Peabody Singing Tower

 North Manchester, Indiana

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of the North Manchester Historical Society, Inc.
Volume XXIII Number 3 August 2006

Those Hobo Days
by Jack Miller

I liked to hear Johnny Cash sing that song: "I've Been Everywhere." I always think of Carl Calhoun of North Manchester and those hobo days in the 1920s. Do you old timers remember Coonie? That's what everyone called him. He hung around Blick Barbershop, next to Brady's Men's Clothing Store on Main Street. I was just a kid, but I remember Coonie. He was a well built man, always wore a cap. His face was ruddy and clean shaven, but when he opened his mouth -- that's when this boy's eyes popped open.

He had solid gold-filled teeth. It was as if the front wall of Fort Knox had fallen out. That was special enough, but what he would do...

One day he would be at Blick's, then he would be gone for weeks or months. Suddenly he would reappear and talk about wheat fields in Kansas, picking oranges in California and then apples in Washington state. All of these things he would see and do by hopping a freight train in North Manchester and heading out. You see Carl Calhoun had that wanderlust. He was a true hobo at heart. Well, to most people in the 1920s in town, Coonie was a world traveler.

Our home in North Manchester was a block and a half from the Big Four Railroad yards. We were in prime territory for hobo handouts. He always knocked on the back door. Some offered to mend umbrellas, sharpen knives, etc., but most just looked pitiful when they looked at my mother. No fancy grub at our house; bread and butter sandwiches is what they got! They would sit on the back stoop and eat, then cross the street to Maude Gill's house where she was willing to hand out pie. Oh, yes the houses were marked for handouts.

Any town of North Manchester's size that had a railroad, and we had two of them, had a hobo jungle as they called them. A place where the "king of the road" could rest and compare notes and experiences with others of that brotherhood. Well, North Manchester had a fine jungle on the south side of Eel River, just west of the Vandalia railroad bridge. The Big Four railroad bridge and water tank were just up the river above the dam.

There was a well-worn path to the jungle. The site had one other plus - there was a spring of clear, cool water. There was always a campfire and a pot of Mulligan stew over the fire. A new caller was always welcome to the stew but was expected to contribute vegetables and meat to the pot, if he planned on an extended stay. All summer long there were always hobos in that camp - sometimes three or four and other times a dozen or so.

How did this 8 - or 9 -year - old boy know? Because Howard Lindsay and Gail Grossnickle used to spy on them. Boy, was that exciting, as it was rumored that they cut off boys' ears if caught in the act of spying on them. Relax, I am sure those "kings of the road" were well aware of those d --- kids out there!

The hobos as we knew them back in the 1920s are gone. The main blow came in the 1930s and the Great Depression when every freight train through Wabash carried hundreds of unemployed men, looking for work. Some would drop off in Wabash where they could spend the night in jail, breakfast in the morning and told to get out of town.

Unemployed Detroit men headed for St. Louis as St. Louis men were heading for Detroit for employment. Today the modern railroad cars have no open door or rods under the cars to ride on. The age of the hobo, as I remember them, is history.