Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West

Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West

by Mark Wyman


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When the railroad stretched its steel rails across the American West in the 1870s, it opened up a vast expanse of territory. Agriculture quickly followed the railroads, making way for Kansas wheat and Colorado sugar beets and Washington apples. With this new agriculture came an unavoidable need for harvest workers. These were not the year-round hired hands but transients who would show up to harvest the crop and then leave when the work was finished.

Variously called bindlestiffs, fruit tramps, hoboes, and bums, these men—and women and children—were vital to the creation of the West and its economy. Amazingly, it is an aspect of Western history that has never been told. In Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, the award-winning historian Mark Wyman offers a detailed, deeply sympathetic portrait of the lives of these hoboes, as well as a fresh look at the settling and development of the American West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809054916
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/26/2011
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

A distinguished professor of history, emeritus, at Illinois State University, Mark Wyman has written several books on immigration and the American West. He lives in Normal, Illinois, with his wife Eva.

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Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West

By Mark Wyman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Mark Wyman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4590-5



The terms "hobo miner," "hobo lumberjack," "the blanket stiff," are familiar and necessary in accurate description of Western labor conditions.

— Carleton Parker

It all depended, at the outset, on the railroad.

"What made Pennsylvania?" a Kansas editor asked one day in mid-1867. His answer: "Railroads." He asked again: "What made Illinois? Railroads. What has extended our country from the Atlantic coast to its present distance west of the Mississippi? Railroads."

A construction crew was then laying down rails approaching town, and he threw out another query: "What fills Junction City with strange faces, who crowd our boarding houses and hotels, making five or six times the life and stir there was one year ago?" The answer was obvious: "The Union Pacific ..."

Great expectations preceded the railroad everywhere. To the east, cities and towns and even crossroads from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi fought long, hard, and with great ingenuity to lure the iron horse. Now similar efforts were called for as the Union Pacific (UP), Kansas Pacific (KP), Northern Pacific (NP), Great Northern (GN), Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (called simply the "Santa Fe"), and other lines pushed on to the Plains and into the mountains in the decades following the Civil War, while the Central Pacific (CP) and later the Southern Pacific (SP) were laying tracks eastward from the Pacific Coast. In ensuing years others were built through the West — the D&RG, the MKT, the Milwaukee Road, and many smaller lines.

They were awaited with much anticipation. "The effect of a railroad through Plumas [County] would be like touching the gas jet on the dark and somber stage, when all becomes light and animation," predicted the Oroville (California) Register. "It would be like the whistle in a great mining camp after a period of idleness ... It would be like the effect of daylight upon the masses of a great city when everyman springs at once to active work of some character." Communities still lacking rails lamented the riches they were being denied. Humboldt County in northern California raised wonderful peaches — "as large as a teacup, and of most luscious flavor" — but without rail connections they had to be packed out on horses or mules "and, from the tenderness of their flesh, are unable to withstand this rough transit."

Desire for a rail link was almost palpable in these towns, whether they were barely populated start-ups platted by eager capitalists or ongoing settlements in ranching and mining districts. And so capitalists were feted; congressmen were cheered. Town after town, county after county, voted bonds overwhelmingly for a promised rail line. Council Grove, Kansas, cast its ballots 78–0 for bonds to fund a southern branch of the Union Pacific, the result only slightly more lopsided than Smoky Hill Townships's 147–7 vote to aid a Kansas Pacific branch from Salina to Lindsborg, running — of course — through Smoky Hill. As the historian of the Southern Pacific observed of such projects, "Some were even built." Failure could mean disaster: Leavenworth, Kansas, was said to be "one-half the size it was fifteen years ago" because a rail connection had slipped through its fingers. And so the town fathers in Dayton, in eastern Washington, promised to ship fruit, grains, flour, even soap and beer worth $100,000 on any railroad that would come their way.

