Hoboes in Early Montgomery
Montgomery's location adjacent to the main line of the C-B&Q railroad and our low level of law enforcement made it an ideal stopping off place for "the Knights of the Road" better known as the Hobos. In addition to these factors, there was the abandoned amusement park at the south end of town and large undeveloped tracts of land adjacent to the railroad tracks.
Driven by desperation and despair brought on by the Great Depression, it was a genre of our society that lasted but a decade from the onset of the Depression to the total employment of the 1940 war years.
The reasons for these men being on the road are as many-faceted as their numbers. In the following paragraphs I will relate some of my contacts with these men.
Our youthful curiosity led us to talk to these men when the occasion presented itself. Some would talk and some would not. We learned some of the Hobos' names from one of the men. Two of these names still stand out in my mind. Jake the Twister was known as such because of the fact he put sterno "canned heat" into a Turkish towel and twisted it to extract the alcohol for drinking. Another man was pointed out to us as Kentucky Red. We were warned to stay away from him because he was mean.
My position of helping my father and uncle in our grocery store was another source of contact with the Hobos. Hardly a day went by that some were not in to know if there were any odds or ends to be had. We did what we could to help them and nothing went to waste. There was one exception, if they had been drinking they were out of luck. Many were the times we were asked if we had any Hoover overcoats, i.e., any old newspaper to spread on the ground to sleep upon. On Sunday morning we would grind coffee into bags costing 15¢. It seemed that was the amount they would spend. On one occasion while I was helping my uncle Barney, a Hobo came in and wanted to buy a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Knowing what he wanted it for, my uncle refused to sell it to him. When the Hobo persisted my uncle got mad and told him to go ahead and take it with the warning that it would kill him. About an hour later the man came back for another bottle. He said he had given it to a friend and it hadn't killed him so he was going to have one…nothing like testing the water.
There was one Hobo who would come through Montgomery in the month of May and would spade our garden. For the service, my father paid him $5, which at that time was a good day's wage. This lasted for about 3 years and we never saw the man again.
One of the men was selling a little gizmo he had made himself, a U-shaped wire with a spring coiled on the outside inserted in the end of a curtain rod. It prevented the rod from snagging the curtain. It was quite ingenious; my mother used it for several years.
One of their camps was on the rail spur behind Stafford's Auto and Aurora Blacktop long before they occupied these sites. On the coldest days of the winter, you would see the smoke from their campfire. There was a spring there to provide them with water.
As I sit waiting at the rail crossing today, the trains seem quite sterile. It was a real geography lesson to read all the names and origins of the wide variety of train cars that went by. With the consolidation of the railroads and the advent of the unitized trains, this is all a thing of the past. There are no Knights of the Road to wave or be waved at.
The containerized shipments on their way to Wal-Mart just don't seem to have a personality. To me it's rather sad. The Hobos and the old days of riding the rails certainly added an interesting element to old Montgomery.