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LETTERS FROM THE BOXCAR BOYS AND GIRLS

Runaway Boy's Incredible Adventure

 

Berkeley N. Hackett, St. Petersburg, Florida                      

Berkeley Hackett made his first trip in 1929 at 13, riding with his stepfather from Flint, Michigan to Kalamazoo to get a summer job working in a coal yard at 25 cents an hour. A year later, Berkeley ran away from school and began to beat his way around the country in the Great Depression. 

"Howard, my step-dad, came home one night in the summer of 1929, wide-eyed with excitement. 'I've gotten a job!' he announced.

" 'Where?' we asked, in chorus. 'Doin' what?'

" 'Working for Webb Coal Company in Kalamazoo, unloading coal cars.' Howard looked in my direction. 'I'm taking Bill with me.'

"Mama took all the clothes she could find and put them on me, layer after layer of shirts and an old wool sweater. I remember that sweater well. It was light brown and moth-eaten.

View from the Boxcari n Great Depression era"In the wee, misty hours after midnight, Howard and I made our way to the switch yard at Flint to find a train that would take us to that wonderful promise of employment.

"What an incredible adventure! I felt as if I were Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Swiss Family Robinson combined.

"We slipped furtively through the yard to avoid the railroad detectives. Howard found an empty boxcar in a train going in the right direction. He hoisted me up and clambered in himself. The inside of the car smelled of pine tar and creosote.

"We huddled together in a corner; afraid of being caught by a detective and thrown off or taken to jail.

"The switch engine shunted us this way and that. I could see the red and green lights of signal lanterns, but not the men who wielded them.

"Finally the train was ready. My heart beat fast and the adrenaline flowed. With a great spurt of steam, the locomotive got under way. Our boxcar creaked and groaned, shivered and shook and rattled and complained. - Catching that fast freight to Kalamazoo was the most exciting adventure of my life."

"I begged food from butchers, bakers and grocers. I learned where the soup lines and flop houses were, as well as who put out the best chow. In some cities, Sally's - The Salvation Army - was good; in other places, Volly's - Volunteers of America - dished out the best meals. The brothers of the road passed this information along the jungle grapevine.

"The jungle was generally a clearing in a clump of bushes not far from the tracks. Some jungles were nothing more than a place for a camp fire; some had improvised cooking arrangements, crates and boxes to sit on, even mattresses to flop down.

"One of our finest jungles was in Sandusky, Ohio, not far from the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) tracks. Located beside a delightful brook with red and gold carp, this jungle was a mecca for road weary bums.

"The camp fire blazed high; the sparks shot up and became stars. Fireflies lit up the perimeter of the jungle. The stew pot was on; water from the brook was boiling. The hobos began to empty their pockets in preparation for a Mulligan stew. Do you know what goes into a Mulligan stew? I'll tell you what goes into a Mulligan stew! Whatever anybody has in his pocket, that's what you put into a Mulligan.

"One 'bo has an onion, he pinched from a fruit market; another has several potatoes and an ear of corn leased from a farmer's field. Edible greens are gathered and contributed to the pottage: Dandelions and sour dock; wild leeks and onions. Sometimes pigweed is found in abundance.

"Some bits and pieces of meat. A handful of navy beans carried in a pocket for a month. Cast every bean into the pot, along with a smattering of Bull Durham tobacco and lint.

"Dip in with your cans, men. Eat heartily and with bellies full take your ease and drowse.

"We sit around the glowing coals and swap tall tales of the road. Some of the 'bos drink bay rum or Sterno. Many talk of home and loved ones and the positions they held before the collapse of their world.

"As they leave the jungle to travel on, one fact they know for sure. Somewhere down the line another pot of Mulligan will be brewing, and tired, dirty, ragged and whiskered, they'll come to sit by the fire."


Man in hobo jungle killing turtle to make soup, Minneapolis, Minnesota]
Man in hobo jungle killing turtle to make soup, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: John Vachon, FSA, Library of Congress

Saying Good-Bye to Mother

Leslie E. Paul, Seattle, Washington
Leslie E. Paul's vivid memories of leaving home in the summer of 1933 begin on the back porch of his house in Duluth. He was 18 years old, newly graduated from high school, the son and stepson of railroad men.

