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Hobos: The Drifters of Oklahoma

Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.


Origins of Oklahoma's "Golden Age" of Hobos

During the 1930's, Oklahoma was in the midst of a major economic collapse. The Great Depression took a huge toll on almost everyone across the United States. Almost immediatly following, western Oklahoma and the plains states was hit hard by the Dust Bowl. This duel onslaught caused widespread panic everywhere, radiating out far beyond the reaches of those areas immediatly affected by the dust bowl.

Many Oklahomans fled west to California and greener pastures, while others stayed to battle the elements. Then there were others who could do neither. Mostly, those were the ones that had lost everything and had nowhere else to turn. Many of those people became the iconic hobos of lore.


The Early Years

Ever since the first railroads began to creep across the Indian Territory, transient drifters followed. More commonly known as Hobos, these wandering drifters crossed the country in order to seek a cure for their wanderlust, settling down and seeking work whenever it suited them.

For many, this began as an adventure. Most of the hobos prior to the Great Depression were young thrill-seekers who sought to see the world. After the Great Depression, for many, this simply became a way of life. Roaming from "Jungle" to "Jungle", these men followed the rails in search of work and a better life.

Even before the 1920’s, hobos were a frequent sight along train routes. However, as the rest of the nation entered an economic slump, hobos migrated towards places where work was to be found.

The name "Hobo" first started appearing in the early 1800's. Before the Civil War many hobos had taken to the rails as a way of life. Around the time of the war, railroads were being built at an astonishing rate. In the early 1870’s, there was more than between fifty thousand miles of track laid throughout the United States.

During the late 1880's, the economy entered into a depression. Times were hard and hoboes took to the rails in great numbers. As in any depression, very few people had the extra money for travel. By today’s standards, train tickets were very cheap, but back then even one dollar was more than some people made in a month. Because of this, many people many people took to "riding the rails" in order to find work to support themselves and their families.

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Hobo Stories of LeFlore County: A Glimpse in Time

After the St. Louis and San Francisco railroad was constructed through Oklahoma, hobos began to trickle in to Poteau and LeFlore County. Most of them came from the industrial northern states, where work was hard to find. During this time, many towns in LeFlore County, especially Poteau, were in a state of economic boom. This economic boom also continued throughout the 1910's and 1920's. With plenty of work, beautiful scenery, and hospitable citizens, Poteau must have seemed like utopia for many of these drifters.

Every hobo had a specialty trade that they were highly skilled at. Some would repair shoes, while others worked the iron. If nothing else, they could hoe a garden for a little something to eat. Many could play good music with a guitar or harmonica. It was not uncommon to see a hobo standing in the rear of a house drinking a cup of coffee and eating a sandwich, standing up, and then doing a little chore for the donor of the coffee and food.

Shortly before America's involvement in World War 1, hoboes were running rampant, trying to get into a stable work force and maybe settle down. While some did, the number of hobos in the United States continued to grow.

By the 1920's, as the economy entered into a boom period, many people began riding the rails more for enjoyment rather than from necessity.

Hobos could be seen near every railroad depot in LeFlore County. In Howe, across from the depot to the east, was a popular hobo "jungle" known as Hobo Bottoms. Hobo Bottoms was located on the south side of the Rock Island Bridge that spans Morris Creek. It was a large area that resembled acres of jungle, full of tall grass, head-high sunflower plants and black walnut trees where many hobos lived.

Typically, hobos looked to make camps in places such as this. Called "Jungles", these places provided a safe place for the hobo camps. It can be said that a hobo's life was plagued by policemen, known as “bulls”, as well as unsanitary conditions. In fact, it was these unsanitary conditions that the hobos lived in that caused one of the worst disasters to hit Poteau.

In 1921, John Ed McClure arrested a hobo just outside of Poteau. He had been arrested for vagrancy and thrown in the old Poteau jail on McKenna. The hobo warned authorities that he had smallpox but the Deputy Sheriff did not believe him. Instead, John thought that it was just a ploy to get out of jail.

Because of this, several others in the jail caught smallpox from the hobo. John, his wife Dorthula, and their two sons, Richard and Arnold, all died in the smallpox epidemic that followed.

Hobos would continue to ride the rails for years to come. It wouldn't be until both the Frisco depot and the KCS depot ceased operations in Poteau that hobos would slowly disappear from the landscape.

Hobo Secret Sign Language


© 2017 Eric Standridge


gatewood jack on December 18, 2017:

I the late 1940's and early 1950's, there was a hobo jungle in the KCS yards north of Heavener. My grandfather, Jack Brock, was in charge of the yards and car repair shop in that area. He would walk through the jungle now and then to see what was going on, checking for things like theft. He sometimes took me with him but told me never, never to go there alone. Hobos would sometimes come to the backdoor of his home in Heavener. Grandmother would give them a sandwich and a glass of milk if they would weed the garden, etc. She said they were always polite, but she always locked the door from the inside.

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