hobocamp

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOBOES

Santa Rosa was filled with bums; there were panhandlers on Fourth street and drunks hanging out in the park, there were petty thefts and burglaries and vegetable gardens raided. The Press Democrat said the Police Chief and Sheriff were working together on “a new drive to rid the city of all ‘undesirables,’ especially the canned heaters.” Uh, “canned heaters?” Everyone knew those were the most screwed-up addicts – in 1931.

If there’s any year in Santa Rosa’s history to NOT visit in your time machine, it’s 1931 (see sidebar). Prohibition was still very much a thing and that year about 800 people were arrested in Santa Rosa, more than half of them for something to do with booze. Money was tight and pockets were empty; farmers and chicken ranchers were lucky to break even and only prunes and Gravensteins made any profit at all. In the Press Democrat’s classifieds, the Help Wanted section was usually entirely missing – while the Real Estate section filled several columns. (“For Sale at foreclosure: 5 acre; modern 5-rm house, chicken equipment. Near town, $3,800.”)


HOW BAD WAS IT IN 1931?

That year was when the Great Depression scraped bottom; those photos we see of long breadlines and former stock brokers selling apples on Wall Street were most likely taken in 1931. There was no safety net whatsoever – no Social Security, no state or federal welfare, no unemployment insurance. Santa Rosa and other cities set up Relief Committees that appealed for anyone who still had a job to donate one day’s wages along with employers asked to donate one day’s profit.

The Santa Rosa Relief Committee saw requests for aid skyrocket from 25 needy families to 300 by the end of the year, which represented 750 men, women and children – seven percent of the town population. Emergency family housing was built at Veterans Park, the corner of McDonald and Pacific avenues (now the site of the First Presbyterian Church). Donated food and clothing were given away at the relief store on Fifth street, as well as any firewood split by hoboes or prisoners in county jail.

Add a few more points to the misery index because of the influx of hoboes that spring. There were several well-established “hobo jungles” along the railroad tracks in Sonoma County: on Lakeville in Petaluma, near Cotati, under the Healdsburg Railroad Bridge, by the Laguna in Sebastopol and close to Fulton. But the best known jungle of all was in Santa Rosa – and that’s where many hoboes went in March, after a murder in the Petaluma jungle led to a police crackdown. The same month Marin authorities ordered every jungle in that county cleared out “for keeps” after a robbery at the San Rafael railroad station. The PD reported that sent about 150 denizens headed north.

The uptick in petty thefts and problems with the “canned heaters” led the Sheriff to declare prisoners in county jail henceforth would have to work on a chain gang. Much ado about this announcement was made in both Santa Rosa newspapers, with particular emphasis that it would scare hoboes away from here. But the program was apparently shut down a month later when the Labor Council protested that it was an affront to exploit free convict labor when there were hundreds of local men desperately looking for any kind of work.

Santa Rosa’s hobo jungle was also frequently in the news because police were making arrests there; it was suspected that vagrants were behind a string of burglaries around town (yup, indeed they were). It was during such a raid when they found Ada Calahan, a 22 year-old woman dressed like a man. Just a month earlier she and husband Frank had married in Reno and although they had the wedding certificate to prove it, they were arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail while the cops attempted to contact her parents in Yuba City. “Why drag my family into this? I’m not kicking about living in the jungles,” the adult woman groused.

With all this going on, the Press Democrat sent a reporter to live undercover in the tumultuous camp for 72 hours. Despite the possible dangers, the assignment went to 19 year-old cub reporter Herbert Waters Jr. He did more than just prove his mettle; Herb – who would go on to become the PD’s editor-in-chief following the death of Ernest Finley in 1942 – filed an 11-part, 13,000 word series. In 1931 it was a novelty serial that could be considered voyeuristic; today, it’s a valuable historic document because we’re still grappling with some of the same problems over homeless encampments.

About an hour after sunset on that early September night, Herb Waters started walking west along the railroad tracks to Sebastopol (now the Joe Rodata Trail), looking like what he thought a proper hobo should look like.

