KEARNEY — Historian Nathan Tye recalled a term he found in an edition of the Kearney Hub — printed a century ago — to describe the influx of migrant workers in central Nebraska.
“There would be a pool of guys coming in on boxcars,” he said. “You’d hire them on for a couple of days to help with a building project or something. They were the source of casual labor in the state for a long time.”
Tye researched the topic of hobos and transient labor in the Great Plains for his dissertation. He will present information about his research at noon on Wednesday at Kearney Public Library as part of the Brown Bag History Series. His lecture,“Confronting the ‘Annual Plague of Hobos:’ The History of Transient Labor in Nebraska, 1870-1930,” explores the men and women who harvested wheat, shucked corn, laid steel rails and fulfilled the state’s need for seasonal casual labor
The plague of hobos often caused great concern for upstanding residents.
“That actually comes from a Kearney Hub article from the teens,” Tye said of the term. “The problem was that a large group of men passed through on a seasonal basis. A colleague of mine described them as ‘indispensable outcasts.’ Farmers couldn’t harvest without them. They needed a certain number of men to work for them, especially before mechanization. You needed a lot of guys to harvest your wheat and thresh it.”
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Poorly paid, these individuals lived on the margins of society.
“They’re doing what they needed to do to survive,” Tye said. “It’s funny now, but farmers would talk about chickens coming up missing when the hobos came through.”
As a historian, Tye wanted to examine the lives of the people who tramped through Nebraska to better understand the role they played in the formation of our society.
“We’re a rural state,” he said. “Back then most people farmed. And they knew that they would have to have hired hands on occasion, but folks usually didn’t think about them having a history. You might have a guy on for a season. Your grandmother or grandfather might remember the threshing crews coming through with a steam thresher. But you might not think about them having a history or what their larger story might be.”
Farm families often relied on one another to help with projects. During harvest, everyone had the same project to accomplish.
“At that time you needed more men,” Tye said. “You couldn’t rely on the local community, so you would put out a call to help harvest your wheat. And these transient men would come in for a week or two, doing the work and passing on. Those were hobos; riding the rails and following the harvest.”
The workers often started in Oklahoma and progressed north as the crops matured.
“They would end up on the Canadian prairies,” Tye noted. “During winter they would go to larger cities in what we think of as Skid Row neighborhoods — The Bowery in New York City, the Near West Side in Chicago, what is now Gene Leahy Mall in Omaha but was Jobbers Canyon in Omaha. That was Nebraska’s hobo capital.”
Hobos also helped build the railroads.
“They dug ditches, graded roads — anywhere you needed manual labor that was typically poorly paid, and the jobs didn’t last that long, there would be a pool of guys that would be coming in.”
While some of the hobos traveled for economic necessity, others took to the road for additional reasons.
“It might be a ‘thing’ for a summer,” Tye said. “Local boys would travel all over the Midwest and Mom kinda knew that they were doing this to help support the family. College students did it during the summer, much like detasseling crews work now. And then there were folks who didn’t necessarily want to live in the ways that society demanded. There were a lot of would-be tramp poets and Bohemian folks riding the trains.”
Author Jack London came through Nebraska when he was a hobo, writing about his experiences.
“His diaries survive and you can read his entry when he was passing through Grand Island,” Tye said. “Carl Sandburg was a hobo. That very much influenced his attitude towards labor and the common folk. He also passed through Nebraska. There are a lot of other, more obscure authors who wrote about their experiences. They learned a lot about themselves, about America and about society, things that would impact them throughout the rest of their lives.”