Railroad Stories: Hobos Rode the Rails

During the Depression days, and for 30 years, my father was a telegraph operator for the Chicago and North Western Railway, in an office called, “Tower I,” in Missouri Valley, Iowa. He was a kind-hearted man, and many men, called hobos, rode the rails in boxcars looking for work.

The hobos would stop in at the tower to get warm by the fire, in winter, or to ask where they could get something to eat. A lot of times, if he thought they were good men, Daddy would send them the three blocks to our house, where Mom would feed them. They were all well-mannered, and appreciative of the kindness and hospitality.

One afternoon, my father sent a man to our house for something to eat, and I was so happy! He looked just like Santa Claus. He had a long, white beard, and he was plump.

When I saw him, I said, “Santa! What are you doing down here at our house, you’re supposed to be at the North Pole!”

He laughed and told me he just thought he’d drop in to see me and my brother.

Mom gave him a good lunch and he left.

Meanwhile, the night watchman and two policemen went to see my father, asking if he had seen an old man with a long, white beard come through. Dad said he had, and that he had sent him to our house for a good meal, before the man caught the next freight train, going west. That was the last time my father ever sent any hoboes to our house for a good meal. “Santa Claus” was wanted by the police; he had escaped from prison in Kentucky.

Helen Barker
Eureka Springs, Ark.

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.