A freight-hopping-free trip to the Hobo Capital of America | Summer Guide | Chicago Reader

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A freight-hopping-free trip to the Hobo Capital of America

For more than 100 years, Britt, Iowa, has feted the nation’s traveling workers during the Hobo Days festival.

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There are two versions of the story of how Britt, Iowa, became the Hobo Capital of America. The official version, as told by Bill Eckels, a volunteer guide at Britt's Hobo Museum who also answers to the nom de hobo Boxcar Billy, goes something like this:

Back in the summer of 1900, the hobos of America were planning their annual gathering, at which they'd sing songs, tell stories, eat stew, and possibly develop new additions to their elaborate system of signs. But there was some difficulty deciding where this gathering would take place. Finally one lone hobo stepped between the two arguing factions from New York and California and proposed his own hometown, Britt, on the grounds that it was smack-dab in the middle. All the other hobos agreed this was a brilliant idea, and a tradition was born.

Every August for more than a century now, the town of Britt has hosted Hobo Days, welcoming the nation's hobos with a parade; 500 gallons of free mulligan stew; a hobo jungle, or campsite, complete with boxcar; and, since the 1970s, a permanent resting place in Evergreen Cemetery. (This year's festival is August 10 to 13.) Every year, the hobos elect a king and queen, who like winners of local beauty pageants spend their reigns serving as goodwill ambassadors. Eckels, who is 71 and looks like Santa Claus, also has fond childhood memories of organizing a gang of 30 kids to sneak into the Hobo Days burlesque show ("I saw more in church last Sunday!"), but presently Hobo Days is more of a family-friendly affair, with clowns, carnival rides, an ice cream social, a cow-chip-tossing contest, and a toilet bowl race down the middle of Main Avenue.

To get to Britt, you have to travel by road, not rail. The train passes through town twice a day, but it's almost all shipping containers mounted on flatbeds, no boxcars. A few years ago, a man from Mason City, about half an hour away, attempted to make a grand entrance to Hobo Days in bona fide hobo style. He got busted almost immediately and was thrown in jail and fined $600. Once he got out—paying his own way because, according to Eckels, "he could buy half the town"—he was the hit of the hobo jungle.

Still, Britt takes its hobo heritage seriously. The first thing you see when you drive into town is a big sign that says national hobo convention topped with a picture of a hobo carrying a bindle and a can of stew. There's a diner called Mary Jo's Hobo House, decorated with model trains, bindle sticks, and photos of famous hobos, some of which look suspiciously like professional head shots. There's a garden decorated with metal cutouts of hobo signs and a hobo time capsule. And of course, there's the museum, located in what was, until 20 years ago, the Chief movie theater.

If you want to visit any time of the year that is not Hobo Days, you have to call to make an appointment. At the moment, Eckels is your guy, and his number (641-843-3512) is posted on the museum's front window, though he says he'll be giving up the gig sometime this summer. (And here I must give a shout-out to the very nice woman at the Britt city clerk's office who walked down there on her lunch hour to get the number for me. My boyfriend, whose "people"—as he puts it—come from nearby, says this kindness is typical of rural northern Iowans, but I was impressed anyway.) If you stop to take a picture, and thus identify yourself as a tourist, someone in the town will alert him that you've arrived.

Despite having a hobo name, Eckels has never actually hoboed himself. He's lived in Britt all his life, where he owns and operates the Cobbler Shoppe, which sells not only shoes but clothes and, via eBay, pieces salvaged from nearby farms. One of the items of interest in his tour of the Hobo Museum is the spot in the back corner of the Chief where he used to sit with his future wife not watching the movie.

The holdings of the Hobo Museum consist largely of photos of hobo life, some dating back to the 1930s, and portraits of famous hobos of the past. There are also hobo dolls and other pop culture artifacts, a facsimile of a hobo jungle—"I could make up a smart-ass answer for why they call it that," Eckels says, "but I won't"—and hobo artwork, which transforms found materials like string, matchsticks, and bottle caps into structures that are intricate and beautiful. That is because, Eckels explains, hobos have lots of free time.

