Hobos had a unique communication system

Have you ever been afraid, like really afraid? I can remember a time when I was too afraid to move. I was about 12 years old at the time.

My folks had a small farm on the outskirts of Marion. There was a woods on our property. A train track ran parallel to our woods. One autumn day, my mother packed a picnic lunch for my friend Sally Pietz and me. We took a blanket and books and headed to the woods.

We picked wildflowers and apples. We sat on our blanket and just started eating lunch when we heard the train. We counted boxcars when suddenly we saw someone throw something to the ground before jumping off and rolling in the grass very close to where we were sitting.

The man picked up the long stick with stuff tied to it. Oh no! It was a hobo. He looked at us and we stared back, too frightened to move. I remember he was unshaven, and was wearing a combination of clothes like I had never seen before. I think we probably startled him as much as he startled us.

He began to walk down the side of the track, never looking back. We quickly packed up our things and ran as fast as we could back home.

When I excitedly told my dad what had happened, he didn’t seem surprised. He told me hobos often slept in our haymow. Dad said they didn’t really vandalize anything. The worst thing they did was take a few chickens and eggs. He told me the next time I went down to the woods I should look around and I would probably see the remains of a campsite where they fried the chicken and eggs.

For those of you who don’t know, a hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. The term hobo originated in the United States in the late 1800s. Unlike a tramp, who works only when forced to; and a bum, who does not work at all; a hobo is a traveling worker.

Dad explained that hobos often traveled on freight trains. The number of hobos increased during the Great Depression with no work, and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free by freight train to try to find work elsewhere. Riding the train was dangerous, and train crews had security staff nicknamed “bulls” who had a reputation of violence against trespassers.

I learned hobos used some interesting terminology. Hobos often carried a “banjo,” a small portable frying pan. They carried it in a “bindle stick,” which was a collection of their belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick.

“Bo” was the common way one hobo referred to another. Sometimes the hobos would “boil up,” which was when they boiled their clothes to kill lice and their eggs.

A “bone polisher” meant a dog.

“Honey dipping” was working with a shovel in the sewer.

The hobos referred to a Catholic priest as a “Buck” because they were usually good for a dollar.

Sometime they would tell someone they met they were “C, H and D.” That meant they were cold, hungry and dry (thirsty).

“California blankets” were newspapers intended to be used for bedding on a park bench.

“Mulligan” was a type of community stew created by several hobos combining whatever food they had. Their word for chicken was “gump.”

Some hobos rode “possum belly,” which meant they had to lie flat on their belly to ride on the roof of a passenger car to avoid being blown off.

“Snipes” were cigarette butts. “Spare biscuits” referred to food found in the garbage. A “sky pilot” was a preacher or minister.

Hobos developed a system of symbols to provide direction, info and warnings to others. A cross sign would signify “angel food,” food served to hobos after a sermon.

A triangle with hands meant the homeowner had a gun.

A horizontal zigzag meant a barking dog.

Three diagonal lines meant it is not a safe place.

Two shovels signified work was available.

My hubby said the area behind the feed mill and all the way back to Evergreen Street was a woods when he was a kid. He said the hobos would get off the train and make their camp in the confines of the woods.

My dad believed in helping out the less fortunate. I guess our property was marked with a square missing its top line signifying it was a safe place to camp. Although hobos stayed in our barn, we never saw them. They must have come after dark and left in the early morning. Apparently, they felt safe sitting around a campfire in our woods before jumping back on the train.

Time for me to go make some “gump” for dinner.

Question: Who was the first elected city attorney for Shawano, and in what years did he serve?

Clothesline Conversation Answer: Herman Koehler was the first elected city attorney. He served 1936-1942.

Lorna Marquardt is a former mayor of Shawano.