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THE BOXCAR BOYS AND GIRLS

The story of 250,000 teenagers on the road in the Great Depression is one of the vital sagas of America in the 1930s. These archives derive from 3,000 letters written by men and women who rode the rails between 1929 and 1941; follow-up questionnaires and interviews complete a rare first-hand account of Americans living through one of this nation’s bleakest eras.

Kindness of strangers in the Great Depression 


TENNESSEE

Allie Greene

“It was summer 1930. We lived a mile from a small town in North Mississippi. The Illinois Central Railroad ran near our farm. Daily the train would stop to load on coal from a near-by coal chute. When the train stopped in front of our house young men would get out of the box cars.

They would come to our back door, cap or hat in hand and politely ask for food. They usually wanted to do something to pay for their food. I remember they would ask if they could chop wood. I never remember Mother or Dad saying yes to their offer. The train needed an hour to load coal.

Mother was a wonderful cook and she always had plenty of corn bread, biscuits, a big pot of homemade soup on the wood-burning stove. She usually had a dishpan full of tea-cakes and for beverage there was plenty of cold buttermilk.

When these young men came to the back door Mother would tell them to go to the cistern house to wash, then come in to the back porch where she had a table with their food.

Mother and Dad would tell them to go to the orchard (when fruit was available) to get fruit to take with them.

My father would explain to me that there were nice young men out of work from the north on their way to pick fruit and vegetables in Florida.

Our doors were never locked. We had no fear in the days of the Depression. We attended church regularly and we were taught to share God’s blessings with those less fortunate.

We had a big orchard, plenty of hens, a big garden, cows, hogs and two horses. Our water supply came from a big cistern in the building out in the back yard called the cistern house. Mother kept soap, lye soap she made, a towel and a pan for water on the shelf of the cistern house.

Outdoor cistern of house near River Road, Louisiana Photo: John Vachon
Outdoor cistern of house near River Road, Louisiana                           Photo: John Vachon

TENNESSEE

Jane Hyre Freuler

relates story of her father: Robert Warren Hyre:

One of his favorites was of a long ride across the prairie when, lonely, he walked the top of the cars to the dining car and perched himself where he could look down the stove vent and watch the cook who was grilling steaks. Pop pulled out his box of raisins and began to munch. When the cook stepped away from the stove, Pop dropped some raisins on the steaks. The cook came back to serve the steak and raisin dish and never hesitated nor looked up.

Pop rode the rails from Gadsden, Alabama, to California, where he woke up to find the train stopped (no bull in sight) behind a steel mill with a long line out front of men seeking employment.

Pop cleaned up "as best I could" in a little creek nearby and went in the back gate. He found his way to the office and announced that he had come to work for them. When they tried to throw him out, he bragged that he could do anything in the mill or in the office including type. They laughed and showed him a typewriter. He typed, "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country."

He could type that VERY fast, so they called the mill foreman to the office where he took one look at this kid and, disgusted, turned to leave.

"Ask me something. Anything!" Pop called after him. The office crew, who were in trouble for calling the foreman, told about the typing and pushed the foreman to question him.

Happily Pop, who went to work in a steel mill when he was twelve years old, was able to answer all questions perfectly. He was hired, and the foreman loaned him $10.00 on the spot to get some clothes food, and a place to stay.

 

TENNESSEE

Paul Arthur Swenson

"Lew explained to me that there were, in general, two groups of hoboes: balloon men and streamliners. He and Dutch, with their big sacks, were balloon men. The two alcohol consumers were streamliners, hoboes that traveled with as little baggage as possible. Balloon men were a sober group and did not indulge in alcohol, especially in he form of bay rum or canned heat. Streamliners as a group were more inclined to be alcoholics."

 

TEXAS

Allen Felps

Chicago World's Fair

In 1933 I lived on a dirt farm in east Texas. We lived too far from the town to get a newspaper, and did not have a radio, electricity or any conveniences.

Somehow my cousin, Thorp Hutto and I found out there was a World Fair in Chicago. We were determined to go. We had no car so we went by freight train. We told our parents we were going to look for work. We rolled up a pair of jelly bean pants with shirts and underwear, etc. in a neat package. Together we had $30.00 and planned to spend $1:00 per day.

