Teenage Hoboes in the Great Depression.
July 7, 2006 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Teenage Hoboes in the Great Depression. During the Great Depression over 250,000 young people left home and began riding freight trains or hitchhiking across America. Most of them were between 16 and 25 years of age. Many finally found work and shelter through the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government relief project that Franklin D. Roosevelt established in 1933 as part of the New Deal. From 1933 to 1942, CCC enrollees built new roads, strung telephone wires, erected fire towers, and planted approximately 3 billion trees. By 1935, the program was providing employment for more than 500,000 young men.
posted by matteo (25 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've kind of wished the CCC was still around, and that the US has a year of manditory civil service. I've seen some great projects the CCC has done, they did a lot of the prep work on turing Jewel Cave in the Black Hills into a great place to visit.
posted by edgeways at 8:44 AM on July 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

"Most of all I remember the loneliness.
More than once I cried. I felt so sad, so utterly alone."

Irving Stolet took off from his home in Chicago in October 1936, heading south to Florida with a school friend. -- Irving, 16, would be gone for two years, six months of which he spent on the road. -- Before he reached Georgia, Irving and his friend were separated, as they ran to catch a freight. Traveling on alone, Irving rode into a night of terror in the Deep South.

posted by matteo at 9:13 AM on July 7, 2006

Fascinating! I first learned of this program through A Choice of Weapons, which contains some amazing descriptions and insights on the social composition of the work force. There are some particularly engrossing tales of various road construction projects and the pitfalls and dangers these young men faced; I'll have to go home and leaf through that section again.
posted by prostyle at 9:20 AM on July 7, 2006

Man, you know what would have made this program even better? Privatization. I'm telling ya, if we'd farmed out the execution of this project to a couple of big-ass multinational corporations, just think of what we could have accomplished.
posted by wolftrouble at 9:32 AM on July 7, 2006

that the US has a year of manditory civil service.

That sounds like it would be ridiculously unpopular.
posted by thirteen at 9:41 AM on July 7, 2006

It all makes so much sense. Make people participate for a year doing something roughly concieved of as good, while giving them valuable insight into what it means to be a citizen.
posted by BillJenkins at 9:43 AM on July 7, 2006

Another superb post from Matteo. The documentary Riding the Rails was aired as part of the American Experience series, it is really quite good. I often use it in my history classes, the students really connect to seeing how people their own age experienced the depression.

It is no coincidence of course that the CCC focused on young men. The stated goals of the program were to make work and to improve the national parks and forests. The unstated, but universally understood goal was to get the most volatile portion of the unemployed off the streets so as to prevent a socialist uprising or a crime wave.
posted by LarryC at 9:46 AM on July 7, 2006

wonderful post
posted by nola at 9:48 AM on July 7, 2006

Man, you know what would have made this program even better? Privatization. I'm telling ya, if we'd farmed out the execution of this project to a couple of big-ass multinational corporations, just think of what we could have accomplished.

Oh, and mandatory too. With lots of barbed wire. Always a good thing to let the poor have a chance to earn some food and pride!
posted by sourwookie at 9:49 AM on July 7, 2006

this program even better? Privatization

see, it's a Raytheon-runs-the-CCC SNL skit ready to be written
posted by matteo at 9:52 AM on July 7, 2006

Matteo, dude, how do you find this stuff. These stories are fascinating. For sure it can't have been too too pleasant, but I'm kinda jealous of these guys...the freedom, the open-ended possibilities, just heading out the door to find a new life.
There was a very good documentary a few years back on TVO, the Ontario public tv station, that followed a couple of young women who were travelling America on freight trains.
My own trips have been much more limited, although I did once go all the way from Banff to Lake Louise on a coal train.
posted by Flashman at 9:58 AM on July 7, 2006

I agree with you, Edgeways.
posted by Atreides at 9:59 AM on July 7, 2006

My grandpa was in the CCC. He always spoke of it really fondly, and had a ring and some badges that he prized. While only one person, it's interesting to note the he thought of the CCC as the program that spring-boarded him into a succesful military career (retired as a colonel) during and after WWII.