Although he had expected to come across campfires, it was completely dark and silent; then near Dutton ave. a path to the left led to the back of a warehouse. This was the old Petaluma-Santa Rosa railroad freight terminal, then just used for storing prunes. Here was the heart of Santa Rosa’s hobo jungle.

The opposite side of the building was unobtrusive, set far enough back from Sebastopol Road for large trucks to back into the loading dock. Waters found about forty men sleeping there. “As I reached the front of the building, which has a long loading platform covered with a roof, I saw a continuous row of bodies stretched out on the wooden floor, like a ward in a hospital, or, it seemed to me in the silent darkness, corpse in a morgue.”

The next morning he found the others on the railroad side of the warehouse cooking breakfast over a row of campfires. A closer look revealed more evidence that this was a long-established hobo jungle: “The dozen or more fireplaces were all different – some elaborately built brick ovens, some built from scraps of iron from neighboring dumps, some set in dug-out hollows – but all permanent fireplaces used time after time by the itinerants, never destroyed, but left for the next user.”

A search of the Press Democrat archives turns up a mention of this hobo jungle going back to 1925, when police raided the camp looking for the men who had robbed the White House department store. The building was owned by fruit packers Libby, McNeil & Libby, who used it as a prune warehouse – during Waters’ brief stay a truck came by to pick up a load. Besides the loading dock, men could sleep underneath because the building was elevated several feet off the ground. The company apparently tolerated the hoboes as unpaid watchmen and during winter when the prunes were gone, allowed it to be used as a “hobo hotel” as long as there was no drinking or smoking inside.

He quickly learned these men were homeless drifters and not migrant workers. The “fruit tramps” lived in tents near the fields where they worked, following the harvest seasons up and down the coast; these fellows didn’t work at all if they could help it and particularly turned up their noses at anyone who did field labor.

Looking over what the others were cooking, Herb was astonished how well they were eating; “anything you might see in a restaurant during breakfast.” No one was in a hurry to leave. “Everything has a lazy atmosphere. Eating is a slow process and quite a social occasion. They linger over the meal, trading jokes and banter, calling remarks from one fire the other.”

Aside from the breakfast hobnobbing, Herb soon was introduced to their other major pastime: “The hoboes are happy on two occasions: when they are eating and when they are drunk.”

Unable to buy liquor from a store because of Prohibition and without the money or local connections to score a jug of moonshine or jackass brandy, they were drinking denatured alcohol and Sterno (“canned heat”) – which is to say, they were drinking poison. During his three days of hobo life Herb encountered several men who were expected to soon die. Descriptions of some others strongly imply that Herb believed they were brain-damaged. He met one drug addict who screamed at night and was said to be using “snow,” which at that time likely meant some form of speed.

Herb quickly learned their code of conduct expected – even required – that you shared whatever you had. That included the dangerous ersatz hootch; if a bottle was being passed around you had to take a swig (Herb claimed he faked it). “I was now one of the gang – I had friends – hoboes, to be sure – but friends. They would fight for me, ‘divvy up’ food or money with me, and accept me in any of their plans. I had been tested and found a ‘good guy’ – it would have been an unforgivable insult to refuse to drink when invited.”

In the jungle he found a remarkable spirit of cooperation and comradeship. The men liked and helped each other; they nursed and fretted over their sick and frail. He met a barber, a cobbler and a man who collected bruised fruit that he canned. It was an oasis of equality where African-Americans and Hispanics were welcomed, the jungles being free of racial discrimination (at least in the West, he was told). “All seem tied together by a common sympathy and understanding and one race or color is as good as another as long as you prove yourself a ‘square guy’ according to the code of the jungles.”

For most of them Santa Rosa was a stopover before heading to someplace else, although not necessarily very far away – one hobo later told the PD he had not been outside of the North Bay for over 20 years. While they were here, most hung out at Depot Park in Railroad Square during the day rather than staying around the jungle. “The park is a meeting place and general headquarters during the daytime, although they return to the jungles at night. Transients stop off there to look for friends before continuing their journey.”

