ALL...ABOARD!: Tramp House
On March 12, 1878, Hopkinton voters authorized up to $200 to be spent on building two tramp houses, one in each village. The town report of 1879 indicates a prompt response with payments to various individuals for lumber, labor, nails, blacksmith work, bedding, and rent of land for “tramp’s house.” This expenditure was most likely in response to a large increase in numbers of itinerants occurring locally and nationwide, many being Civil War veterans who, for various reasons, found themselves unable or uninterested in returning to their previous homes and lifestyles. The nation’s economy was in shambles and many of these men were looking for some way to scratch out an existence. Many were rail-borne, some getting work building and maintaining the country’s ever-expanding system of railroads and others riding the rails to short-term jobs in fields and factories, near and far away. With each succeeding down-turn in the economy, the number of transients nationwide would temporarily increase, especially leading up to WWI and again during the Great Depression, at which time it is said that more than a million men, as well as women and children, became American hoboes.
Backstory and Context
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Most hoboes were honest people who simply wanted to find decent jobs. They gathered in camps known as “jungles,” usually located on the sunny side of hills for warmth, with trees and brush for shelter and a source of water for drinking, bathing, and washing their clothes, and within walking distance of railroad tracks. They often shared a meal, such as a “mulligan stew,” made by boiling water and adding scraps of meat and vegetables, each person contributing whatever he might have. Hoboes would always clean their camp area before moving on. They did not steal from each other, although gangs of robbers targeted hoboes on known pay days. Hoboes formed a loose brotherhood and developed a code of symbols, sometimes engraved on fence posts, to indicate matters of survival such as where food, meals, or a place to sleep might be offered, where work was available, where medical help might be found, and where dogs or police officers hung out.
As is human nature, the itinerants themselves developed a hierarchy with the label “hobo” indicating superiority, one who works hard and moves quickly, “tramp” meaning one who loafs and walks, and “bum” defining one who loafs and sits. It is certain that hoboes boarding a moving train (once it was out of the range of the railroad police) and riding it safely (sometimes lying on rods underneath a boxcar) demonstrated strength, skill, initiative, and resilience, traits that many employers might value highly. In fact, the hoboes among us have included such highly successful individuals as TV host Art Linkletter, oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, writer Carl Sandburg, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
Here in Hopkinton, the two tramp houses offered itinerants shelter over many decades, with various repairs recorded as late as 1934. A town Tramp Department existed in the early 1900’s to assure help for tramps. The 1914 town report shows that Oscar N. Chase had been paid $45.00 for the care of 180 tramps and Frank H. Mills had been paid $40.25 for the care of 161 tramps. Taxpayers paid an additional $19.50 for wood and $4.00 for bedding while H. P Wilson was paid $2.00 for rent of the land for the tramp house. The 1915 town report included an article for the town meeting, “To see what action the town will take in relation to tramps, and pass any vote relating thereto.” The statistics recorded in that annual report included Oscar N. Chase being paid $87.50 for the care of 350 tramps and Frank H. Mills being paid $61.25 for the care of 245 tramps. Costs for wood, quilts, food, coffee, and rent had brought the Tramp Department expenditures to a total of $205.25. By 1918, the town report no longer showed a Tramp Department but rather oversight of tramps under the Police Department (with Oscar N. Chase and Frank H. Mills continuing to be involved). Starting in 1918, the town property list included “tramp house and cage” and these continue to be listed through the 1920’s; starting in 1930, more generic terms such as “town hall, lands, and buildings” replaced specific listings. After 1946, care of tramps is no longer mentioned in town reports.
Recently (March 11, 2020), Fritz Wetherbee on WMUR’s Chronicle, told about tramps and tramp houses in New Hampshire. Although tramps were prevalent in his childhood, Fritz said he hadn’t seen a tramp for about 60 years. Most of the tramps he knew had regular routes, passing through town at the same time each year; townspeople often looked forward to seeing them. Many New Hampshire towns once had tramp houses, but he knows of only three that remain standing, located in Richmond, Dunbarton, and Weare. Showing the small nicely repaired and restored one in Richmond, he reported that they usually contained a pallet to sleep on and a small woodstove, being a place to get out of the elements.
In speaking with current and recent residents of Hopkinton, only a few remember glimpses into this era of the town’s history. One recalls that her mother had told her to come right in from playing outside if a man looking a little different came around. Another remembers seeing tramps near the stream by his family home on Main Street but they didn’t approach and he didn’t fear them. A man who worked daily at the railroad station during his high school years (late 1940’s/early 1950’s) did not see any tramps riding the trains; a classmate who also worked occasionally at the station remembers seeing tramps in the area at times but they didn’t engage socially; he had been brought up to respect tramps and never thought ill of them. He also recalled a local resident who had once lived as a tramp and had written of his many fascinating adventures. Another man recalled that his mother would offer food and clothing to a few of the tramps and that the same tramps would return periodically; they were quiet, neither friendly nor frightening to him although he said that many townspeople were afraid of them. He also admitted to hitching a few rides on the rail himself as a youth, actually being given a hand to board by the conductor as the train slowed for Spring Street; he would go visit an aunt in Melvin Mills, or, with a buddy, enjoy a day in Warner, coming home by same day return train. Memories of life in Little Tooky in the 1940’s were shared by one of the ladies who lived there for many years. Although she questioned their wisdom, some of the women who lived by the River all summer, while their husbands worked out-of-state during weekdays, provided meals for some of the tramps coming into town. Perhaps if one searched the area even today, the code for “good for a handout” or “kind women” might be found with directional arrows faintly tooled on a fence post near the location of the Contoocook tramp encampment.
