Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression

By Errol Lincoln Uys | Go to book overview

Hitting the Stem

Romantic ideas of life on the road vanished when a young hobo felt the first pangs of hunger. Pride and shame led many to go without eating for days, raiding garbage cans, picking up crusts of bread in the street, pilfering food. Finally they gave in and begged for a handout or a “lump, ” which they typically received in a sack. Sometimes they enjoyed a “knee-shaker, ” eating a meal on a back porch, and occasionally, a “sit-down, ” where they were invited inside the homes of sympathetic folks. In the lingo of old-timers, novice hoboes were also taught how best to “bum” a house or “put the arm on” passersby in the street.

The majority of homeowners and storekeepers helped the hard-luck kids. Sixty years later, the simplest acts of kindness were remembered by those who'd been half-starved and utterly dejected when they knocked at a stranger's door. Other kids, too, recalled seeing mothers and fathers help hoboes who came to ask for food. It was a lesson in giving that was never forgotten.

There were mean streets where young nomads were driven away without a crumb and towns where they were subjected to frontier-style justice. As young as sixteen, they were sentenced to work on chain gangs or labor on the “pea farms, ” and other fields where corrupt law officials supplied local growers with cost-free workers.

Destitute youths drifted from one shelter to another, paying for a bed at the YMCA when they had money, staying at the Salvation Army or other missions when they were broke. Some landed on “Skid Row, ” or in the newer “Hoovervilles” that proliferated in

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Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Preface 9
  • Introduction 11
  • Catching Out 45
  • John Fawcett 1936 67
  • Arvel Pearson 1930-42 82
  • Phoebe Eaton Dehart 1938 90
  • Hard Travelin' 99
  • René Champion 1937-41 122
  • Clarence Lee 1929-31 131
  • Tiny Boland 1934 138
  • About the Photographs 144
  • Hitting the Stem 145
  • James San Jule 1930-32 185
  • Jan Van Heé 1937-38 191
  • Clydia Williams 1932-35 201
  • The Way Out 207
  • Charley Bull 1930 246
  • Jim Mitchell 1933 255
  • Robert Symmonds 1934-42 264
  • References 271
  • Acknowledgments 289
  • Index 291
  • About the Author 303
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