"Napa Valley", December 1938 photo by Dorothea Lange
“Napa Valley”, December 1938 photo by Dorothea Lange

Some were also here permanently. “Santa Rosa, I learned, is really a popular town. The bums get good treatment here, plenty to eat, and have a good place to flop in the jungles.”

It appears the welcome mat was first rolled out in 1909 when California and other western states witnessed a surge of vagrants, as told here earlier in “THE HOBOES COMETH.” An evangelical group started a rescue mission near the current location of the Catholic Charities homeless center on Morgan st. which was followed by a W. Eighth st. shelter for “down and outs.” Presumably other Good Samaritan efforts based near the train tracks came and went, unmentioned by the local newspapers; the Salvation Army had a constant presence on the western end of the downtown district and in 1930 a soup kitchen was established on the SW corner of B and Second street.

The main draw, however, was that local residents were an easy touch, despite the hardships of the Great Depression. It had been part of a long standing social contract that a vagrant could knock on a kitchen door and earn a sandwich or slice of pie in exchange for a few minutes of weeding or other light work, but the hoboes who Herb met bragged that a good sob story was all they needed. Although Herb often witnessed them display such great compassion and generosity with each other, the people of the town were clueless suckers who deserved to be scammed.

After one of the men described the “lacing” he had received from a woman after begging for food, another hobo asked for directions to the family’s house. “And sure enough, less than fifteen minutes later, hardly time to walk to the house and no time to have done any kind of work for the food, he returned with a good sized arm load of assorted food – eggs, bread, some cold meat, sandwiches, and some jam. It looked like he had completely cleaned out the lady’s pantry shelves.” He proudly re-enacted for them the melodramatic bullshit that won him the payload.

The Relief Committee asked residents to stop giving handouts to beggars, saying they were doing more harm than good. Like the Salvation Army, the Relief office on Fifth street would give someone a meal ticket after they put in a 30 minute shift at the city woodpile (the wood was mainly from the orchard recently chopped down to create Juilliard Park). It appears few hobos took them up on the work-for-food deal; another PD article said hoboes laughed and cussed at relief volunteers who suggested it. The soup kitchen even printed a notice that their operation was “strictly free from the Salvation Army.”

Stealing food was also common. Herb was told of a chicken farm not far away that stored eggs in an unlocked shed, the hoboes being careful not to take enough to be noticed. Another day they ate hamburger after one of the gang begged a butcher to grind as much meat scraps that 10¢ would buy. “While the soft-hearted butcher was in the back of the shop fixing up much more than a dime’s worth of hamburger and considering himself doing charity work, Williams helped himself to choice pieces of meat behind the counter.”

Another hobo scam that Herb exposed was chimney sweeping. “The chimney sweeps work in pairs, with one always seeking entrance into the house on some pretext. While working around a fireplace from inside the house he invariably picks up any odds and ends he might use himself or peddle to pawn shops. Then they charge the customer $5 for the privilege of having his house robbed and go away leaving the chimney about as dirty as before.”

A small class of hoboes were hardened criminals, called “yeggs” by the press (nobody knows where the term came from – it just popped up in the early 1920s). These burglars and thieves lived apart from the hobo jungles; the pair responsible for about a dozen break-ins around Santa Rosa had a secluded camp on the Creek. Also not welcome in the jungle were hoboes who had been busted for drunkenness in town. After sobering up overnight in jail, the hoboes were routinely given “floaters” by the judge – 30-day sentences which were suspended as long as they got out of town. If they were arrested again during that time there was a risk the police would descend on the jungle and kick out everyone.

Herb met up with a handful of convicted floaters lounging and drinking in the tall grass farther down the track, near where it crossed Stony Point road. Holding court there was “Slippery” Williams, a popular character who actually preyed upon his companions: “He joked and they laughed. He sang and they applauded. And he makes his living in just that manner hooking up with moneyed bums awed by his manner, until he had spent what money they had and then shedding faked tears as he left them, He wasn’t a bit ‘dumb’ like the usual run.”

