By Junior Johnson
Following my graduation from high school in May 1965, I spent several days on one of the most meaningful trips of my life. I was accepted to Northwestern State that summer and worked hard to save money to carry me to the fall semester.
I’d read about a unique culture that’d been around since the end of the Civil War and at its peak during the Great Depression of the 30s.
It’s not known when hobos first came on the scene but after the war veterans climbed on a boxcar for a free ride home, or to begin a new life somewhere else. During the Great Depression, when there was no work at home, men rode the freight trains to find work in other areas.
There were a number of famous people who rode a freight train, including Joe Hill, Jack Dempsey, Louis
L ‘Amour, Woody Guthrie…and Junior Johnson.
My dad knew I was determined and finally gave me his blessings. He even admitted he rode a freight train from California to Louisiana after he was discharged from the military. He married my mom not long after that.
I looked up the route from where I’d depart from the old Kansas City Southern railway. It would take me through Shreveport, Texarkana, Ft. Smith, Joplin and Kansas City, Mo.
There was a group of feed bins along the track in Chopin where my dad and Uncle Dempsey would load their trucks with grain to supply the local poultry growers. This was the perfect place to board the train.
I carefully packed cans of spam, sausages, peanut butter, crackers, and cookies in an old army surplus back pack along with some toiletries and extra clothes. I rolled up a sleeping bag and a couple canteens and I was set.
I rode with my dad to the feed bins. There was a boxcar with an open door. I hugged my dad’s neck and climbed aboard. I was excited and a little scared.
It wasn’t long before the train came along and we slowly pulled out. As we gained speed I was bold enough to step up to the open door and feel the breeze on my face.
We made short stops in Natchitoches and Shreveport and it was getting dark when we pulled into Texarkana. I hadn’t seen hobos and was a bit disappointed. I fell asleep eventually and woke to the rumbling of the train on the rails as the sun began to rise over the countryside.
The train arrived in Ft. Smith, Ark. when I heard voices outside. Not knowing if they were railroad people or travelers like myself I remained very quiet. As luck would have it two men climbed into my car. From their appearance I knew they didn’t work for the railroad. The train began moving and they spotted me.
Since they carried nothing with them I decided to make a peace offering of my food and water. We bonded immediately and I told my story, which they found amusing. They were also traveling to Kansas City where they hoped to find work in the cattle yards or slaughter houses.
Near Joplin, there was a huge bridge over a river over. Under it there was a settlement of travelers where one could find food, news of jobs, a safe place to rest and bathe, and wash clothes in the river.
I was in awe at the number of shabbily dressed men sitting around campfires with little tents for shelter. Smoke filled the air and the aroma I smelled was Mulligan Stew.
A man who appeared to be the group’s leader had been an investment banker most of his life until he had a nervous breakdown. With no family, he’d just dropped out of the social scene and found his calling with the hobos.
I was astonished.
I eventually said my goodbyes and after completing my journey I decided to take a bus back home. I arrived in Cloutierville and my mom had tears of joy as she hugged my neck. My dad did the same when he returned home from work that night.
My adventure had lasted five days and I still had a couple of weeks to relax before beginning another adventure as a freshman at NSU.
Hobo’s Lullaby by Woody Guthrie:
Go to sleep my weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Listen to the steel rails hummin’
That’s the hobo’s Lullaby
Do not think ’bout tomorrow
Let tomorrow come and go
Tonight you’re in a nice warm box car
Safe from all that wind and snow