But constructing rail lines to reach these distant outposts — crossing plains, mountains, and deserts, mostly unsettled — required vast amounts of money, difficult to raise in any setting but especially so after the Civil War. Congress recognized quite early that running rail lines to the Pacific would take more funds than capitalists could come up with on their own. The U.S. government was indeed "land poor" — it had land but lacked money. The solution was to give unsettled acres to the railroads as an enticement to financiers: initially lines crossing the West were to receive ten sections (a section is one square mile, 640 acres) of land for each mile of track laid; this was eventually increased to twenty sections, later to forty. The first transcontinental — the Central Pacific–Union Pacific — received 6,400 acres per mile across flatland, more through the mountains. As further encouragement, the UP and CP also were given loans of $16,000 to $48,000, depending on difficulties of the terrain. Later the Northern Pacific won Congress's approval to issue bonds of up to $50,000 for each mile of track laid.

Land grants made the difference. They provided tangible collateral for lenders, beyond the promise of eventual riches, for land could be sold right away to the thousands of settlers already chafing to head west. These settlers would one day be shipping produce on the railroads, riding as passengers on the railroads, and purchasing goods hauled from the East and Midwest on the railroads. The possibilities seemed endless. They brought gleams to the eyes of eastern capitalists.

Company directors immediately seized upon the key role of land in fitting together the financial requirements. The Southern Pacific's land agent told the Pacific Railway Commission in 1887, "Here is an instance where the owner of the land is interested in the progress of settlement. The land pays the company, perhaps, much better after it is settled than it does by the price of it." Land sales soon were bringing large sums to railroad cash boxes — totaling almost $12 million for the Central Pacific by 1903, $12.3 million for the Southern Pacific — but those amounts were almost dwarfed by the earnings made hauling freight and passengers. As historian Richard Orsi notes, "Into the twentieth century, company leaders viewed land sales primarily as a stimulus to that vital traffic."

Not only Congress was being solicited for funds, and not only Congress was eager to help. Idaho boosters eagerly backed the Union Pacific in hopes of promoting settlement by Gentiles, to fend off the Mormons colonizing the territory's southern regions. In Texas, El Paso became the major port of travel and trade between the United States and Mexico — but only after it welcomed two railroads from the north and one from Mexico.

When lines were actually constructed, lucky communities often found their great expectations borne out. It seemed true for Fargo, Dakota Territory, after the Northern Pacific arrived in 1872, for "from that day on Fargo seemed to grow by leaps," reaching 800 population by 1878 and 2,753 by 1880, rising to 7,394 in the special 1885 census. A similar story was told in Schuyler, Nebraska, where the Union Pacific's main line came through early in its march from Omaha: in its first year the town gathered in some 400 residents, with two hotels, several stores, and town lots selling for up to $500. New Chicago, Kansas, revealed its dreams in the choice of town name, and the appellation seemed justified after it welcomed its first trains in 1870: three weeks following incorporation, fifty houses and a two-story hotel were completed or under construction; within a few months the population reached 500 and the community had gained a newspaper, a lumberyard, and another hotel.

In the Pacific Northwest along James J. Hill's Great Northern, the town of Wenatchee, Washington, boomed from 451 inhabitants in 1900 to more than 4,000 within a decade after the railroad chose it as a regional hub. Nearby Yakima became an early hops center with the Northern Pacific's arrival, as did Puyallup once it too lured the NP. And when steam engines finally puffed into southern Oregon, Medford saw thirty-six new buildings constructed within three months. As an editor in Ashland announced, his community "is now connected by rail with the great cities of the continent."

That was the major point: the new rail lines with their parallel telegraph wires brought links to the outside world, connecting to people miles and miles away, and — most important for future growth — connecting to markets.

