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Song of the Open Road


Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

So begins the much-quoted, essentially American poem, “Song of the Open Road,” by the essentially American poet, Walt Whitman--Leaves of Grass, 1856. It all sounds so beckoning as Whitman calls,

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d! Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d! Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher! Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

In addition to Whitman’s frame of mind, two circumstances framed what the poet said. First, he spoke for an era with a frontier yawning in the West. That was the “open” part of the open road. The “road” part, well, that was a road--significantly, not a railroad.

A half-century hence things were different. The frontier no longer yawned, it clenched its teeth--the natives of the land defeated and confined, their usurpers, a settler society, battling the industrial order and, more specifically, its railroads. Those railroads were the agents of change and also the new means of transport for men on the move--who were no longer hailed as frontiersmen or pioneers but rather derided as tramps or hobos.

Mind you, public rhetoric retained a certain patronizing tone of romance in reference to travelers without visible means of support. Newspapermen, echoing Whitman, still referred to them as “knights of the open road.” Now and then, here and there, journalists settled their verbiage on this or that knight and crowned him “King of the Hobos.”

In the autumn of 1912 South Dakota Agricultural College celebrated its first Hobo Day. The college, minding Whitman, “let the school stand” and cancelled classes. Students costumed themselves in rags and paraded as tramps. The college’s homecoming king and queen were titled the King of the Hobos and the Queen of the Hobos. On 31 October 2020 SDSU will again observe its century-old hobo homecoming, which it boasts as “the largest one-day event in the state.”

The same year that Brookings, South Dakota, celebrated a hobo heritage, the businessmen of Carrington, North Dakota, on 3 December, convened for a “jungle dinner,” the term referencing the hobo jungles under railroad bridges that were beginning to make respectable prairie folk nervous. Members of the Carrington Commercial Club, each carrying a tin can for his supper service, followed chalk marks on the ground to a winter picnic site. Following supper they were happy to repair to the regular commercial club rooms for a business meeting.

If you’re a regular listener to Plains Folk, you may remember that I’ve been rereading a classic work of agricultural history by Earl Hayter entitled The Troubled Farmer: Rural Adjustment to Industrialism, 1850-1900. Hayter identifies hobos, or tramps, as one of the signs of the times that bedeviled rural folk. At first, he writes, the tramps “were generally respected by rural inhabitants, who gave them food and lodging just as they would have done for any stranger coming into the community.” Hard times and increasing numbers made hobos more visible and less welcome, even scary. In this sense the celebrants in Brookings and Carrington were facing their fears. The tramp problem would became a favorite topic of prairie editors, as subsequent Plains Folk essays will detail.

-Tom Isern


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