Hoboing During the Great Depression

Note: For more information about early 20th century life for Delaware children, and hoboing during the Great Depression, check these two articles – 1 and 2. For even more information about the Delawares there are several articles in the oral history sections .

The following article was written by Kathy Alseth (Kingston), based on a personal interview she conducted with her Grandfather, Clyde Wesley Creech Sr., on April 16, 1988:

Hoboing During the Great Depression

Hoboing was a special part of the American Great Depression years. Although many people left their homes out of necessity, their experiences on their own were often times adventurous, thrilling and more than interesting.

I was able to speak to a man who spent seven years of his life Hoboing across the United States. From 1935 at age 14 to 1942 at age 22, he saw 42 states from a boxcar. He remembers his experiences fondly and they gave him insight to the real environment of a Hobos life, insight unattainable from books.

Clyde Wesley Creech Sr.

in 1937, at age 16

Hobos often left home when they were very young.

“I was just a kid. I had no strings, no ties whatsoever to keep me in one place. I enjoyed myself, getting out and traveling, making my own way. ‘Course when I left home there was nothing in the house to eat because the folks had nothing. Then was the Depression times, and things was tough. I figured that if I got out, there would be one less mouth to feed. Maybe my Dad could give more to the other two kids and my mother and be able to take care of ’em and not have to worry about having to take care of me. ‘Course that a whole lot of the reason why I was on the road, why I was Hoboing around over the country.”

Family life was one of the major reasons young children left home throughout the United States. What they found after they left all depended on who and what they met along the way.

“I was always hooking up with a bunch of Hobos ’cause I was just a kid I could bum and get anything I wanted. I could get all the eats I wanted. There was not a question of eating because everybody would feed a young kid, and I was just a young kid, 14 years old.”

It was easy for youngsters to receive meals because of their age. Clyde rapidly learned to capitalise on this advantage.

“It was then that I was taught to pan handle and in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at that time, 1935, why a dollar a day was pretty good wages for most men I was hitting as much as 25 to 30 dollars a day. Then I was receiving anywhere from 5 to 6 meals a day so I was doing pretty good.”

Still, pressures of society did show up quite often. The younger hobos were often sheltered by more experienced bums. This protection was sometimes harmful.

“That’s my first time I ever got hooked up with dope, the only time in my life. I smoked one marijuana cigarette, and that was enough. We went into a bar, ‘course I was big for my age, and I passed myself off as 18 years old. I went into a bar at Cheyenne Wyoming and a colored man came up to me and he said, ‘You boys want to get drunk? I got some stuff that will make you drunk’ I says ‘fine’, well gee whiz, I had quite a bit of money on me, so I gave him a dollar for a cigarette. He went out and down the street, and I followed him. I seen him get it from a white girl. She swung into the curb, and he gave her a dollar, she handed him the cigarette. We smoked that, and boy, I tell ya I was on a good one, a good binge cause that was my first time.”

Of course not everyone was a bad influence. Being on the road enabled the Hobos to meet all types of people and there could always be a learning experience.

“I was travelling around with an old timer and he says, ‘well I’ll teach you the ropes on how to tell whenever you can get a handout or a sit down, whenever you go to a man’s house and ask for something to eat.’ We started out down the street, he’d just walk along, and he’d look across the street, ‘well now you go over there, you’ll get a sit down, he says, ‘I’m going over here, I’m gonna get a handout.’ A sit down was exactly that. You were invited in and fed a meal out of a plate. The handouts were similar to a sack lunch that you took and ate on your way. “He taught me how to read the signs on the houses and on the fences, or out along the railroad track where they piled up the rocks and where they took and put up a special way of telling other bums where they could find something to eat.”

These signs could be disastrous to those who provided the meals.

“Once you fed a Hobo, you would be hit by every Hobo that ever came along because he’d know about it. Some people wouldn’t feed a Hobo because they’s afraid they’d have to feed a lot of them, if they fed one, which was true.”

Clothing seemed to be a problem with many Hobos, being able to get clothes that would fit was a very slim chance. There were, however, agencies set up for this.

“My clothes were gotten mostly at the Good Will, they didn’t have so much at Good Will at that time, but there was the Red Cross, and at the Transient center they usually had some clothes around there that was donated by other people around town. We usually could find something to wear. There were always hand-me-downs. I never had a decent pair of shoes or decent clothes until I got to pan handling and made enough money to buy my own.”

Hoboing wasn’t isolated to single men, whole families were caught short in the depression, and forced to live the hobo life.

“I had seen men and women with two or three kids, small kids, everyone carrying a bundle or a box a stuff, hiking down the highway. I seen some of ’em throw their kids in a boxcar and jump in to ride the freight cars. Railroad bull caught ’em, why they caught ’em, and threw them in jail for a day or two. They had something to eat in jail at least.”

Hoboing was not the easiest for those with families.

“Nobody had nothing. After the depression hit, why everyone was in the same boat. Money was no good, there was no money. You got what ever Uncle Sam pays you to work on WPA.”

The WPA was what President Roosevelt set up for the men to work instead of giving them money to live on they had to work for what they got. It was helpful, yet for those needing more for their families, it didn’t quite cover it.

The Hobos in the Great Depression had an entirely different society. They shared their lives with each other. No one had anything. Those with homes and families pulled together to survive. The same was true with those who lived in the train box cars. They pulled one large family together which experienced it’s hardships and great adventures. Clyde remembered times when several Hobos would get together. Each would bum a certain type of food and they would make a large “sum gullion” or stew. Those experienced this family like bond remember it as good times despite the poverty of the situation. Carefree souls out for some adventure, and those that had no choice, seemingly received what they needed.


~Kathy Alseth (Kingston)