While it is unlikely that Hopkinton's Joe Cornett spent any nights at the Tramp House in Contoocook, we are including his story here as part of the larger story of increased transience during periods of economic downturn.
During the Great Depression, it is estimated more than a quarter of a million teens left their homes in search of a job, a better life, and perhaps an adventure. Two such young men were Joe Cornett (1912-1996) and Howard Keats of Hopkinton. They decided to head to California when they were both about 18 years old. Joe ended up travelling for about six months before returning home to Hopkinton. His story is part of an oral history compiled by Craig Bohanan.
There was a kid named Howard Keats, 17 or 18 years old — around my age — lived down in Hopkinton on the main road towards Concord; wanted someone to go to California with him. He didn’t have much money and I didn’t either — had about $55.
We started in summertime. We took some food with us, we took blankets and we took junk. First day or two I thought: what the hell am I doing here? But about the third day we were sleeping on the side of the road and the sun came up and it was a lovely day and from then on in the trip was okay. Near the Continental Divide the damn car broke down — we put a connecting rod through the crankcase. Anyway, we got this car all put back together and finally got to Venice, California where Howard’s mother was living. This was during the Depression so it was very difficult to get work. We’d mow lawns for a quarter and went up to Culver City to try to get work at Metro-Goldwyn; get work at a labor job. You had to have a hammer — you couldn’t get a job without a hammer. Had to have it for knocking sets apart or something. I never did get a job there.
Finally what happened was a kid named Johnny Krause who came from Sheboygan, Wisconsin — Johnny wanted to go home and it was suggested I go with him. Howard says: “I don’t think you ought to go, Joe.” But I decided to. So we started out next morning bumming down the highway to Indio, California, a railroad town. We found the jungle, the hobo camp, and there were maybe 30 kids there. When a train comes by they say “everybody out!” and out we went. We got to a little town in Arizona called Maricopa and there they shook the train down — now shaking a train down is when the brakeman and the railroad dick go down the train and put all the bums off. By the time we got to Tucumcari there’s 29 of us traveling together. 29 of us slept on the jailhouse floor there. A thirtieth came in and had no place to lie down.
Then Johnny wants to go to Chicago to get to Sheboygan, but I want to stay south, because it’s getting cold. So I say goodbye to Johnny and get a train for St. Louis. The car I’m in is all lined with paper so I tear the paper down, wrap myself up in it to try to keep warm, because it’s November or December now, see. In St. Louis they had this place for homeless men called the Helping Mitt. You could go in there, get a bath, get your clothes deloused, see a doctor, get something to eat. You could stay 2-3 days, but I didn’t stay that long.
In East St. Louis around dusk I’m waiting for a train and a police car comes up and the policemen says: “What are you doing there?” I told him I was waiting for a train and he says: “Well, that’s a hell of a place to wait! They’ll kill you for the coat you got on. They shot a man right by that electric light pole a couple of nights ago. You better come up to the station.” Next day I say to myself: I think I’ll try the highway.
I finally got to Indianapolis, then Dayton, and into Wheeling, West Virginia. I went to Harrisburg then across the Hudson and up to Port Jarvis. I went in a diner there. They invite me into the back room and it’s a speakeasy! Place is loaded with guys. This kid takes a suitcase, fills it with bottles of booze, opens a drawer, takes out a revolver and starts filling it with shells. They’re going to run booze into New York along the same route Legs Diamond took before he was shot.
Finally I get into Boston. It was snowing and I had no rubbers and my feet were wet and cold and I got a ride to Lowell. I didn’t want to buy a railroad ticket, but I went down to the station and asked the man what it would cost to get to Concord. He told me and I got enough money — I got 19 cents left over! So I bought the ticket and got into Concord. Rafa Story was there and by Christ he gave me a ride home!
Bohanan, Craig. Oral histories of Joe Cornett.
Chiles, James R. “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 31, 1998.
Hix, Lisa. “Don’t Call Them Bums: The Unsung History of America’s Hard-Working Hoboes.” collector weekly.com, April 16, 2015.
Hopkinton Town Reports, 1878 – 1947.
Lord, Charles Chase. Life and Times in Hopkinton, N.H. New Hampshire Antiquarian Society, 1991, p. 176.
Wetherbee, Fritz. Tramp House in Richmond. WMUR: NH Chronicle, March 11, 2020.
Hopkinton residents: Tom Johnson, Tom Krzyzaniak, Doris Price, Ken Smart, Erwin Smith, and Sue Strickford.
Photo credit Craig Bohanan