By Angela Stout

Last month we looked at our family’s involvement in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s Great Depression.  It was one way that our relatives tried to survive the Depression.  There were other survival ways that our relatives were involved in.  This month’s story discusses two other ways, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and being a hobo.

The WPA was a voluntary work relief program that President Franklin D. Roosevelt established in 1935 as part of his New Deal to help provide jobs for young men and to relieve families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression.Over its eight years of existence, the WPA put roughly 8.5 million Americans to work.  According to the internet, they built more than 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, constructed 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads and planted 24 million trees.  Once again, you can look at column 22 of the 1940 census to see if your family member served in the WPA.  At a quick glance, I found Herman Lee and Norman Medley as listing WPA on the census record.  Both were great, great grandsons of Joseph Roberts.

You may have also heard of “hoboes” during the Depression.  Actually, I learned that hoboes were first created after the Civil War was over.  They were Civil War survivors who were looking for work in the aftermath of the Civil War.  They were “homeless” and traveled to find work. Their chief mode of transportation has always been freight trains.  During the Great Depression, the number of hoboes greatly increased.  Millions of unemployed men became “hoboes,” men, and some women, who wandered in search of work.With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to hop a freight train and try their luck elsewhere.  Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who does not work at all, a "hobo" is a travelling worker.  Hobo, tramp and bum are sometimes misused by thinking they are all the same.  Hobo News, the early newspaper published by and for hoboes, described the distinction:  “A hobo is a migratory worker, a tramp a migratory non-worker and a bum is a stationary non-worker.”  We have family members who were hoboes during the Depression.

Life as a hobo was dangerous. Being poor and far from home and support was difficult.  Hoboes would move from town to town, often by railroad.  The railroad hired security staff, nicknamed “bulls” to keep hoboes off the trains.  The bulls had a reputation of being brutally violent against the hoboes.  Bulls would arrest or beat the hoboes with a club and sometimes throw them off the moving train, often to the hobo’s death.  Bulls were tough and hopping the train was risky.  Most hoboes would hide along the tracks outside the yard. They'd run along the train as it gained speed, grab hold and jump into open boxcars. Sometimes, they missed. Many lost their legs or their lives. As the train was reaching its destination, the hoboes had to jump off before a new set of bulls to arrest them or beat them up.  It is reported that at least 6,500 hoboes were killed in one year either in accidents or by railroad bulls.


One had to stay awake while riding on the top of a railway car or risk falling asleep and slipping off the train.  Some hoboes would use their belt to strap themselves onto the top.


Hopping trains was a risky task.  Hoboes would want to wait until the train was slowing up to hop it.


This is a picture of railroad bulls.  Bulls would sometimes have ink on their clubs to hit and mark a hobo.  Later when the hobo got off, they would have a mark and be arrested.  But even being arrested wasn’t so bad because you would be given hard labor but also food and a place to sleep.


To cope with the uncertainties of hobo life, hoboes developed a system of symbols, or a visual code. Hoboes would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to others in "the brotherhood". A symbol would indicate "turn right here", "beware of hostile railroad police", "dangerous dog", "food available here", and so on.  If a farmer was known to feed or hire hoboes, the hoboes would mark the lane with a sign that indicated friendliness.  Here is a chart with some of the symbols hoboes would use.


The hobo life must have been rough but my grandfather, Clavis Roberts, loved to tell stories from his time as a hobo.

He told of a story of he, and two other hobos were at a hobo camp.  He and one guy had taken a pie that was cooling on the windowsillof a house (without permission).  After they all three ate the pie, they told the third guy to go take the pie tin back and thank the nice lady.  Not knowing they had stolen it, he probably got an earful!

Clavis tells how he was once waiting in Memphis to hop a freight trainon his way to Ada, Oklahoma.  As the freight train started to speed up, Clavis started running across a peanut field towards the train.  As he was running, he grabbed and pulled up peanut vines.  Once he was on the train, he looked back and saw the black man who was hoeing the peanuts shaking his fist at him.  Clavis said he just smiled, waved, and ate peanuts all the way to Oklahoma.While in Oklahoma he stayed with his Aunt Roshie’s family.  He worked with the family in peanuts, cotton and other crops for the whole summer.  Sarah Roshie (Roberts) Sliger was a great granddaughter of Joseph Roberts who had migrated with her husband, Andrew Sliger, from Roberts Switch about 1918-1919. 


Here Clavis Roberts (far right) picking cotton with his cousins in Oklahoma that summer.


After Oklahoma, Clavis Roberts hopped a train to Michigan to live with his sister Carrie (Roberts) Boyd family.  He joined the CCCs while in Michigan.   


I wished I had asked my grandfather more about his hobo experiences while he was alive.  If you have any WPA or hobo stories you are willing to share, please email them to me!





This business is a member of