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A Summer Spent Riding The Rails

A restless teenager spent the summer of 1936 as a temporary hobo, riding the Monon line through Indiana en route to the Texas Centennial Exposition.

Hobo Jungle

Photo: archive photo

In the summer of 1936, John Fawcett became a temporary hobo riding the rails from his native West Virginia to Texas, spending time in Hoosier hobo camps along the way.

In the summer of 1936, John Fawcett was a restless teenager attending a private military school for boys in his hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia. Fawcett and some adventurous friends had already spent a few weekends hopping freight trains, and although his father had put a temporary stop to the travels, by early June Fawcett could no longer stand the strictures of his everyday middle class existence. He and a friend decided to head, via the railroads, to the Texas Centennial Exposition.

Leaving a note for his parents telling them not to worry, Fawcett took off on an outbound B & O train for adventure.

Less than 24 hours later, the two boys were thrown in jail. After three days, they continued their trip through West Virginia and into Ohio. From Cincinnati, they crossed into Indiana, alighting in the town of North Vernon, where Fawcett met a “professional” hobo named Shorty Frazier, who would become something of a mentor. Unlike the teenage Fawcett, who was traveling for curiosity and adventure, Frazier was one of hundreds of thousands of unemployed men who took to the rails during the Depression, looking for a few days work wherever it could be found.

Shorty showed Fawcett and his friend how hobos left chalk marks behind to indicate which towns and houses were friendly and which should be avoided. He showed them how to dodge the railroad guards and told them which rail lines were the safest to ride. After “a pleasant ride through the Indiana farm country,” the trio stopped in the town of Mitchell “making the rounds in search of lunch, all the while keeping an eye to windward for the local sheriff”.

On Shorty’s advice, the trio switched to a northbound Monon freight train, traveling through Bedford and getting off near Bloomington to cool off by swimming in a local creek. They walked into the downtown and found the local Salvation Army center, where they sat through the prayer service and then ate a dinner of “chili, bread, coffee and canned applesauce.” Fawcett commented that the meal was “a real banquet for us and I have been partial to the Salvation Army ever since”.

After a delay in Gosport, due to an accident on the tracks, the trio spent some days at a local hobo camp and then split up to work at various jobs for a few days’ wages. Finally, Fawcett moved on, through the town of Crawfordsville and then into Illinois, from there heading south and west through Missouri and Oklahoma.

Fawcett’s trip was a success – he arrived in Texas on June 28 to see the exposition and was able to catch a quick series of trains eastward, arriving back home on the Fourth of July. The young man had kept a diary of his travels and in 1991, an elderly John Fawcett turned his memories of his days as a hobo into a written account, “for the fun of remembering and also as an aid in coming to terms with my life”.

Source: John E. Fawcett, “A Hobo Memoir 1936,” Indiana Magazine of History 90 (December 1994), 346-64

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

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