Iowa Public Television


The National Hobo Convention & Museum, Britt, Iowa

 Dan Kaercher:  A hobo's life is transient but the life and history of the hobo are forever honored in just one place, the North Central Iowa town of Britt.  At the tail end f the 19th Century, Britt's railroad brought a new type of tourist to the community.  The town's founding father saw an opportunity to boost Britt's visibility when a struggling convention needed a new home.  A home for thousands of people without a home of their own. 

 Linda Hughes:  Our founding fathers here in Britt, Potter, Way and Bailey was their last names, saw it in the Chicago paper that they no longer wanted to hold this - it was called Tourist Union 63 Convention out there.  So these three men thought hey, maybe we could put Britt on the map by inviting the hobo to Britt.  And the first hobo to come was Onion Cotton.  They had a big party for him out at the fairgrounds.  He agreed that Britt would be the home of the National Hobo Convention and that was 112 years ago.

 Dan Kaercher:  Now hobo that is an interesting word.  I wonder why were these men called hoboes?

 Linda Hughes:  The word hobo actually comes from hoe boy.  After the Civil War he went home and he found that his home was no longer there.  So, he grabbed his hoe, his shovel, and he would go out and look for farm work.  Well, hoe boy turned into hobo. 

Dan Kaercher:  Every August, Britt welcomes back old hoboes and new tourists alike.  There is an outdoor market during the convention for those looking to snag the newest treasure.  But the real draw is the Chief Theatre.  The Britt landmark was purchased by the Hobo Foundation for one dollar in 1988.

 Linda Hughes:  It started with a just a small box of artifacts and today our building is pretty full.

 Dan Kaercher:  The exhibits at the museum illustrate the origin of the hobo and showcase a certain pride in this unconventional way of life.  Due to economic factors the hobo population peaked during the Great Depression as thousands of people rode the rails looking for opportunity.  But don't confuse a hobo with a bum. 

 Linda Hughes:  A hobo is one who travels and works.  A tramp will travel and a bum will do neither.  So, you never want to call a hobo a tramp or a bum.  Iowa Blackie was probably the most famous hobo in Iowa.  He actually started to hobo when he was 13 years old.  He hopped a freight train.  By the time he was 17 he was hoboing full time.  He had the love of the train.  He had the love of the hobo and he lived that life.  He was a hobo through and through.  Well, last February we did loose Iowa Blackie.  He caught the Westbound.  We got his leather jacket.  We got a couple of his journals.  It kept track of his travels.  His hobo way of life.  Everything about his life were in these journals. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Iowa Blackie was crowned King of the Hobo Convention in 1993.  Every year the people of Britt and its adopted citizens still gather for a special coronation. 

 Linda Hughes:  Well, on Saturday afternoon of Hobo Day everybody gathers at the city gazebo and the candidates get up and give a two minute speech and whoever gets the longest and loudest applause is the new king and queen of the hoboes.  The king wears red.  The queen wears blue.  They each wear a Folgers coffee can crown. 

Dan Kaercher:  And when can people visit this museum?

 Linda Hughes:  The Hobo Museum is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  Our hours are from 10 in the morning until five in the afternoon.  We also will take tours by appointment or if someone wants to call through the year, I will bring them through.

Dan Kaercher:  After you tour the museum you can explore the rest of Britt's hobo heritage.  View the queen's flower garden and meet up with some past hobo royalty, Connecticut Shortie and New York Maggie, the pair are the only sisters to be crowned hobo queens of the convention. 

 Connecticut Shorty:  The queen's gardens were built and maintained by Mary Jo and Linda Hughes.  And there is several different queens here that have gardens.  A lot of the queens pick their own flowers.  If you look at them close you can usually find the name of who they have been dedicated too.

 Dan Kaercher:  Outlining the gardens is a beautiful walkway comprised of engraved bricks.  The names on the bricks include Britt townspeople, hoboes, and friends of the hobo.  The path leads to more memorials placed throughout the small park. 

Connecticut Shorty:  This brick walk is a combination of local Britt people and hoboes.  And since their history has been entwined for 111 years, it is only fitting that they have bricks together in this walk.

 Dan Kaercher:  From there head off to the Hobo Jungle and see some interesting symbols as New York Maggie explains. 

 New York Maggie:  Well it could be folklore.  It could be true that hoboes marked houses if there is a cat marked on your house it means kind lady lives here.  Safe camp an "X" with a little campfire. 

 Dan Kaercher:  The Hobo Jungle is on the north side of Britt appropriately near the railroad tracks.  During the Hobo Convention it is "the" center of activity. 

 Connecticut Shorty:  This Hobo Jungle fills up with hundreds of people really. 

 New York Maggie:  Any hobo that wants to get up and entertain, sing, do poetry; the hoboes are the main entertainment for the evening.  We also set up a kitchen and feed the hoboes all weekend long as well as the town folks.

 Dan Kaercher:  End your day in Britt as the Hobo Cemetery.  It is a small section in the Evergreen Cemetery reserved for hoboes who have caught the Westbound Train. 

 Connecticut Shortie:  When a hobo dies, he catches a train heading west which is where the sun sets, in the west.  All good hoboes go to Heaven.  God knows that hoboes have to ride.  So he allows them to ride the tails of the comets and the shooting stars.  So whenever you see a streak of light across the sky, it might just be a hobo riding by. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Britt keeps the spirit of the wanderer alive today.  A home for everyone who is always looking for the next adventure waiting around the bend.


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Tags: Britt Chief Theatre Evergreen Cemetery Hancock County Hobo Cemetery Hobo Day Hobo Foundation Hobo Jungle Hobo Museum Hobo Museum & Festival hoboes hobos Iowa Iowa Blackie IowasSimplePleasures National Hobo Convention relaxation tourism travel Westbound Train


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