We caught the freight train in Beaumont; Texas. We talked to professional hoboes and found out the best route to take. They recommended the KCS to Shreveport, Louisiana, then catch the Missouri Pacific to E. St. Louis and the Illinois Central to Chicago. We rode coal cars, box cars or whatever we could catch.                 

After three days with little sleep we were riding an oil car with 12" boards around the sides. I lay down on that board and fell asleep: Thorp woke me up and said “You are going to fall off and kill yourself." That woke me up!

After three days we were in Chicago. We got off the train right by the fair grounds. At a grocery store we bought foods like crackers, canned meats and cheese to last us a few days. With grimy clothes and faces from the coal dust from the train, with our hobo pack on our back, and a sack of groceries we paid our 50 cents admission.

There were people swimming in Lake Michigan behind the building so we saw our chance to take a bath. We cleaned up and put on our clean clothes.

Public bathing beach. Chicago, Illinois. Gold Coast in background                          Photo: John Vachon
Public bathing beach. Chicago, Illinois. "Gold Coast" in background                          Photo: John Vachon

We each bought a card and wrote home. We would sightsee through the day and at noon we would feast on a 15 cent hamburger, then back to our hidden food at night. The building where we hid our clothes and food had some old curtains stacked on the floor which made a good bed.

In the morning we ate our canned meat and crackers and were ready for a new day. I don't see why the guards did not catch us, but by staying inside it saved us 50 cents per day for an admission ticket. Sideshows were 25 cents. We took in a few of them.

After three days we hit the railroads again. We crawled into a boxcar late that afternoon and went to sleep thinking the train would pull out soon. The next morning when we awoke they had switched the boxcar to a side track. After walking about a mile, we came to the place where we got on the night before. Not much progress that night.

When another train came, I caught on to the front of the boxcar and looked back - there stood Thorp all doubled over with a pain in his side. The train was picking up speed and I knew I had to do something quick. After getting my feet to working, I jumped off and barely stood up. Later we caught another train.

It was late September and getting cold in Illinois. We almost froze on our way to E. St. Louis. We were riding between two cars. The couplings on railroad cars have some slack just big enough for two feet; as the train slowed up my feet were caught. I could not get my feet out so I pulled off the shoes and left them lodged. I had to hold the shoes with my hand. When the slack was taken up my shoes were loose and I got them out. It would have been hard to do without shoes.

October 2nd was my birthday and we were riding through Louisiana on our way to Beaumont. When we got home we had $15.00 left. Not bad for a two week trip

I don't know what Thorp's parents said. My Mother received me with open arms. Dad did not say much, he just went to the barn to feed the horses.


"A tall skinny guy on the road called Lyndon Johnson."

TEXAS

Billy Brown

I was trying to get into a boxcar with several blacks. Each time I would get a good hold on edge of floor of it a black would stomp my fingers. Finally after trying to board it, an elderly black made those younger blacks let me inside.

Their protest in keeping me out was the fact that there would 13 of us in the boxcar. The older black told them that there wouldn’t be 13; that there would be 12 blacks and one white boy. That was somewhere in Texas.

We all stayed in the same boxcar and had many conversations. By the time we got to California they had wanted me to be their leader. It so happened that the train stopped to take on water at Brawley, California.

The railroad dick put me off the train in the desert, and let the blacks ride on through. I had to hitchhike back to Texas.

On U.S. 99. Near Brawley, Imperial County. Homeless family of seven  Photo: Dorothea Lange
On U.S. 99. Near Brawley, Imperial County. Homeless family of seven,  walking the highway from Phoenix, Arizona, where they picked cotton. Bound for San Diego, where the father hopes to get on the relief because he once lived there
Photo: Dorothea Lange

I came across a tall skinny guy a little older than myself at the fork of a highway. This person was dressed in dirty khakis. He looked downtrodden and hungry.

First thing he ask me after saying, "Hi Kid," was if I had anything to eat. He said he hadn’t had anything in three days.

I could see that this tall skinny kid was hungry so I told him to wait right there and don't take a ride with anyone if there was a chance. I would go back to a grocery store and try to get him something to eat.