Which isn't to impugn the intentions of the CCC, but it can't be denied that FDR was looking ahead to the rise of Stalin and Hitler, and figured it was a good way of killing two birds (youth unemployment, mediocre military infrastructure) with one stone.

Really interesting.
posted by bardic at 10:04 AM on July 7, 2006

I've kind of wished ... that the US has a year of mandatory civil service

I'd support this if Canada proposed it (of course it must be living wage-paid work, say $10 or 12/hr). Canadian high schools now require 40 hours of volunteer work of their students before they can graduate, and it's wonderful. A whole generation of Canadian teenagers is being awakened to the rewards of community service, and so many of them go on to do much more than 40 hours in their four years of high school.
posted by orange swan at 10:25 AM on July 7, 2006

I've always found this topic really interesting. Back when I taught US History, I'd give my kids diarys and stories told by teenage hobos. I think my favorite (in a leaving students slack jawed kind of way) was one where one kid watches his best friend fall out of and get run over by a train. To say nothing of the metric-shitton of stories about the Beyond Thunderdome quality of the railyards and the Bull vs. Hobo conflict.

Excellent post. CCC, along with the TVA, were probably two of the greatest (and most popular) of the new deal TLAs. 82% approval? Yikes!
posted by absalom at 10:25 AM on July 7, 2006

i've always thought that the ccc was the crown jewel in fdr's alphabet soup. i occasionally see some ccc relics when i'm riding my bike around chicagoland.

i think a required national year of service would be a really good idea.
posted by lester at 10:26 AM on July 7, 2006

On Preview: Orange Swan, my school had compulsory community service for graduation. All it taught me was how to forge community service documents.

I am not a good person.
posted by absalom at 10:26 AM on July 7, 2006

Just this weekend I heard my mother-in-law talking about her aunt that hitchhiked from rural South Dakota to Fargo and proceeded to hop trains all the way out to Washington in the early 30's.

When she was 18.

With her 17 yr old soon-to-be husband.

Dressed as a man to escape harassment.

And pregnant.

She got to Yakima, wrote home to let them know she was OK, spent some time picking apples, got married, gave birth, established a family, and is returning to SD for the first time since then in a few weeks.

She lived more before she was 20 then I think I ever will.
posted by unixrat at 10:38 AM on July 7, 2006

My grandfather was kicked off the farm at the age of 14 in 1929, told to go make his own way in the world. Unfortunately, I know very little of what happened between then and when he married my grandmother in 1938, though I imagine it was something like the lifestyle described in the linked articles.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:45 AM on July 7, 2006

excellent post- reminds me of a great graphic novel about the Depression "Kings In Disguise" that had a pretty deep influence on me when I was younger. Since then, I've been strangely unsettled by stories about the Great Depression, but also pretty amazed at humanity's capacity to rebound, adapt, etc.

unixrat, your mother in law's aunt sounds amazing.
posted by dubold at 10:46 AM on July 7, 2006

Anyone else remember the Disney version of the 1930's teenage hobo experience?
posted by thivaia at 12:14 PM on July 7, 2006

It takes place before The Great Depression, but Jack London's "The Road" is absolutely wonderful for old-timey freight train riding hobo stories.

Print it out on your office's printer (or check it out from the library, etc.) and have a ball.
posted by redteam at 2:46 PM on July 7, 2006

I absolutely cannot believe there's a whole thread about hoboes that doesn't mention John Hodgman's 700 Hobo Names.
posted by tristeza at 8:35 PM on July 7, 2006

My grandfather was in the CCC as well. Last summer I packed a picnic lunch, forced the grandparents into my car, and drove them up to Itasca State park for a day trip. There are two visitor centers at Itasca, and the one at which most people arrive (on the south end) has at one of its exhibits a somewhat extensive CCC display. While flipping through photographs grampa found old friends he hadn't thought of in years and was tickled pink to find that he could register as a CCC "veteran" and put his name in the book. I can only assume that other states have similar programs.
posted by rsandy7420 at 1:22 AM on July 8, 2006

thanks everybody
posted by matteo at 5:48 AM on July 8, 2006

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