Agricultural possibilities suddenly opened, and in the Central Valley of California the transformation was especially dramatic. As late as the early 1880s Fresno had been, according to a settler's recollection, "without a solitary shrub or tree" — but twenty years later there were 3,000 raisin grape vineyards of 10 to 40 acres each within twenty miles of the city — all because of the railroad. Soon more lines besides the CP-UP route carried California fruit to markets far beyond the West. The Southern Pacific arrived in Yuma on the Arizona border in 1877, then pushed west across Texas to El Paso and beyond to New Orleans by 1881. The Santa Fe provided links between Chicago and the Pacific Coast, through the Southwest, by 1885. To the north, the Northern Pacific reached Portland in 1883, and the Great Northern arrived in Seattle in 1893, in the process stimulating large-scale wheat raising and "bonanza farms" across the northern tier of states, as well as fruit raising in Wenatchee, Okanogan, Yakima, and other districts in Washington State.

No wonder the celebrations were so elaborate, the excitement so intoxicating. Just as parades had erupted across the nation with the marriage of the UP-CP rails at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, similar outpourings appeared across the West wherever lines were completed or even merely authorized. "A grand blowout" marked the initial work with shovels and picks on Texas's Denison & Southwestern Railway in 1877, and when two sections of the Northern Pacific were joined in Garrison, Montana, in 1883, ex-president U.S. Grant was on hand for the festivities. Beams from the headlight of a newly arrived locomotive illuminated the dance floor at Sprague, Washington, as townspeople whirled and cheered the opening of the NP's new roundhouse.

An up-and-coming town without a railroad? Preposterous to think of. And that explains the unusual moves by some communities: The Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad missed the Choctaw town of Scullyville, Oklahoma Territory, so inhabitants picked up and moved two miles to build a new town right beside the tracks. Residents of Yakima, Washington, were no different, although they had been bypassed by the Northern Pacific through their own fault: the city had refused to provide land for a depot. Miffed, the railroad located its depot farther on. Yakima residents then relocated there.

Could any enthusiasm seem extreme in such settings? Were not European buyers already showing up in Portland to personally order apples? A Hamburg, Germany, commission merchant "was so impressed with the fine quality of these apples, that he came over in person to make arrangements for his future supply," the Northwest Pacific Farmer reported with pride. The evidence was everywhere: a California horticulturist noted that the rise of Siskiyou County as a major apple producer had occurred only "since the completion of the railroad through the county. Before this time no notice was taken of fruit ..." The journal pointed out what was happening everywhere: "The completion of the railroad, and the opening of a market thereby, have had the effect of turning attention to fruit growing as a business ..."

The Northwest Pacific Farmer was right. The railroad was creating a new West, a fruit-growing, wheat- and cotton- and beet- and hop-growing West, a West transfixed by the profits ahead. For this was the launching of a new era, brought into existence by the railroad. The iron horse promised solutions to the West's weaknesses, drawbacks dating back to the beginnings of American control: its towns and farms sat at great distances from markets; rapid communication was impractical to impossible; arid climates presented agricultural difficulties; and its population was sparse and widely dispersed.

In the East, settlement had preceded the railroads, and so both customers and markets had been ready when loading platforms went up at the railheads. But major markets for the West remained hundreds and even thousands of miles away, and transportation was extremely costly. Expensive shipping around the Horn, or carting by stagecoach or freight wagons, argued against transporting anything but the most important goods. When Ben Holliday's freighting company took only three months and four days for a round-trip from Junction City, Kansas, to Denver, an editor observed, "No such time was ever made on the Platte route ..." Speed was not yet a part of Western life.

It arrived with the railroad, reducing to inadequacy or even futility many of the traditional systems of transport. The Atchison (Kansas) Free Press rang the final bell for Ben Holliday's freight wagons in December 1866:

At about noon to-day the last of the trappings of the Holliday Overland Stage Line, consisting of about a dozen four mule teams and covered wagons, moved quietly from Second street, up Commercial street, and on westward to where the star of the empire in stage business is in the ascendant. Its movements were melancholy — the funeral aspect only enlivened by the white canvas covers of the great lumbering wagons. Very well; the iron sinews of commerce are stretching out across the prairies from the "Gate of the West," and will soon send the great stage route far into the wilderness again to keep its braying mules beyond the stirring scream of the steam whistle.