Then this happened:


I was suddenly startled by a crackling sound and the grass behind me burst into flames. A carelessly tossed cigarette butt had started a fire, with dry grass all around. Instead of putting the fire out, the hoboes surprised me by yelling ‘Beat it’ and starting running away, afraid of getting caught if the fire got burning good. In a few seconds I smothered the blaze with blankets they had forgotten to take in their haste. A few minutes more and it would have been a bad fire.

That little incident is revelatory because vagrants were almost always the prime suspects whenever there was a fire of mysterious origin. They lavished Herb with praise when they returned and discovered he had easily put out the small fire. “‘Gees, yu saved us kid’ said Slippery. Most of them know that tough penalties are dealt out for incendiarism and are afraid of starting fires.”


DOWNLOAD
Abridged transcript of the 1931 series (PDF)



Not everyone Herb met was a suicidal alcoholic or light-fingered scammer. He found the hoboes well-read and knowledgeable about current events, although most had simplistic views. One of the permanent residents of the Santa Rosa jungle maintained a library of newspapers and magazines on the loading dock because everyone read voraciously.

Nor should we forget that being among the “knights of the open road” was still somewhat considered an honorable, even noble, activity. In 1925, 53 year-old Dudley Kinsell, a Superior Court judge in Oakland resigned from the bench and bummed to Florida. He called it one of the greatest experiences of his life, as it taught him to take joy in the simple things.

Herb spent most of one installment on a respected older hobo’s thoughtful predictions of a coming second world war (and remember, this was 1931): “War, a horrible war, is coming. It will be a world war of size hard to imagine…The war will be unlike any other in history – it will combine revolutions with battles between every nation in a huge slaughter.” Our Nostradamus of the loading dock left his audience rattled, but now we know he got all the prophecies wrong; instead of war with Germany and Japan, he imagined a second American Civil War where Russia steps in to undermine the side fighting to preserve the U.S. government (come to think of it, maybe he was foreseeing the 2010s and not the 1930s.)

When his three days were over, Herb wrote a final piece on what he had learned. Don’t generalize about the hoboes; the men were both good and bad, no better or worse than those in any other group. Permanent jungles with running water should be allowed in every town, preferably indoors, and the camps should have routine inspections. Provide medical care and an employment agency so they can try to find jobs. Never give them money without working for it. Some (all?) of these suggestions probably came from Herb Waters Sr. who was among the leaders of the Relief Committee.

“Hoboes will come and hoboes will go, but as long as a community gives them an opportunity to live fairly decently it has done all that should be done,” he concluded.

There are a few postscripts to our story, and Gentle Reader should be forewarned that none are pleasant.

As everyone in the jungle was a keen reader, you can be certain they absorbed every word in the series as soon as it was available. The Press Democrat blurbed it for two days before the first installment appeared, so I imagine there was angry gossip along with great fear as to who had been the spy in their midst.

While the series was running, there were two fires near the Santa Rosa jungles, and on the day the last of the series appeared, a hobo named George Peterson was found drowned in the shallow Santa Rosa Creek. Foul play was suspected, but no one was charged.

The day after the series finished, deputies raided and cleared out all known hobo jungles near Santa Rosa.

The Santa Rosa jungle at the warehouse endured until 1940. That year a heavy storm caused the building to collapse, killing nine who had sought shelter beneath it.

It’s a bitter coincidence that the location of Santa Rosa’s famous hobo jungle was just steps away from the recent Roseland homeless camp behind the Dollar Tree store. Known as Camp Michela or Last Chance Village, it was cleared out by authorities in 2018 – because making this subculture go away is so, so easy, as history shows.

Sebastopol hobo jungle underwater during the 1940 storm. Photo: Sonoma County Library
Sebastopol hobo jungle underwater during the 1940 storm. Photo: Sonoma County Library

Top: Hobo camp in the 1920s; Town of Sodus (NY) Historical Society

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