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Life in a hobo jungle, surviving the elements
by DJ Kauffman Correspondent · January 4th, 2018

Like in a tropical jungle, survival of the fittest in a hobo jungle took courage and stamina.

Many downtrodden hoboes with these traits riding the dangerous rails in, on, and under boxcars, while looking for work before, during, and after the Great Depression, camped in a "hobo jungle" near train tracks that once ran near the south end of the Oak Shade Cemetery in Marion. This camp served hoboes well because of its elusive nature and easy access to Milwaukee trains as they moved in or out of the area.

According to Bill Huntoon, current MISD BOE member, former elementary teacher, and former principal (various school districts) who showed us the hobo camp location, the historical site can only clearly be seen through the sparse trees in winter; otherwise, the area is covered with heavy leaves blocking its view to the public, he said.

In keeping with jungle survival strategies, hoboes would build small campfires near this low-ridge area, likely for warmth and for the ease of cooking freshly caught fish from the heaviest creek waters and captured wildlife from the surrounding wooded hillside where houses now stand.

Hoboes were known for cooking community stew, similar to mulligan stew. They would combine what food each one had into one pot for all to enjoy. Several Internet sources quote the following 1900s news article excerpt: "One builds a fire and rustles a can. Another has to procure meat; another potatoes; one fellow pledges himself to obtain bread, and still another has to furnish onions, salt and pepper. If a chicken can be stolen, so much the better. The whole outfit is placed in the can and boiled until it is done. If one of the men is successful in procuring "Java," an oyster can is used for a coffee tank, and this is also put on the fire to boil. ... A "beggar stew" is a "mulligan," without any meat."

As for housing, a January 27, 2000, Marion Times article says the local hoboes built temporary shanties from cardboard.

They also survived mentally and emotionally in the "hobo jungle" by promoting their ideological utopian ideas with chants. According to the June 12, 1902, Marion Pilot publication, the following one, called The Hobo Chant, was overheard:

"Who wouldn't be a hobo,

All free from care and worry?

Who would be a hobo,

That's never in a hurry?

Who wouldn't be a hobo?

Who wouldn't be a hobo,

Always hummin' chuck?

Who wouldn't be a hobo,

A'trustin' all ter luck?

Who wouldn't be a hobo?

Who wouldn't be hobo?

He's the cipher uv the earth.

Who wouldn't be a hobo,

Either sad, or full uv mirth?

Who wouldn't be a hobo?

Who wouldn't be a hobo,

With a rummy lookin' nose

Who wouldn't be a hobo.

that's known as dusty


Who wouldn't be a hobo?"

Likewise, hoboes bonded using their own unique languge. The following "tramp slang" words were gleaned from a long list published in a March 25, 1896, Marion Register article on page 7:

"Ante-To contribute to a hobo


Bat-To knock at a back door...

Blind-Baggage and express

cars without end doors.

Bull-City marshal or


Cat-An informer.

Fly Stiff-A smart hobo.

Fly Bull-A detective.

Jack-A hobo's salute.

Push-A crowd of hoboes.

Stiff-A tramp or hobo.

Turned Up-Liberated.

Turned Down-Sent to jail."

Additionally, hoboes were usually considered part of the upper rank of the train traveling society because of their willingness to work, unlike their lazier tramp and bum counterparts.

On occasion, hoboes who left their "jungles" were apparently mistaken for tramps and bums by city folk, for it was during the early 1930s, when one Marion resident, who grew up in southern Iowa, said when she was about four years old, she remembers the fear she felt when her mother, her sister and she frantically found hiding places in their home after hearing news about a hobo lurking about town.

As for Marion's security, a Marion Times January 27, 2000, article explains how there were two very highly guarded hobo camps in Marion, the largest camp was located near the current Marion Mobile Home Park and the smaller one, as earlier noted, was near Oak Shade Cemetery.

This is the first part of Marion's history series written by DJ Kauffman with information provided by Bill Huntoon.
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