It was more than tragic, it was also symbolic when a Southern Pacific locomotive smashed into an Arizona wagon train one day in November 1880, killing the mules and destroying two wagons. The incident was just one more discouragement for the mule team owners — they were charging 51/2 to 14 cents per pound transporting goods for the twenty-day haul from Yuma to Tucson. The new SP took only a day to complete the trip, charging 11/2 cents per pound.

Farmers who had rushed to the Plains in the early corn and wheat frontier days had a special, immediate need for the railroad. "When our first sod corn was raised father went eighty miles to mill in an ox wagon, and for two years we had this to do," a Kansas woman recalled of her family's 1857 settlement in Morris County. Other early Kansas reports told of settlers traveling fifty to seventy-five miles, then waiting up to ten days for their wheat to be milled. In the rolling country around Pendleton, Oregon, one farmer described hauling grain to be threshed up to forty miles away at Umatilla at a cost of 17 cents per bushel. But that, the Northwest Pacific Farmer explained, was "before the advent of the railroad ..."

The railroad changed it all. It ended the total reliance upon ox team or riverboat for a farmer wishing to market his wheat outside the immediate area. Those near water had advantages, of course, and at one point some six hundred sailing ships were carrying wheat from San Francisco to Liverpool for British consumers — wheat raised adjacent to rivers running into San Francisco Bay. But with the railroad at hand, many of those wheatlands were being carved up for orchards and new crops, and access to water transportation was no longer important. On learning in 1890 that California vegetables were being raised for the New York market, the state agricultural society declared with evident pride that the state's "radius of profitable production sweeps over a limit of land transportation three thousand miles long." Just a few years earlier it had been twenty-five or thirty miles.

Besides drastically extending the market's reach, the railroad was a catalyst for further technological change. Helping lift the Dakotas to prominence was hard, red spring wheat, the new variety demanded by Minneapolis millers who could now tap the northern Plains. By 1915 Minneapolis was milling 20 million barrels of flour annually. On the Palouse, the rolling prairies in eastern Washington and Oregon, new seeds and harvesting machinery produced a crop so enormous in 1890 that the supply of cars was inadequate to haul it away, and piles of wheat lined the tracks well into winter. Mechanical advances with one crop encouraged inventions for others. The raisin seeder, an important advance for Fresno's raisin grape yards, was developed by growers who had observed how the new reapers and threshing machines were simplifying wheat harvests nearby.

Areas that had been agriculturally barren now became known for new crops, for different crops. Cotton raising spread across Texas. "Cotton picking has already begun in the lower [southern] list of counties in the State," noted a Fort Worth reporter interviewing an official in August 1894, "and is being ginned and he expects that by August 15 there will be a decided increase in the traffic of the Santa Fe in consequence of cotton seeking the markets." Soon sugar beets, well established in Europe and grown elsewhere in the United States, were being produced in several western districts, especially in California, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Nebraska; hops expanded into the Pacific Northwest and California. Cantaloupes, whose weight made them especially dependent upon cheap transportation, became important in Colorado and southern California, and a wide variety of fruit became identified with the coastal states.


Excerpted from Hoboes by Mark Wyman. Copyright © 2010 Mark Wyman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Maps viii

Introduction 3

1 Great Expectations 9

2 "Wheat Farms and Hoboes Go Together" 25

3 The Western Hobo 42

4 "Labor Shortage Menace" in the Northwest 60

5 The Northwest Becomes an Orchard 82

6 Hoboes Battling Forest Fires 100

7 King Cotton Moves West 113

8 The "Cotton West" Reaches Arizona 140

9 "Beeters" 170

10 The California Garden 199

11 Mexicans, Wobblies, War 228

12 Arrival of the "Gasoline Tramps" 257

Notes 277

Acknowledgments 321

Index 323

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Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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