we heard the high ball," said Weaver, referringto the two short blasts from the train whistle that signaledit was leaving. "As the engine made the curve coming toward us,it looked for all the world as big as a house. Before the trainpicked up speed, my comrade, somewhat taller than myself, leapedthrough the open door of an empty car, did an about-face, andpulled me in as I ran alongside the track." That Northern Pacificfreight hauled him over the Cascade mountains. "I'd never been inthe rolling hills east of the Cascades. Picking my first apricot off atree gave me the feeling that I was in Arabia!"
Decades after the event, many freight train riders still hold theirawe at the mighty steam locomotives that carried them across thecontinent. A Union Pacific "Big Boy" double header, for example,had engines with sixteen ninety-six-inch drivers delivering a millionhorses to the tracks, making the earth tremble for a mile oneither side. Boyhood memories are conjured up, as evocative as themournful wail of a steam locomotive whistle at night: "A sirensong that gets deep into you and pulls you along," reflected RenéChampion, walking beside the tracks half a century later, with afreight rumbling past. "If I were now on the road, I would havebeen on that train. I would've gone wherever it led me."
Many former riders look back with undisguised pride on thegreat adventure of their youth, but almost never do their reminiscencesblank out the "bad old days" or the terrible dangers involvedin "catching out." Here and there, memories are of well-heeledboys on a summer lark. The majority faced a long, hardroad. Even as he "flipped his first freight," many a boy learned justwhat he was in for.
When Kermit Parker entered the freight yards at Pendleton, Oregon,he was mystified by the maze of tracks. It was 1935, and Kermithad needed to travel to Chicago, where he wanted to enroll ina summer course for trainee electricians. No main line served hishometown Walla Walla, so Kermit hitchhiked to Pendleton, a divisionpoint, where freight trains stopped to change engines andcrews. "The Pendleton yards were very complicated, with numerousparallel tracks filled with freight cars," recalled Kermit. "I'd noway of telling which string of cars was going to be made up into atrain, and which were not." Fortunately, as happened with manynovice hoboes, other "passengers" awaiting freight trains took pityon Kermit and showed him how to tell when a train was ready fordeparture, where to get on, and what part of the train to board.
In some yards, young hoboes were even helped by sympatheticrailroad men. A Pere Marquette engineer dismounted from his locomotiveand walked over to where Ted Baer and his twenty-year-oldwife, Erna, were waiting at a switch. He asked where theywere headed and they told him: Grand Haven, Michigan. "That'smy train you want," he said. The engineer took the couple downthe line and opened a boxcar that was newly cleaned. Ted andErna never forgot that act of kindness.
On one of Weaver Dial's journeys, he was caught in a rainstormone night as he stood with a group of hoboes waiting to catch outin the Vancouver, Washington, rail yard. An armed railroad bullchallenged the group, making them line up and empty their pockets,but he found nothing more threatening than a pocket knife.The bull demanded to know where the hoboes were going. "Mostthought they were going to jail, but with long strides the bull wentover and opened an empty boxcar," said Weaver. "He told everyoneto climb aboard. When the last person was inside the car, heturned and vanished into the darkness."
Such soft-hearted railroad detectives were a rarity. It was morecommon for youths caught trespassing on railroad property to behandled brutally or marched off to jail. On a May morning in1935, Vernon Roudebush was caught by the bulls at Sheridan,Wyoming. As the group he was with was lined up, the chief detectivestrode up and down the line, wielding a club in one hand,a revolver in the other. "What are you bums doing on my train?"he roared. Vernon was a seventeen-year-old runaway fromChicago, roving the country in summer. Whatever answer a hobogave to the bulls, he was beaten. Vernon was knocked to theground twice. "My nose was bleeding; my arms were covered withwelts from trying to protect my head. I'd befriended a kid with anabscessed tooth. A bull belted him on the side of his swollen jaw.I'll never forget the kid's scream of pure agony."
In 1934, when he was fourteen, Glenand Spencer was pistol-whippedby Texas Slim in the Fort Worth freight yards. TexasSlim, the notorious railroad bull on the Texas and Pacific line betweenTexarkana and El Paso, was said to boast that he had shotseventeen men. Spencer found railroad bulls from Georgia toTexas to be willing recruiters for local officials who wanted freelabor on their farms. The bulls would let hoboes catch out in theiryards and then shake down the train at a prearranged spot outsidetown. Able-bodied men would be arrested by the local sheriff andsentenced to thirty to sixty days on the "cotton farm," which mayalso have been peanuts, sugarcane, whatever crop needed to beworked. Spencer was caught in two such roundups, but because ofhis age and small size, discarded like a too-small fish.
On his way west, coal miner's son Arvel Pearson was in Lahotta,Colorado, waiting to catch a freight to Dodge City. Tworailroad bulls with sawed-off shotguns stood by to stop hoboesfrom boarding a leaving train. The fifteen-year-old Arvel saw thelast car coming up. "It was now or never. I caught the eye of oneof the bulls as I ran to the car, grabbed on and began climbing."The bull started shooting, the buckshot hitting just above Arvel'shead. Then he heard a shout, "Swing in here, kid, that guy's tryingto kill you." His rescuer was the train conductor, who wasstanding on the caboose. Arvel swung in between the two cars, theonly hobo to make it to Dodge City that day.
Catching out "on the fly," when a train was already under way,was perilous: One misstep could cost a youth his legs, even his life.
After Leslie Paul's tearful farewell with his mother at theirhome in Duluth, the eighteen-year-old hitchhiked to Carleton tocatch a westbound freight, reaching the yards in the fading lightof a summer evening.
Leslie heard the blasts of a highball and saw a locomotive aquarter of a mile away at a water tank. Gray and black discs ofsmoke rose intermittently from the stack. The train began to movetoward him, accelerating rapidly. He ran to the side, as the engineroared past. He raced alongside, trying to equalize the speed. Heheld his mother's black satin bag with his belongings in his righthand, his left hand free. Leslie still relives the moments of terrorthat followed: "My left hand grabbed the rung of a ladder and heldfast. The momentum jerked me off my feet. Suddenly it was darkand like a nightmare. I was grasping for a hold with my right hand,still clutching the bag. I tried to get my feet on a lower rung andmissed. I felt the motion of the wheels as my feet brushed them.
"The inside of a hospital flashed into my mind. I saw a youngkid lying without his legs, suffering all the agonies of hell. Goderased that picture. Out of the dark, a strong hand grabbed meand pulled me into the boxcar."
Leslie's rescuer was an experienced hobo, who lectured him oncatching out safely as the boxcar rattled through the Minnesotanight. The noise from the wheels rose deafeningly, the car vibratingend to end.
"No further words passed between John and me," Leslie remembered."His presence was enough to soothe my loneliness. Itwas my first night away from home and already I wished I wasback. Was I leaving little for nothing?"