There was once a corner of American History, as time swept around the bend, when an entire subculture of Americans lived and thrived who don’t really exist anymore. These were the Hobos—a wholly nomadic population whose travels around the country took place skirting the law, as passengers on the trains who had no ticket.
It was during this era—roughly 1875 through 1945—when Mansfield was just large enough and just small enough to have a ‘Hobo Jungle’ or two, where passing tramps could spend the night in their own little campground, sitting around a smoky fire cooking stew and swapping lies.
‘Large enough’ because other stops in Richland County where the rails ran through small villages, had little patience or tolerance for rootless strangers; and ‘small enough’ because, in Mansfield a bum didn’t have to go far to find a kindly doorstep where there was a handout and a moment of human compassion.
The origin of the railroad system in America, networking the whole continent, happened to correspond with decades following the Civil War when there was a whole new class of men in the country who were veterans of the war, and who were displaced—sometimes physically, but more often spiritually—from their homes by the horrors of battle they had witnessed.
This generation of adults was also harried out of whatever settled life they may have hoped to enjoy by the Panic of 1873, which before the 20th Century was known as the ‘Great Depression.’
Unable to live the quiet farm life they had known before the war, these restless and shell-shocked men took to the road—the iron road—as a new breed of migrant farm workers.
Moving from place to place in all parts of the US, these “hoe boys” showed up wherever agricultural laborers were needed for seasonal help either planting or harvesting.
Crossing the landscape on trains—either hidden in boxcars, riding atop flatcars, or clinging to rods underneath freight carriages—these original ‘hobos’ were earnest, honest, working men looking for a job.
As the decades passed, the evolution of hobo culture stratified, as any society does. By the early 1900s the ‘working tramps’ and ‘bindle stiffs’—valued for their willingness to serve in the labor force—were sharing their rides and hobo jungles with ‘stewbums,’ who lacked all ambition; ‘alki stiffs,’ who were effectively disabled by alcoholism; and the ‘profesh,’ who were not interested in working at all, but were professional beggars and criminals.
Mansfield had an uneasy and wary tolerance for the local hobo jungle, that occasionally wore out. At least three different times between 1914 and 1938 the little tramp settlement was ‘burned out’ when Sheriff’s men tore down tents and lean-tos to make the place less appealing to vagabonds.
On the whole, however, the people in Mansfield were not unwilling to help a stranger. The greatest part of the transient class were men simply down on their luck, or farm kids finding their way home. During the Great Depression of the 1930s there were an estimated 250,000 teenagers—or “Road Kids”—bumming around the country looking only to survive.
There were three major railroads running through Mansfield during the hobo era, providing opportunity for travel on trains traveling in any direction. Certain logistical factors, however, determined just how and where hobos could get on or off the trains.
The big lines running east and west either didn’t slow down, or they stopped only at the passenger and freight depots in Mansfield, where city policemen or railroad ‘bulls’ kept an eye on the tracks. There was a switchyard and roundhouse at East First and Oak Streets where stationary cars tempted tramps, but it was carefully guarded and getting aboard the trains required wily tactics.
The west side of town is where the hobo jungle was established. The B&O had to slow down as it entered or left the city limits, and it was easy for the tramps to get on or off near Park Avenue West. There was a shady grove south of the road and next to the tracks, with a clear creek and an absent landowner, that made the place quite homey. In 1910 this location was still ¾ of a mile outside the western end of the city.
People passing down the road sometimes saw crude huts or canvas tarps off in the woods; and kids in the neighborhood said there were things hanging in the trees like mirrors or stewpots. One boy from Trimble Road remembered finding a pair of shoes propped in the fork of a tree, left behind for whoever needed them.
A Hand Out
Families who lived within easy walking distance of the tracks found it common to hear a soft knock at the back door, where some guy in a not-very-clean outfit asked for something to eat.
Good people considered it their civic duty to feed the tramps, and they were proud to be able to help in hard times. The meal they shared was often a sandwich made of two pieces of bread with butter between them. To the bum, out on the back stoop, if it was handed out the back door it was a “hand out.” If they were invited in it was a ‘sit down.’
End of the Line
The study of the hobo era is a two-sided bittersweet coin opposing humiliating necessity with glorious freedom—either side of which anyone today might identify with or envy—but it is a lifestyle that passed away with the decline of railroads and the advent of Social Security.
There is a great element of hard times during that time period we couldn’t wish to repeat, yet something glorious was lost when it became no longer possible for anyone to be what they called a ‘scenery bum’—riding secretly on the trains just for the adventure, free of cares, to see the rest of America.