"I stepped off the porch and turned right. My eyes searched for the one-armed railroad dick, who'd threatened to arrest me the next time I trespassed on railroad property. I was relieved when I didn't see him.

"I stepped from tie to tie, past the cinder pit and around the turntable. High school had been out a week, but I recognized a string of boxcars that had been there for days. I walked past the last boxcar, one hundred yards on to a pile of switch ties that stood parallel to the tracks. Each day for two weeks, going to school and coming home, I'd wondered what was in the bundle lying on the pile.

"I picked it up and unfolded it. It was a blanket sewn together to make a sleeping bag. A hobo had dropped it there.

"I knew then what I must do. It was the Depression; there was no work. I was a burden to Mother and Gus, my step-father. I took the blanket and hurried home. I said nothing to Mother then, only that I was going down to Scott's to get a flat fifty box of cigarettes. Ordinarily I was reluctant to add to the delinquent account; today I found abundant courage. Besides the tin of cigarettes, I asked for two sacks of Golden Grain. 'Charge it,' I said. Scott looked taken aback but said nothing.

"I returned home and told Mother I was leaving. She didn't fight it, but she was sad. Mother owned no suitcase or tote. All she had was a black satin bag, the size of a pillow case. I jammed my new sleeping bag inside it, three or four pairs of socks, shorts, an old sweater, the cigarettes and sacks of Golden Grain.

"Mother made two sandwiches. She went to her purse and gave me all the money she had: 72 cents.

"I gave Mother a big kiss and a long, tight hug. She said nothing, but the tears streamed down her face. I turned and left, the black satin bag over my shoulder. Had I been brave enough, I would've been coward enough to go back.

"I stopped at the roundhouse and found Gus working on one of the engines. Gus hadn't really been a father, but I owed him a lot. I had a roof over my head and there was always something to eat. I shook his hand and said goodbye.

"The freight yard was a terminal for trains going to Canada. My best bet was to go to Carleton, 19 miles away. The easiest way to get there was to walk.

"I crossed the tracks, climbed the fence and started up the hill to the highway. I turned around at the top. The tears came then, and one sob. The second one I swallowed. Every boy becomes a man, some younger, some older. I was eighteen and one week. Was I leaving little for nothing?"

Hopping a Freight in Texas: And Baby Makes Three


"D.L." Young, Youngtown, Arizona
"D.L." Young was the son of Texas sharecroppers, one of 11 children living on a 100-acre cotton farm near Fairlie, east Texas. In December 1934, when "D.L." was 18, six feet tall and all of 125 pounds, he hopped a train to Gainesville. At a New Year's Eve party, "D.L." met brown-eyed, brown-haired Thelma Jones, who was fourteen-and-a-half. Smitten at first sight, "D.L." began to hop the rails with a new purpose, courting Thelma all that winter and summer too. 


"With the consent of our parents, Thelma and I married in April 1935. We had to borrow the money to get our license. We didn't know where our next meal would come from, but we really loved each other and had courage to believe we could make a living.

Our first job was with Hubert Hansly at Wolfe City, Texas. Thelma and I cut a rick of wood for 25 cents each. It took us all day. We lived on $3.00 a week.

"We'd ride the freights to visit Thelma's folks at Gainesviile. Thelma put on overalls, a boy's shirt and a cap. On one trip, we climbed into a boxcar with two hobos, who were drinking white lightning from a fruit jar. We went to the back of the car and sat near an old colored man. The hobos got a little loud with their cuss words. The colored guy spoke out, telling them there was a lady in the boxcar; they were to stop their bad words. They did.

"It was day-light, when we got to Tom Bean City. The conductor and brakeman told everybody to get out of the boxcar and leave the right of way. The old colored man motioned for Thelma and me to move into the corner. The brakeman was short and couldn't see us. When we jumped off at Sherman, you should've seen the faces of the conductor and brakeman.

"By June 1937, we had a baby boy. We were having a real hard time, cropping cotton for one dollar a day, and picking cotton for 50 cents a hundred pounds. We saved our first 50 dollars, which we put in the bank at Wolfe City.

