In 2006, the most decorated hobo in United States history died.
Before you (mistakenly) connect the word hobo to the state of being homeless, consider the origins of the word: migrant workers who relinquished the idea of establishing a home in favor of traveling vagabond-style to various work sites. In post-Civil War America, hobos were vaulted to romantic levels of heroism, shaping the rugged identity of land beyond the Mississippi and taking on odd jobs that ended up building the vast American West. During the Depression, the romantic nature of being a hobo was replaced by desperation, as unemployed men ventured west for work.
The hobo lifestyle is one that requires skill, adaptability, and both a sense of place and lack of identification with a specific home. It’s not a lifestyle everyone can follow, but it’s one that “Steam Train” Maury mastered to a T. The National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, crowned him the “Hobo King” five times and in 2004 named him the “Grand Patriarch of the Hobos.”
Maury, whose real name was Maurice W. Graham, became the face of the hobo movement, whose disappearance from American life is as much a reflection of the changing American economy as it is of the changing nature of work. Hobos were once famous for hitching rides on freight cars that crisscrossed the country. But as those trains began to disappear, so too did the hobos.
Maury, however, was a dyed-in-the-wool hobo. He sported a beard, regaled people with stories of his travels over thousands of miles, and carried a walking stick topped off with a plume of owl feathers, according to his obituary in The New York Times.
The man who would reign supreme among hobos was born nearly a century ago in Atchison, Kansas. He had a tumultuous childhood, being handed off between family members and never staying in one place for too long—a trait that would later serve him well. He made the jump to the hobo life—literally—when he hopped onto a train at 14.
But Maury felt the pull of domestication for a bit. He eventually learned cement masonry, opening a school for masons in Toledo, Ohio. He later served his country as a medical technician with the Army during World War II. He married his wife Wanda, had a couple kids, and became a day laborer.
The open roads kept beckoning to him, though. Maury, who by now was in his 50s, had hip problems that made physically demanding work difficult, keeping him at home for long periods of time. He started getting on Wanda’s nerves. The friction drove Maury to remember his brief stint hobo’ing across the country, and so in 1971, he took a breather and snagged a freight train, hoping a little time away would help mend his body and mind. He figured he’d be back in a few weeks.
“What gets you hooked is the outdoors,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “A hobo is just a guy who went camping and never came home.”
He ended up being gone for 10 years.
In 1981, Maury swung by his home in Toledo again. He’d been crowned King of the Hobos, his hip hurt, and he wanted to come home. Wanda had all but decided he wasn’t returning, but when Maury called to ask her to dinner, she couldn’t refuse. And in the end, she couldn’t refuse Maury’s charm, either, which ultimately convinced her to stay with him.
But that didn’t stop Maury from becoming the face of hobos, an unofficial spokesperson for his tribe, noting that hobos were distinctly different from the homeless, alcoholics, and the criminal. “A hobo is a man of the world, who travels to see and observe and then shares those views with others,” he once said.
Maury spent his last years living mainly off social security and becoming a regular at Toledo-area schools telling children his stories; around Christmas, his flowing white beard meant he went from hobo to ho ho ho. But his hobo roots were never too far away: Maury co-founded the Hobo Foundation, helped establish the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa (where an annual Hobo Festival still takes place), and attained the unique title of Life King of the Hobos East of the Mississippi. In 1990, Maury penned a book, Tales of the Iron Road: My Life as King of the Hobos.
When a hobo dies, he is said to have “taken the westbound,” and on November 18, 2006, 89-year-old Maury caught the westbound after a series of strokes and a coma. The world lost the patron saint of hobos.
“He was a classy and respected man,” Linda Hughes, president of the Hobo Foundation, said at the time. “No one can live up to Steam Train. He’s irreplaceable.”