Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.
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.
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.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 20, 2020:
My grandmother was one who would always offer food and even collected clothing for the ones who would come to her door. They always wished to do some kind of work in exchange, and she would dream up something for them to do. It was how many people survived during the days of the Great Depression and even after that, for a time.
Jack Gatewood on April 05, 2020:
I remember very well in the late 40s or early 50s, hobos would come up to the back door of my grandparents house in Heavener, knock and wait patiently. My grandmother would make a big sandwich in exchange for a chore outside. Other than latching the screen door, she took no special security measures. An honest transaction. The "jungle' was north of the rip track in the KCS right of way.