I walked back to a store in the small town and asked if there was some work I could do for them to get something to eat. A young man and his wife owned the store. They both told me that they didn't have anything that needed doing BUT since I was willing to do anything to get food to eat that they were going to give me something anyway.

They said most people come in and never offered to do anything for little food. I refused to take anything unless they let me do something. They finally let me sweep up a little. Then the wife sacked me up a peck sack of food while I was sweeping. I thanked them profusely.

I got back to where the Tall Skinny Guy was and he almost grabbed the sack out of my hands. I didn't ask any questions as I took the left fork of the highway; he took the right.

In 1952 I bought my first television set.. I was watching a political rally on TV from Oklahoma City and there was this guy that I had kept from starving on TV with Bob Kerr, Oklahoma’s most famous political leader at the time.

He was Lyndon Johnson.

President Roosevelt, Governor James Allred of Texas, and Lyndon Johnson, 1937 via Wikipedia.
President Roosevelt, Governor James Allred of Texas,  and Lyndon Johnson, 1937 via Wikipedia.

Boom days on the east Texas oilfields

TEXAS

Bob Lomax

18 in January 1930

From railroad family of Longview, Texas... father was a fireman and later engineer. Uncle was a conductor.

"One of my buddies had a remarkable resemblance to Clark Gable and all the females young and old were always swarming over him. ...On the road, my friend washed his face in a barrel of water that contained acid... affected his eyes... had to be treated in hospital.

"I was dumbfounded to learn that so many people were out of work and that there were no jobs available. Thousands looking for seasonal jobs at New Orleans/ Port Arthur."

Carried union cards of grandfather, father and uncle:

"We pulled into Toyah, Texas, a rail junction, only a wide place in the road back then. We walked across Highway 80 to a general store and gas station. The road was ankle deep in fine powdery sand. We remarked to store owner that it seemed rather dry and asked when last it rained. He said they had a good rain about eight years ago... Guess he was pulling leg of these two greenhorns."

Mexican people who lived in boxcars and worked on tracks offered us food.

Escape from Texas Slim at Big Springs..."Looking back down the track we saw the mean man get on. He started walking the top of the cars in our direction. When he got about 15 cars from us we decided to join the bird gang.

"That bastard lay down and started shooting at us. We were running zig-zag and bullets were shooting up dust all around us. Fortunately we came to a gully and dived into it to get us out of his line of fire. The gully was full of tumbleweeds full of stickers. The stickers got into our wool tee shirts and long underwear and made us miserable."

"When did you last eat?"

"Two days ago."

"What do you want to do, stuff yourself all the time?"

"You have no idea how delicious a fresh loaf of bread can be until you have fasted a few days."

There were a few safety rules that were taught to me by my railroad relatives, and they served me well because I never had an accident.

Do not crawl under a train or ride the rods beneath the cars. If you get sleepy fasten your belt to an object to hold you on. Do not catch a train going faster than you can run. Do not catch the tail end of a car on a fast moving train. -- if you should miss it, it will throw you under. Always catch the front end of the car.

When getting off face the direction of travel and lower your hind foot first. When it touches the ground release your hands and swing your body away from the train. Do this from the front of the car and not from the rear of the car as you may get sucked under.

Do not close doors on boxcars as you might get locked in. Never get off a train if you cannot see the ground. You might be on a trestle or perhaps a switch. Do not ride in the front end of a loaded gondola car. A sudden stop might cause the load to shift onto you.

An accident of this kind happened in Arizona when a man was in the front end of a car loaded with plates of steel. The train stopped suddenly and the load slid forward and cut off both his legs above the knees.

The great East Texas oil field was discovered in the early thirties, and people came from all over the country looking for work.

The boom days were pretty rough. M.T. (Lone Wolf) Gonzales, a notorious Texas Ranger was sent to keep the peace and stop the hot oil thefts. Texas Slim the mean railroad bull that shot at us in Big Springs was transferred to Longview Junction. He shot and killed a young boy in the yards because the kid was running away from him.

The citizens were about ready to get up a lynch mob to take care of Texas Slim. Gonzales got wind of it and caught up with Texas Slim in the court house square in Longview. He tried to provoke Texas Slim into going for his gun, but Texas Slim knew that two-gun Gonzales was the fastest and most accurate shot in Texas.

