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Plains Folk

Living like the Kings of Tramps

At dawn of the twenty-first century, prairie folk read in their weekly and daily newspapers that their communities were under siege by an invasion of tramps, hobos, who, when they were not engaging in outright crime, were a bad moral influence on boys and a terror to women. Newspaper editors routinely alerted people to the hobo menace. Officers of the law monitored the situation and, when provoked or pressured, acted with force.

Winter bracketed the hobo situation on the northern plains. Come spring it was time to check the railroad bridges and riverbanks for developing hobo camps. “Chief Gowland made a trip to the ‘jungles’ across the slough this afternoon to investigate the hobo camps in that vicinity,” the Fargo Forum duly reported on 25 March 1905. “While it is a trifle early, yet indications are that the box car tourist travel will be very heavy this season. Every train from the east brings a few hobos who have been wintering in the south and in the eastern cities.”

This was a typical report, establishing that the disreputables were outsiders and, by calling them “tourists,” trivializing their travels. They were not tourists. They were transient laborers, part of a national pool of surplus labor that rode the rails to seasonal opportunities for wages. Arriving on the prairies, some would find farm work once seeding started. Many others would linger in camps until August, when harvesting and then threshing would employ most all of them.

Editors knew this situation, but hobos made easy copy, and so they harped and carped about the hobo problem, and police had to act. Notably, the complaints did not come from the countryside. Farmers needed seasonal labor. The hobo menace was something cooked up by editors and townspeople.

The Jamestown Alert and that city’s police force were particularly hard on hobos. In early August1908--just before harvest got going--the editor declaimed, “A large gang of tramps, tourists, loafers and other undesirable strangers, who have been infesting the city the past few days were taken up by the police force yesterday afternoon. They were a motley bunch, of all descriptions, and the city can well afford to be rid of them. The entire police force took part in the raid, which was well managed. Those who gave straight stories and seemed to want to work were sent out of town, but the professional hobos were gathered into a dray and brought to the lock-up where they spent the night.”

“Two well-appointed camps were found with drawers, some fine cutlery, kitchen utensils, shelves for dishes, a good supply of meats and vegetables, salt, pepper etc., and were living like the kings of tramps. They took their baths twice daily and had regular wash days, hanging their clothes on the trees. They cooked on big kettles and pots and had a long table around which they gathered. The police have broken up their camp.”

“Five of the worst characters were sentenced to five days hard labor and early this morning, with long scythes were put to work cutting weeds along Fifth avenue.”

It was a yearly routine, and a show of force, in towns across the prairies, which kept up until the First World War. Then war demand absorbed surplus labor, and state and local authorities branded any transient laborer not working happily a Wobbly, that is, a trouble-making, anti-capitalist member of the Industrial Workers of the World. By summer of 1918 the Fargo police chief said he no longer had a hobo problem, and the newspapers turned their fire on the Germans.

This, then, was the disorderly underside of the wheat culture during the Great Dakota Boom. Hobos were not us. They were expendable.

-Tom Isern

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