During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment hit staggering levels and American families were desperate, men took to the road to find work – any work. They came to be called hobos, and many thousands of them ended up going impossible distances in their quest.
On Southern farms, there was likewise plenty of deprivation during the Depression. My father once recalled that during that era, there were whole years when he couldn’t remember his parents buying much of anything from a store – resources can get stretched when you have nine children to take care of.
On the Morgan family farm in rural Vienna GA, the hobos and vagabonds intersected with my family because of railroad tracks, within easy eyesight of the house and barns, that bisected the eastern crop fields.
The hobos needed food, and my Morgan grandparents sometimes fed them.
Those railroad tracks, if you followed them in both directions, led down to the ports of Savannah and Jacksonville on one end, and all the way up to Chicago and the Upper Midwest on the other. The hobos used the tracks to search for work along the way, riding freight trains when they could and walking when they couldn’t.
My uncles told a common story about how the hobos somehow knew my grandmother was a soft touch. They would approach the house, probably with hat in hand, and she would give them a meal in exchange for chores.
The mystery was: how did these threadbare strangers from far away, who were just passing through on their way to somewhere else, know that the Morgan farm above others was a likely place to approach for a meal?
Now, it wasn’t as if there wasn’t plenty of available labor around the farm already. In addition to my nine young uncles and aunts, there were at least two outlying homes where the farmhands and their families lived.
But my grandparents chose to help the strangers, and it is a source of enduring family pride that they did so.
In those days in the rural South, people were much closer to their churches – there were no giant federal welfare programs, and churches and individuals had an active hand in contributing to the care of the poor and needy. Charity literally started at home.
Years later, my uncles figured out why the hobos knew to approach the Morgan farm. They had noticed old rock designs along the railroad right of way that went past the farm. The designs were the work of human hands, and seemed to signify something as they obviously pointed toward the farm.
Somehow, they learned there was a hobo “sign language” used by those lonely men who tramped by. Among the symbols used by hobos back when were those that meant “kind hearted woman,” or “food for working,” or “sleep in barn,” along with other symbols that have since been documented by sociologists. (See the graphic above.)
Freight trains still rumble along the tracks in that same spot where the Morgan farm grew fields of cotton and peanuts and soybeans and melons. The wheels still squeal and creak as they go past, and the locomotives sometimes still blow a long nighttime whistle as they approach.
We can remember the freight line names on some of the cars that once slid past – Seaboard, Atlantic Coast, Southern Railway, Georgia Southern – but they are all extinct, all gone, all receding on the tracks in the far heat-wavy distance, like the faceless men who walked by for years on their way to somewhere, or perhaps to nowhere at all.
My grandparents must have given a sigh sometimes when yet another stranger approached the back yard, unwashed and with his belongings gathered into a sack hanging from his back, shoes scuffling in the dust, another mouth to feed.
Yet each of those men left behind a gift when they finished their meal and went on their way, so humble and unassuming: Even now, they help us know who are, and where we came from.