"We didn't own a car. Everywhere we went; we walked, hitch-hiked or rode boxcars. When our baby was four months old, we took him on his first boxcar ride to see my parents at Fairlie. We lived north of Wolfe City, 20 miles away, our house a mile from the tracks.

"The engine pulled 20 cars on a small high grade, going about 7 miles an hour. Thelma climbed into a boxcar. I ran along the right of way with the baby and handed it to her. Then I hopped in with them.

"When we got to Fairlie, it began to rain. My parents' house was two to three miles away; because of the muddy roads and cold rain, we stayed at the depot. We found everything locked up. We took the baby into the outhouse. I tore apart some cardboard boxes and put them over the seats. It was cold and damp inside, but we kept dry.

"We stayed at the depot for about five hours, until the freight came back on its way to Sherman. We sure rejoiced when we saw the headlight of the train.

"Nearly 50 years later, my brown-eyed girl and I went back to see the places where we used to catch the boxcars. We found they'd torn up the rails and had built highway #11, from Commerce, TX to Sherman, TX."


  Young family, penniless, hitchhiking on U.S. Highway 99, California - Photo: Dorothea Lange, FSA, Library of Congress
Young family, penniless, hitchhiking during Great Depression - Photo: Dorothea Lange, FSA, Library of Congress

What a Cruel Thing to do on Mother's Day

Claude Franklin, Kerrville, Texas

Wanderlust drove Claude Franklin, 13, his brother, Charles, 16, and their buddy, Robert Brookshire, also 13, to run away from their Fort Worth, Texas homes on Sunday, May 8, 1938.

 

"The Great Depression still plagued the entire United States. My family was having a hard time making ends meet, but I wasn't unhappy with my home life. I'd developed a wanderlust, hearing my two oldest brothers talk about riding freight trains to other states.

"The night before our departure, we put our extra clothes in paper sacks, sneaked them out of the house and buried them under bushes. We didn't want to carry a bundle or bag. That would be a dead giveaway.

"We set out after church on Sunday, and headed for the Texas and Pacific Railroad yards on the west side of Fort Worth.

"We knew our mothers would be worried sick, but we didn't leave a note. We didn't want them to stop us. What a cruel thing to do on Mother's Day!"

"My father had raised cotton in Mississippi. We decided we would go down to the Mississippi Delta, where we'd heard the cotton was tall and easy to pick. We saw ourselves making a pile of money. We took the Cotton Belt Line through East Texas and Arkansas. At Brinkley we switched to the Frisco Line and continued on to Memphis, Tennessee; then down to Mississippi.

"We got to Cleveland in the Mississippi Delta. Mama's younger brother, Tom, lived near the town of Pace, where people knew him as 'Bill Butler.' The law was after him for bootlegging. We had supper with Uncle Tom and his wife, Agnes. They knew we were just bumming around and didn't give us a warm reception. They weren't anxious to have three dirty boys, who'd been riding freight trains stay with them. We left as soon as we'd eaten dinner.

"We found a farm a few miles from Cleveland, where they needed cotton pickers. We asked for jobs and they said, 'OK, 75 cents a 100 pounds.' They'd a room where we could sleep and a lady who would feed us. We'd pay $10 a week, which would be taken out of our earnings.

"The next morning we went out to pick cotton. My back began to ache in 30 minutes. It didn't take much longer before my fingers became sore, with pricks and scratches from the cotton burrs.

"Cotton picking was hard work! When you get a good quantity of cotton in your bag, you take it down to the end of row where they have a scale and a wagon. You go back and start again. Your back gets stiff and sore. You have to stand up and stretch and all this time you aren't picking. If you aren't picking, you aren't making any money.

"A good picker would weigh up 40 or 50 pounds; my bag would be about 30 to 35 pounds. It took several weigh-ins for me to reach 100 pounds. At the end of the day, I had 150 or 160 pounds.

"Mid-morning on Friday, we'd had enough. We didn't know how many pounds we'd picked because we hadn't kept track ourselves. We thought that at noon we'd weigh up and ask them to pay us off. They paid on Saturday, but we figured that if we got them to give us our money on Friday, we'd take it and leave without paying for our room and board.

