Hobos exercise right to wander

Rail-hopping practice started with returning soldiers from Civil War

September 26, 2000|By Walter F. Naedale | Walter F. Naedale,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PENNSBURG, Pa. -- Betty Moylan, 58, sat on the steps of her motor home the other day and recalled how, while working at the national headquarters of an insurance firm in Connecticut, she became a hobo.

"I took my first freight-train ride. From Dunsmuir, California, to Roseville, California, roughly 350 miles," she said, recalling a vacation in 1993.

She went back to work as senior administrator for accounting operations at the insurance firm. Quit in 1995. Sold her home. Her sister in upstate New York sold hers, too.

Together, they bought the motor home. And together now, they wander the country.

Hoping to ride the rails.

Just for the adventure of seeing countryside that few have, except from a freight train out where only freight trains run anymore.

About 80 such wanderers showed up in this town in the Philadelphia suburbs for what they called the only such hobo gathering on the East Coast.

It was the ninth annual gathering, along a spur line that runs past the private Perkiomen School where tuition, room and board for seventh-graders through 12th-graders this school year clock in at $24,700.

It took place, as in past years, not only on school property but in the backyard of head of school George K. Allison. "He's a historian and a history teacher," said Michael Wampole, 49, the school librarian, "and understood the role [hobos] played in U.S. history.

"Couple that with the fact he is head of an international boarding school and [that] one of the things we do is expose these students to American culture."

So when a local hobo asked to hold the first gathering here, Wampole said, the school considered the request as a gift to its pupils.

`A hobo travels and works'

Wampole sports a foot-long beard like someone out of the dawn of hobo-ing, when soldiers at the end of the Civil War hopped freights to get home.

He has become a hobo, riding the rails now and then, anointed Great Grand Duke of Hobo Educators at the annual national gathering in Britt, Iowa, two years ago.

"There is a stereotype of hobos as winos," he said, sitting at a library table within sight of the gathering the other day, "and I don't see it."

As a good educator, he defined his terms:

"A hobo travels and works. A tramp travels and doesn't work. A bum doesn't travel or work."

He grew up in Anderson, Ind., and watched hobos come off nearby rails and get a day's work in his grandparents' orchards.

There's that same kindness here.

"What's neat about this town," he said, is that during the gathering "people drive by, drop off a bushel of food," while businesses donate portable toilets and such.

And in return, the hobos each night offer them free stew and stories and songs that would have made Woody Guthrie feel at home.

Karl Teller, 59, was the one who asked the schoolmaster about playing host to the first gathering.

"I drive a propane delivery truck six months a year," he said the other day, standing near one of the boxcars that the local freight railroad drops off for the gathering.

"I make enough to finance my hobo habit and pay to travel in a camper."

He lives in Spinnerstown, Pa., but, for the warm months, he drives across the country and he jumps the freights.

Why?

"For rivers and valleys that you couldn't see on a highway."

`A migrating worker'

What does he tell the Perkiomen School pupils?

The hobo, he said, "was a migrating worker, traveled from place to place to get work. He was never a homeless man. The hobo left home because of a problem."

Like Betty Moylan's father.

"He ran away from an orphanage at 15," Moylan said. "He hobo-ed 44 years."

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