Gonzales then went ahead and beat the hell out of Texas Slim and gave him until midnight to get out of Texas and never come back again. We heard he went north.

When Gonzales first came to Kilgore, Texas where most of the trouble was he was asked why the Rangers only sent in one ranger. His reply was, "You have only one oil boom."

With the help of local peace officers, things began to quiet down after Gonzales took over.

In September 1933, I got job with plough manufacturer in Longview, and stayed 33 years.

Oil field workers taking timeout to read the paper, oil well, Kilgore, Texas  Photo: Russell Lee
Oil field workers taking timeout to read the paper, oil well, Kilgore, Texas           Photo: Russell Lee

TEXAS

C.D. Bishop

The Taylor Yards. . . This was a huge make-up yard for several railroads. It was off San Fernando Road just south of Glendale, CA. There I’d wait for a Southern Pacific engine to hook up to one of the long freights.

As a rule, every freight train had several empties. Coupled up, it moved pretty slow till it cleared the yards. It was easy to throw your junk in, then hop up in one of the boxcars. The boxcar door had a handle for opening and closing on each side. Running alongside the car at the same speed as the train, you could reach up and grab the handle and swing your feet up inside. The rest

was easy.

Some of the Railroad dicks (security people) in those days were not too lenient. At the big Taylor Yards, some carried chains, some carried a cold-cocker (a large, club like stick), and they generally worked in pairs. Then there were others who carried no stick, and were decent in dealing with the freight riders. They seemed to know that not everyone could pay to ride in a passenger car on an easy seat.

Several times I was lucky, hopping on an early (Southern Pacific) train leaving before daybreak, headed for El Paso. There the train would be broken up, part going north-east, part east (on the T&P tracks), and part south east to San Antonio. This took from two to four hours and allowed time to find something to eat and maybe clean some of the grit and grime off your face.

On most trips, the car I hopped already had occupants. Some were young fellows like myself. Before the train cleared the second block (semaphores, or signal sets), the car might have ten or more riders. For the most part it was easy camaraderie. There was as many good guys as there were bad ones and everyone got along smoothly. No one wanted to be thrown from a speeding boxcar traveling 40 mph or more. It was understood no one had more than a buck or two in his jeans. Most had nothing.

Before sundown you tried to get one of the forward corners for the night. Away from the door, the cold wind seldom reached into the corners. Plus, back in the corner, you could not be approached from a blind side. And sometimes, mistrust got the upper-hand, and you would spend the night with one eye open.

I always carried a small, black metal suitcase, about twice the size of a shoe-box. It contained two changes of underwear, an extra shirt, a pair of well worn jeans (for train travel.) and a couple of bandanas (to tie over your mouth to keep from inhaling all that dust stirred up by the rattling boxcar). By the end of the first day, everyone looked alike; covered with soot and dust. Your face, and particularly your hands were black as the ace of spades. It took lots of soap and water to remove it.

On one trip when we left El Paso, there was only three empties. The car I hopped already had several occupants and before we cleared the yard there were 14 of us. I saw a pair of dicks snag the caboose and I figured they had seen all of us hopping the train. I also figured we were in for a rough time somewhere down the line. Sure enough, when we pulled into Sierra Blanca, the train stopped rather quickly. Outside our car were four railroad dicks. Two of them were armed.

They lined us all up, elbow to elbow with our boxes and sacks on the ground in front of us.              

One guy went down the line frisking each rider each rider and digging in his sack or box. One poor guy was carrying a small 22 pistol; they cuffed him and led him away. I had a pocket knife in my pants pocket. It had one blade almost four inches long. The search-guy slipped it into his pocket, but said nothing.

Then the whole gang, with their baggage and booty were herded over to the side of the yard and put in a paddy wagon. In the then one horse town we were all escorted to the single cell jail house and locked up. After about an hour or so – time for the train to get out of town – we were all released and warned not to get caught on an SP freight again.

I picked up a hamburger and a Coke and walked out to the edge of town (maybe four blocks). In five minutes I had thumbed a ride going east.

Van Horn, Texas was just a wide place on a dusty road then. The couple who had picked me up were turning off there, so I walked out on the highway where the railroad was parallel less then twenty steps away. In less than an hour, I was on the same freight I had been pulled off and on my way to San Antonio.