Eckels knew a lot of those hobo celebrities personally. Hobo Days, for him, is like a family reunion. There's Hobo Spike, who worked his way so far up the corporate ladder at General Motors that his bosses donated $30,000 annually to the orphanage where he grew up; Connecticut Slim, who would put on a suit when he went looking for work and whose children remain involved in Hobo Days; Father John Brickley, the hobo chaplain; Cinderbox Cindy, who "married a sugar daddy"; and Steamtrain Maury, a college professor who so disliked the food prepared by the Crumb Boss, the Britt jungle cook, that he went back to Chicago to hire his own personal chef, Stir Fry Jack. Steamtrain was also one of the founders of the Hobo Foundation, which until recently operated the museum, and made several appearances on late-night talk shows.

The Hobo Museum draws firm distinctions between hobos, tramps, and bums. As a sign posted on the wall in the lobby reads, "A hobo wanders and works, a tramp wanders and dreams and a bum neither wanders or works." But it's hard to think of those distinctions as particularly meaningful when you look at the display of the worldly possessions of the Hardrock Kid, the first person buried in the corner of Evergreen Cemetery reserved for hobos. He died alone on the road, under a tree, and the people who found his body had no idea what to do and called up the Hobo Foundation. Hardrock had been carrying a toothbrush, toothpaste, a can of Campbell's stew, a can of peanuts, and a crumpled pack of Camels. It all fits on a single narrow shelf.

"The road is not kind," says Nathan Tye, a graduate student at the University of Illinois who writes about hobos. "The road does not care about you, no matter how much you romanticize or love it." Tye has never been to Britt, though he says it's on his bucket list and he'd definitely go if anyone nominated him for Hobo King. While he says he admires how the town keeps the romance of the hobo alive, he doesn't believe the official story of how it became the Hobo Capital. This is because he's studied newspapers and other primary sources, and because one of the functions of a historian is to be a total buzzkill about local legends.

In Tye's version, sometime in the 1890s, a newspaper man from Seymour, Illinois, named Charles Noe founded a fraternal order called Tourist Union 63. Despite its hobo theme, it was composed largely of sedentary middle-class professionals who liked the idea of the freedom of the road, but not the hobos themselves. In 1899, they had what they called their third annual convention—though Tye can't find any evidence of the first two—in nearby Danville, Illinois. They dressed up in hobo clothes and told hobo stories and were very surprised when actual hobos, lured by press coverage, showed up. ("I can't imagine being a small-town person in torn pants and blackface and seeing real hobos show up," Tye says.) The next year, the convention was in Britt. When the hobos arrived, the citizens of Britt fed and sheltered them. And then they didn't have another hobo convention until 1933, in the depths of the Depression, when the town fathers decided they needed a festival to cheer everyone up.

In reality, Tye says, hobos were hardly organized enough to develop a secret language of universally understood signs or a professional code of ethics, let alone organize a national convention. They did form a community of sorts, in the jungles outside of town, with its own slang and songs, but when you're on the road, you look for community wherever you can find it.

There was, however, a town that was famous as a haven for hobos, at least up until World War II, when a hobo could find permanent work in the military. Unlike Britt, it was the hub of many railroads and had lots of cheap flophouses. It was also full of bohemians and union workers, including a self-appointed King of the Hobos, who all mixed together in "hobohemia." It even had a Hobo College, founded by an eccentric millionaire. It was, yes, Chicago.

But as with superheroes, gunslingers, pool hustlers, and other figures in our national mythology, it's much nicer to imagine a footloose and free hobo instead of the reality of being a homeless itinerant worker who had to sleep in a boxcar. As Bill Eckels says, "I'm an honest person, but I'll lie a little to make it sound better."

And also, what's the point of a summer road trip if you don't actually leave town?   v

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