116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
BRITT — Long ago on our way to the Black Hills for a well-earned summer vacation, we passed through Britt.
We bumped into a parade in this tiny north-central Iowa town. Our kids downed lemonade and were thrilled at candy tossed by float riders.
Seeking the coolness of the Black Hills, we’d unexpectedly experienced the cool National Hobo Convention.
Recently, we returned and toured the National Hobo Museum and the separate Hobo Art Gallery along Main Street. Volunteers Bill Friedow, Denny Brumm, and Amy and Paul Boekelman shared the history and lure of the National Hobo Convention that Britt has hosted since 1900.
Our stressful, modern world can make a seemingly “carefree” hobo life appealing. No deadlines. No demanding boss. But, daily hobo responsibility amounted to finding daily work, scrounging up dinner and dealing with danger mixed with camaraderie.
Where: Britt, west of Clear Lake
Distance: 2 hours 43 minutes northwest of Cedar Rapids; 3 hours 9 minutes northwest of Iowa City; via I-380 and Highway 218
RAGBRAI: Runs through Britt on July 26, 2022
National Hobo Convention: Aug. 11 to 14, 2022, britthobodays.com
Lodging: For information on motels, Airbnbs, state parks and campgrounds in the area, which fill up quickly, go to britthobodays.com/lodging-information
Hobos have been around as long as there have been trains. During tough times, these itinerant workers traveled from cities to farms and small towns seeking daily work. They were everywhere.
So why is Britt, Iowa, hobo central?
The town was seeking a celebration. Local leaders attended Chicago’s hobo convention and knew Britt could do it better. For 122 years every August, people throng to Britt to celebrate hobos, their fascinating lifestyle, for fun.
Seasoned hobo Connecticut Shorty said Hobo Days keeps the history of hobos alive by educating people about them, and helps Britt economically by luring visitors to support local merchants.
Festivities open with a campfire lighting in “the jungle” near the railroad tracks. Other events include a parade, rides, vendors, crafts, firepit singalongs, garage sales and hot Mulligan Stew. Crowning the Hobo King and Queen highlights the celebration.
The Boekelmans said that hobos from all directions arrive to “Salute the Winds,” renew friendships and honor those who have died, or “Caught the Westbound.” Many are buried in the local cemetery. Their stones often include unusual inscriptions.
The late George Etzel told us a childhood memory from the 1930s. Hobos came to the family farm north of Cedar Rapids seeking work and lunch.
“They were good people down on their luck. Mom always fed them,” he said.
The origin of the name “hobo” is unclear. It is first noted in the 1890s, and could have referred to soldiers catching a free, but illegal, lift home, or single men seeking their fortunes.
Amy Boekelman noted that the term is frequently associated with traveling workers who illegally rode the rails in Depression days, and purportedly carried hoes. Regardless, hobos (or hoboes) are distinctly different from tramps or bums. They are itinerant workers who hop trains to travel from job to job.
Riding trains in this manner was — and is — illegal and dangerous. They’re speedy with wheels that can crush limbs. Trains weren’t the only hazard. Hobos often were harassed and beaten up by locals and police.
Still, lure and mythology surround hobo culture with symbols, language and monikers. One version of hobo symbols — the Livingston Code — is that they were made up by hobos as signs for other rail riders.
Two shovels scratched into a fence could mean “work here” and a cat logo might mean “kindhearted lady.” Another version is that the symbols enabled a person to be remembered, much like names carved into Wyoming’s Independence Rock or the “Kilroy Was Here” meme.
Hobos developed their own vocabulary and often had nicknames. Glad Rags (best clothes) and Main Drag (busiest road) came from hobos. Colorful nicknames like Hard Rock Kid, Frisco Jack, and Connecticut Shorty tell something about them.
Who are today’s hobos? Some are itinerant workers. Last year a 30-something couple riding the rails to the beet harvest attended the Hobo Convention. Many modern “hobos” are honorary people who love adventure.
We met 2013 Hobo Queen Bonnie Morris, a retired school librarian from the Twin Cities. Known as Bookworm Bonnie, she and her husband, entertainer Johnny Pineapple, attended their first Convention in 2007.
They had been performing Hawaiian-themed concerts, bringing “warm weather” to the upper Midwest, and wanted another theme. He became known as Cannonball Paul.
“We did every train thing and sometimes sang for fun,” Morris said. “The Hobo Convention is so much fun and people are welcoming.”
They performed at the firepit sing-around and Bonnie Morris’ vibrant personality caught the attention of regulars who encouraged her to run for Hobo Queen. She worked the crowd, wearing a colorful vest adorned with duck paraphernalia stating“ “I have my ducks in a row.”
Morris vowed that, as a librarian, she would promote hobo lure. Gathered hobos applauded thunderously. Election is for life. Once a king or queen, always royalty. And, royals can dub others “honorary hobos,” which she did. Marion Patterson’s honorary moniker is “Writin’ Rabbit.”
As we explored the Hobo Museum, Bill Friedow pointed out unique artifacts, like tiny journals written by a hobo. As we viewed the meager belongings of hobos, he explained, “The museum’s mission is to preserve hobo history and help people grasp a unique piece of American history.”
The nearby Hobo Art Gallery memorializes hobo royalty. Octogenarian artist Leanne Marlow Castillo has painted Hobo kings and queens since the 1980s. Thirty years ago, she decided to paint each one. She’s now painting portraits of long-gone hobos from photos, and the latest King and Queen, who are relative youngsters in their 30s. The portrait will be unveiled at this August’s Convention.
“I’m going to do them all,” Castillo stated.
Few hobos ride the rails today. It’s illegal and dangerous, plus there are far fewer trains than during the hobo heyday. Fortunately, Britt’s museums and the National Hobo Convention keep alive the lure of this once more common lifestyle.
A couple of days after leaving Britt on that sweltering August afternoon, we were camped in the cool Black Hills. We’d been working hard, so for a few days we were free of work pressures and enjoyed evenings around the campfire, swapping yarns about hobos and visiting with other campers.