 A cruel thing to do on Mother's Day

TEXAS

Claude Franklin

Runaway at 13 on Mother’s Day, 1938

“We didn’t leave a note to let them know we were leaving because we didn’t want to be stopped. What a cruel thing to do on Mother’s Day?”

“Whenever the opportunity presented itself we weren’t above a little thievery….milk and bread.”

Six more trips to 1941

Cotton picking: It was very hard work! After a week… Charles had 55c coming, I had 35 and Robert was a nickel in the hole.

Railroad bull: “I’m going to teach you a lesson. Bend over that bench there.” We bent over. He produced a length of large rubber hose and whacked each of us three times on our rear ends.

“That’s just a sample of what I’ll do if I catch you in these yards again.”

Cotton picker, Lauderdale County, Mississippi Photo: Arthur Rothstein
Cotton picker, Lauderdale County, Mississippi                                            Photo: Arthur Rothstein

TEXAS

Emmett L. Tiner

In 1932, when I was 14 years of age, I left farm to seek work. Local banks had closed leaving our family destitute. An older friend, Curley, and I caught a freight out of Sweetwater TX at night riding on top of a reefer. A brakeman tried to make us pay 50 cents each or “jar the ground” from a freight moving at 60.

I was robbed in freight yard at San Antonio, while sleeping. ….Finally reached Georgewest, TX, where worked on crop and livestock farm for $1 day for six weeks.

On return encountered a railroad bull who fired into the open box car where I was to make me jump out.

I survived while in transit on bread and bologna.

I will never forget things that happened; however then I was ashamed of being so poor. Later in a speech class at Abilene High School, I had an excellent opportunity to make a good grade and tell this interesting story but I was ashamed to tell it.


TEXAS

Harry Keller

CCC Company No 807 F-23-A in the mountains of what is now Tonto National Forest near Phoenix AZ.

“Most of the boys were backwoodsmen - really from the hinterland. When new fellows came in, most everyone got a nickname – ‘Happy,’ ‘Preacher,’ ‘Handsome,’ (the ugliest guy you ever saw).

"Many couldn’t read or write – they looked lost. After a while, they gained confidence – they grew up. They were taught to stand on their own feet and be men.”

“I prided myself that I learned to work – and enjoy it – and to take responsibility. Some fell by the wayside, but it made men out of most of them.”

“When the war came, CCC boys were ready. Many joined straight from the camp and were among those troops who fought in North Africa in 1942.”

“I can still see the outlines of the tents – still hear the voices and the sounds – see the faces. It was a lonely life, but there were a lot of fun times.”

 

TEXAS

Jack Kidwell

Trinity Baptist Church minister, Mirando City, TX…

working/riding 1934-1937

I graduated from high school in the spring of 1934. Not only were we in the middle of the Great Depression, we were also in the middle of the worst drought in history.

I sold my hound dog for $5 to get enough money to go to Michigan. Went to Flint where a brother worked for GM…

“Needless to say there wasn’t any work for newcomers.”

In the middle of the winter (1934,)I got a job on a farm chopping ice out of the troughs and carrying water to the sheep and hogs. I got $1 per week and lodging.

It was a full time job: what time I didn’t spend watering livestock, I spent chopping wood. The farm house was a two story with a basement. In that basement was a big furnace that burned wood and besides that they had a building that was also heated with wood to keep it from freezing up and that’s where the horses and cattle went to drink.

They also had chickens, ducks and turkeys that had to have water in these cold months. I can tell you for sure that water on a farm in Michigan is quite a project for at least four or five months out of the year.

That was my first job after graduating from high school. I still remember it just like it was yesterday. I had never seen a winter like that. I had never had a job like that.

"I left Michigan when Spring came. I have never gone back and I never will.”

Today I live in a small town 30 miles from the Mexican border…

“We don’t see near the illegal immigrants that we used to see. They get picked up if they try to ride the trains or travel the highways. Quite a few boys walk through the ranches. They walk at night and sleep in the day and from time to time a few do stop here.

"It is far too late for me to repay those who helped me when I was on the road but I can pass it on to the boys who are trying to make it now. I feed the hungry, give a little cough syrup or aspirins to the sick. I have some barns and sheds along the track where they can stay when the weather is bad. It is never too late to lend a hand to the younger or the misfortunate.”