"They weren't dumb enough to let us get away with anything like that. When we told them we were quitting, the man said OK. He added up our weigh-ins and multiplied them by 75 cents per hundred. Then he hit us with a bombshell: 'Now, boys, we have to take out for your room and board.'

"Charles had 55 cents coming, I had 35 cents, and Robert was a nickel in the hole.

"We made our way back to Cleveland, Mississippi and caught a train for Memphis. By now it was late October, the nights were getting cold; we were growing weary of sleeping in boxcars, cotton gins and under bridges. We decided to head home."

Roving Boys and Gun-Toting Railroad Bulls

Weaver Dial, Seattle, WashingtonWeaver Dial's first ride in 1929 took the 12-year-old over the Cascade Mountains. He left Seattle with his friend, Emmy, at 11 one night; the roving boys reached the Auburn yards at 2, and began the eight-hour haul over the mountains shortly afterwards.

"There were no 'empties' going east of the Cascades. My friend Emmy and I clambered aboard a cattle car that was carrying a load of wooden blocks. We set about arranging the blocks, making a reclining chair on top of the pile. This was to be our seat, our comforter, our bed, for the next eight hours.

"Other passengers had already clued us in on a long tunnel ahead. Built in 1888 (an easy date for me to remember, as my mother was born that year), the tunnel avoided the 20-feet snow banks on the higher elevations. It cut over five miles from the old switch-back grade.

Steam era freight locomotive roars down the rails"It took two steam engines to propel the long string of cars through the tunnel. The front engine was puffing black smoke for all it was worth, with pungent fumes and lots of fire.

"By the time we got our bandannas over our noses, Emmy and I needed no flashlight to tell us that hot cinders were setting our clothes on fire. We kept busy extinguishing the hot embers, and sweating something fierce on top of the woodpile, as close as we could get to the roof of the tunnel.

"Let me tell you, that was a long ride. When we finally pulled out of that dark hole, our clothes were scorched, our faces black and grimy. We breathed the fresh mountain air, and life looked better.

"The helper engine disconnected and we began the run down the mountains. I'd never been east of the Cascades. It was a real eye-opener. When the train made a stop, I picked my first apricot off a tree. It gave me the feeling that I was in Arabia!

"This was my first trip and a memorable one. For the next eight years, I spent my summers as a guest of the railroads. I was out to see America and what I could get out of it."

On his travels, Weaver Dial and his friends had repeated run-ins with gun-toting railroad bulls, who taught them lessons they never learned in school.

"In San Francisco, we rode the back of a passenger train right into the depot. We'd just stepped off the coal tender, when we heard a voice, 'Stop, or I'll shoot!'

"Two railroad bulls hauled my partner, and I into a sub-station, and went through our wallets. After some lengthy questioning, they fined us $10. We only had three bucks between the two of us. They told us to get the hell out of there!

"We thought the San Francisco bulls were shakedown artists, until we hopped a freight out of Cheyenne, Wyoming. As the train began to crawl out of the yards, we took note that 'bos were scrambling off the boxcars. A railroad bull was walking down the top of the boxcars, checking for passengers hiding between the cars. Another bull was on the right side, and one more covering the left. Nobody rode that one out of Cheyenne.

"A gloom set over the would-be riders, until some jungle professor got the word out that you could catch the next train nine miles up the road. The grade was steep and the train had to slow down at a bridge. All began the trek up the nine-mile hill. Some had large packs on their backs, with sleeping gear and cooking pots. A farmer let us drink our fill of water at his well, and we made the rendezvous at the bridge.

"Several hours went by. I passed the time doing some cartooning in charcoal under the bridge. 'Here she comes!' somebody yelled.

"All hands scrambled for a boarding position along the tracks. Uneasiness set in when we spotted the engine had a helper. Two engines! She roared past us in a cloud of dust, and nobody was fool enough to grab for the iron ladders. A fireman waved from the engine cab, and showed us a mouthful of teeth, giving us the old Wyoming horse laugh.

"Some of the 'bos threw rocks at the jeering comedian. I saved my energy for the nine-mile walk back downgrade to the Cheyenne railroad yards.”


Boys hopping a freight train during the Great Depression
Boys hopping a freight train during the Great Depression  Photo: FSA/Library of Congree

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

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