The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Where Have All The Hobos Gone?

By Russel E. Pangle © 1985

Issue: May, 1985

Waynesboro, Virginia was a good Hobo town when I was a youngster. When the cold winds stopped blowing from the northwest and the southerly winds began to urge new growth of the trees the Hobos would soon appear.

I saw my first Hobo in early May of 1931. He was standing near the gate that opened into the alley from our backyard on Grayson Avenue. He almost scared me to death.

I was six years old on December 23, 1930, too young to start to school that year, so I was at home with my Mama and two sisters that early May morning in 1931.

Mama told me to get some wood that Dad had chopped and stacked by the back gate so she could fix fried potatoes and gravy for us for lunch. I had an arm full of wood when I raised up and came face to face with a tall man leaning over the gate. I dropped most of the wood I was holding as I ran for the house to tell Mama.

I'll never forget how calmly my Mama told me, "You don't need to be afraid, he's just a Hobo".

Then my Mama told me to go to our cellar and get two Irish potatoes and two sweet potatoes and try to find a good onion. Our house was built on a ten degree slope, so we had a nice deep cellar, which had an entrance under the back porch. We had "tater bins" built of rough lumber. The Irish potatoes were sprinkled with lime and were lying on the boards. The sweet potatoes and onions were on a thick layer of wheat straw.

I didn't mind getting the Irish potatoes and the sweet potatoes because I knew they would still be solid in the dark coolness of the cellar, but the onions always managed to rot about that time of year. Have you ever stuck your finger in a juicy rotten onion? It takes weeks for the smell to leave your hand.

I ran down the back steps and into the cellar. As I ran I glanced toward the alley and saw that the Hobo was watching me. I took the potatoes and onion back to my Mama and she wrapped them in a sheet of newspaper.

Then Mama spread thick strawberry preserves on two biscuits and laid crisp fried strips of side meat right in the preserves then closed them and wrapped them in a piece of waxed paper.

I was so scared I could hardly breathe as I approached the back gate with the food. The Hobo unwrapped the biscuits and after folding the wax paper neatly, he gave it back to me, thanked me and walked away eating.

When I got back to the house, Mama told me that Waynesboro was a crossroads for the Norfolk and Western and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroads and the Hobos riding the freight trains in from the south and west usually stopped there in the spring. She told me that we could expect about a dozen to stop at the back gate until late June.

The Hobos never came into the yard or made any noise. They would simply stand by the back gate until someone saw them. If nobody went out to bring them food, they would move on to the next house. They must have known my Mama was a soft touch, we did get about a dozen Hobos that spring.

I told my Dad about the Hobo when he came home from work that night. He told me that as soon as we were able to hear the whistles on the big mountain climber steam engines that were coming out of the tunnel up near Rockfish Gap, southwest of Waynesboro that meant the winds had turned and the trains would be bringing the Hobos. The big double-boilered mountain climbers were kept on both sides of the mountain at Waynesboro and Charlottesville to help the over-the-road engines climb the steep grade up to Rockfish Gap.

The train whistles were low and mournful as they drifted across the valley and warned the station manager at Waynesboro that the train was on the down grade coming out of the tunnel.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Station at Waynesboro is built on an elevated platform and the big steam engines had to be used to brake the long freight trains to keep them from shaking the station to pieces by going too fast through it. About a mile from the station, the trains slowed to about four miles an hour which allowed the Hobos to get off easily.

Right after dark one night in early June 1931, my Dad took me to the high bluffs overlooking the South River north of Waynesboro, where most of the Hobos stayed before moving on.

The outcroppings along the base of the bluff provided shelter for the Hobos and the many little fresh water springs trickling down the bluff supplied ample drinking and cooking water.

The chemical plants hadn't destroyed South River at that point in time and it was loaded with perch, sucker and big English carp. I've seen my Dad lie down near the edge of the river and run his hand up under the embankment and throw out a big half frozen sucker. South River provided the Hobos with all the fresh fish they wanted.

Some of the songs the Hobos sang as they cooked over open fires along South River still run through my mind as I remember sitting on top of the bluff with my Dad. As I grew older, I would go to the bluff alone and listen to the Hobos until late in the night. One particular song comes to mind more than fifty years after I first heard it.

I'm sure there are many more verses to this song, but the following is all I can remember. I hope the words are right.

"In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There's a land that's fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars are all empty
And the sun shines every day
Oh, the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees,
The rock-and-rye springs where the whangdoodle sings,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

I remember a few words to another one and I believe it is sung to the tune of one of the hymns I used to sing at the Brethren Church in Waynesboro. It goes like this:

Hallelujah, I'm a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah! Bum a handout,
Revive me again.

I enlisted in the Army Air Force in June of 1941 and left Waynesboro for four years. When I returned, I inquired about the Hobos and was told that they stopped coming shortly after the war started and hadn't reappeared since. I wondered, "Where have all the Hobos gone?"