"What if a black boy showed up in a white cafe?"

TEXAS

John O. West

As five year old, I lived block and a half from the SP and T & NO yards in El Paso…

At least twice a day a grimy, tattered homeless man knocked on our back door, crumpled hat in hand.

I can hear the ritual; even now: “Lady, do you have some work I could do for a little food. I haven’t eaten in three days.”

The offer of work always came first: A man had to keep his pride.

While mother was making him a meal, I sat and visited, often on his knee….

I’ve always wondered why it was always three days, no more, no less, that the man hadn’t eaten. It was a pattern that never varied.

He ran away himself at 17 and rode rails:

Walking down Canal Street, New Orleans, until…I was in an area of Canal with fewer pedestrians: Served a huge meal in a small café. Owner wouldn’t take his 15 cents….

Waterfront in New Orleans. French market sidewalk scene. Louisiana   Photo: Walker Evans
Waterfront in New Orleans. French market sidewalk scene. Louisiana                       Photo: Walker Evans

"Cook, waiter, and customers were all black, a fact I hadn’t noticed in my earlier eagerness to eat, and with the dim lighting…

"I laid my 15 cents on the counter (there wasn’t a cash register, I remember, just a drawer underneath) and told the waiter how much I enjoyed the meal.

“It was really good,” I said.

“That’s what we always serve around here,” he told me and pushed my fifteen cents back across the counter at me. I know I had tears in my eyes as I left and headed for the freight yards.

And I couldn’t help wondering as I walked – what if a little black boy had showed up in a white café?

I try to be folks myself after that experience on the road…


TEXAS

L.E. Delaney

“What stayed with me through the years was the basic kindness of people.

"We didn’t need cynical politicians to promise kinder, gentler times before they raided public funds to enrich the wealthy. People were already kinder and gentler.

"Going to the backdoor of a bakery to buy some 'yesterday’s stuff,' as we called it, there was no fear that it was a robber.

The owner gave me a small bagful, refusing payment and apologizing for the amount generous though it was because he was saving some for regulars.

The pastry and a 5c cup of coffee were breakfast, and sometimes, lunch.

"My thanks and goodbye, his goodbye and advice: 'Don’t give up. FDR is pulling us through.' ”

Conversation when you catch a ride was predictable. Where are you from? Massachusetts. Did you hear of Scituate?

Once: Did you hear of Salvation? Hell, no, that ain’t in Massachusetts. Then the thought, Oh, one of those! "I’m not going far. Just let me down at the crossroads."

Not much talk of politics. The people had set aside differences. Talk was about recovery as though FDR had supplanted political parties. Republican was a dirty word except in Big City newspapers and to the very wealthy. To them, FDR caused apoplexy. I was a good listener because I didn’t care one way or another.

Heading home from Wisconsin, hitch-hiking: A chance meeting in Scranton/Wilkes Barre gave my life direction.

I looked for a sheltered area where I could get out of the drizzle. I would spread my 'road map mattress,' cover up with my blanket and sleep. Another two days and I’d be home, I figured.

When I found the right place, there was already someone there. A girl, just standing. A street walker. I asked if it would bother her if I sacked out back in the shadows. I didn’t want to cause her any trouble. She had a tough enough row to hoe.

We talked for a while, then I said I was tired I’d like to sleep. She suggested we go to her room. I explained that what money I had left was to get home, but if I were looking for sex she would be a good choice. It was just that I was tired etc.

She laughed and said, “Not for sex. A cup of tea and a dry bed.”

She had a can of beans which we shared and a cup of coffee. We talked on. She told me a typical Hoover Depression story and she was right: this was the only way she could care for her parents and sisters.

I told her of my feelings of life. She argued that I was very lucky to be able to go home, finish high school and find work. What could she do? How long could she work before lightning struck? Disease, abortion, abuse?

She changed my thinking. I could do nothing for her but I could do for me, and I did. We slept clothed and when we woke, I split my $2.40 with her as a friend and headed out.

