Iowa's Hobo Convention

Thinkstock / Thinkstock

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

This week we’re heading to the Midwest to prove that there’s more than corn in Iowa.

National Hobo Convention and Museum

Hobos—transient workers known for hitching illegal rides on freight trains—got their start in the mid-1800s, just as the railroad became a powerful form of mass transit. At one time, there were thought to be hundreds of thousands of hobos crisscrossing the country, hopping off the train to look for temporary employment at nearly every stop. With so many strangers coming to town, local governments often passed powerful vagrancy laws to keep hobos moving along to the next stop. One night at a hobo “jungle” (campsite) in Ohio, someone hit upon the idea of starting a union, because a person couldn’t be prosecuted for vagrancy if they were carrying a union card. So Tourist Union #63 was founded (so-named because there were 63 hobos around the fire that night), allowing entrance to anyone as long as they paid their dues. In order to collect payments, enlist new members, and form a stronger bond, an annual hobo convention was organized and held in various cities across the country, before settling in Chicago for many years.  Then, in 1899, the railroad town of Britt, Iowa approached the Union and invited them to move the convention to the small town in order to boost the local economy.

Not unlike the Olympics, the National Hobo Convention starts with the ceremonial lighting of a fire. This campfire will remain ablaze throughout the entire second weekend of August as it has for 113 years. During the convention, special events like the hobo parade, a memorial at the hobo cemetery for those who have “caught the Westbound,” meals of Mulligan stew, and the naming of a new Hobo King and Queen—complete with the traditional Folger’s Coffee can crown—give these throwbacks to a bygone era a sense of community that they often miss in their travels.

In 1949, at one of the the largest conventions ever, an estimated 1800 hobos came to Britt. In 2013, there were more tourists looking to be a part of the festivities than there were guests of honor, a good illustration of the waning days of the hobo lifestyle. So if you’ve ever longed to hear tales of the open road from someone named Oklahoma Slim, Harmonica Spike, or Cinderbox Cindy, you better hop a ride to the 2014 convention.  But if you miss the convention, you can always stop at the Hobo Museum inside the old Chief Theatre in downtown Britt to learn more about hobo history.

See all the entries in our Strange States series here.