I got home in time to arrange to finish school. The school allowed me to take tests in the courses where I had good marks and gave credit for them. I graduated in June 1937 just barely at the bottom of my class but it let me be eligible in 1939 for a civil service exam. Twelve of 700 applicants got perfect scores and we became apprentices at the famous Springfield Academy.

The dynamometer used in the horse-pulling contest, Eastern States Fair, Springfield, Massachusetts  Photo: Carl Mydans
The dynamometer used in the horse-pulling contest, Eastern States Fair,  Springfield, Massachusetts Photo: Carl Mydans

"The dogs walk barefoot out there as they do here."

TEXAS

Paul Gould

Left home at 10

Old hobo called Ed taught him how to steal chickens.

“He said that the farmer would not shoot a kid, that’s why he sent me.”

I didn’t know what time of the year it was; hobos don't know the dates or towns or states, just North, South, East and West, Spring, Summer and Winter.

"Don’t you know what day this is?" Ed asked

"All I know it is 10 or 20 below outside and I am about to freeze to death."

"It's the day before Christmas."


TEXAS

Sofia Palfox

I did not ride the rails or hitchhike in those years and I surmise that the age of these men by now should be between 83 and 93 years of age. Sorry to say, not many are left. I especially mention men because I do not recall seeing any women.

Perhaps there were some who dressed as males because of necessity.

My family lived very close to the railroad yards and as children we played in the neighborhood.

We would come upon dens or lairs similar to animal ones, covered with straw or grass and used for resting or sleeping while awaiting the next freight train.

With dirty, tousled hair and smudged from the coal burning engines, these men carried their belongings on their backs in a tattle tale gray blanket tightly bound. Their bleary red eyes showed the lack of a satisfying sleep.

They were different from the "Okies," who rode their battered Model T's and yet like them in that they were displaced humanity passing through in search of a better tomorrow. They were the homeless of their time.

When they knocked, always at the back door, they did not ask for work or money, just a handout of food to sustain them to their next destination. They were not like the beatniks of the 60’s who felt that the establishment owed them a living; it was up to hem to go in search of one. Crime was not rampant and their life was mostly drug free. There was no money to waste.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt tackled the problem and started homes for them, sometimes in residential areas. These were only used for sleeping, since they went off to eat at soup kitchens.

For their own entertainment and the public's, they put on talent shows on makeshift stages in the open air during the summer.

The neighborhood walked in the early evenings to attend them and then walked back. They were not afraid to go home in the dark after the performances. They felt they were safe and nobody locked his doors to attend.

Many a romance flourished and some of the boys married local girls to raise educated and respected families.

 

TEXAS

Vincent G. Zubras

My mother was a Polish immigrant, who left Poland in 1913 and never went back. She knew the value of home and wanted to impress that thought indelibly – and she did.

When I told her that I was planning to ride the rails out West from our home in South Bend, Ill, she made a statement which has served me well the rest of my lif

“Go. You will find that the dogs walk barefooted out there like they do here.”


TEXAS

W.H. Bodenhamer

At Green Rivers, we were heading for De  nver, Colorado, so we waited for the next train out, heading for Laramie, Wyoming. Well, when it came by, we climbed aboard and settled down for the long trip.

First, we looked for a car with an open door so that we could get inside. We couldn’t find one. Then we looked for a car with an open reefer. We couldn’t find one.

Then we began to understand why all of the other bums did not climb aboard this train. We either had to ride on top of the freight car or get in between two cars and hold on to the iron ladder to stay out of the wind.

Well, it got too cold to hang onto the ladder in between the cars; we had to ride on top. As the night went on it got colder and colder. I had an overcoat but my shoes were summer shoes with holes in them and my feet were freezing. As a matter of fact my entire body was freezing. May hands were so cold I could not use them to hold onto the wooden walkway on top of the freight car.

All I could do was put one arm under one side of the walkway and the other arm under the other side and insert my hands up into the sleeves, thereby keeping my hands from freezing and giving me a secure hold on the walkway.

It was at this point that I began using the training I had received at Sunday school. I began to pray.

Well, I prayed and I prayed for that train to stop and along about 2 o'clock in the morning the Lord heard my prayers and He caused a water tower to be built away up there on top of the Great Divide and he caused the train to stop for water.

I said, Thank you Lord, and we started climbing down from the top of that freight car. I was so near frozen that I did not realize that my feet had reached the ground. I just stopped going down so I knew I must be on the ground.

After reaching the ground we began feeling around for something that would burn. We finally found enough to start a fire and we nearly burned ourselves trying to get close enough to the fire to get warm. We watched that train fill up with water and I said, Thank you Lord for making that thing use water.

When morning came we were still not warm, but we were thankful we were on the ground. Around 10 another train stopped for water and we climbed aboard and headed out again.

It was nearly dark when we reached Laramie and then I realized that if the Lord hadn’t heard me and stopped that train for water, we would have frozen long before we reached Laramie.

Child of migrant family near Birmingham, Alabama  Photo: Arthur Rothstein
Child of migrant family near Birmingham, Alabama              Photo: Arthur Rothstein

TEXAS

Walter LeMaster

Spring 1933

In first week of April 1933, we were loaded in a bus for the proposed CCC camp site in the Massanutten Mountains above Luray, Virginia.

The bus couldn’t get within a half mile of the site. Each of us were given a blanket, a can of salmon and a loaf of bread. We had to walk to the site, found only a stake in the ground...

One day at noon one of the boys said that he found a maggot in the meat. The whole camp walked out on strike.

We went to a small clearing and sat down. The camp commander called in the sheriff from Woodstock, saying that there was a riot at the camp. Two cars from the sheriff's department arrived, drove around the group and started to leave.

One of the boys threw a rock hitting one of the cars. The deputies got out of the cars and tear-gassed the men from the camp. That broke up the walkout.

Captain Donovan the camp commander called me to his office the next morning, accused me as the ring leader. Suggested that I leave the camp.


UTAH

Thurman Wheeler

First rode as a 14 year old

In early Spring of 1933 on a cold windy day we slung a bedroll over our shoulders and packed an extra pair of pants , a shirt, a pair of socks, a tin plate, a frying pan, tin cup, a knife and fork into a knapsack and we were ready to go. Neither one of us had a dime.

From 1932 to 1936 I went on the bum. I worked at temporary jobs during the harvesting season and spent six months in the CCC camp, but mostly I just bummed around the country.

 

UTAH

William Keele

The day after school was out, Bill and I started up the road, my mother following us for a long way trying to talk me out of going, but my mind was made up. There was no changing it.

I caught the next train going south. It was cold but I got into a good car and jumped off early in Ogden ran through the jungle and caught the same train on to Salt Lake. In Salt Lake I caught a D&RG train on to Helper. It was night when I left Salt Lake, so I was pretty cold all night again. I finally went to sleep.

When I awoke next morning, the train was just pulling out of Helper. I knew that it would not stop in Price so I jumped off the first chance I saw. The train was going pretty fast so I lit on the gravel and rolled all the way to the highway that ran alongside the railroad.

I was so sore and bruised up that I sat in the shade of a bush for hours before I felt like walking. My hands were bleeding so I stopped at a ditch and washed them off best I could. Boy, I sure did not feel very good, but I knew I needed to get on home.

I walked from Helper to Price. I sure was hungry but just didn't know anyone I could ask for some food.

I found a candy bar that was partly eaten with ants all over it but I ate it and drank all the water I could hold from a ditch alongside the road.

It was almost dark when a man from Emery who ran a truck route to Salt Lake stopped and gave me a ride on home. He had come cookies and nuts that he told me to eat. I didn't turn them down.

When I got home the first thing I did was sign up for CCC. Camps. The government sent me to Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City. I passed all of the exams physical and mental and was assigned to a CCC Camp in Wood Cross, Utah.

I reported in just in time for supper. I sure was lonely. I ate supper and was putting my dishes into the place where they washed them, I did not known that you should put knife, fork, and spoon in another place.

The guy who was washing dishes was a big burly guy from back in Kentucky. He really got angry and called me a dumb son of a bitch and wanted to beat me up. I did not like any of those guys from the east. They were too rough talking for me.

I decided the CCC was not for me. I went back to my bunk gathered up my belongings, left the stuff the government had issued to me and headed for home.

Main street in Consumers, near Price, Utah Photo: Dorothea Lange
Main street in Consumers, near Price, Utah                                  Photo: Dorothea Lange

Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression

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