National Hobo Convention

in Britt, IA, USA

National Hobo Convention

Yes, they're still out there. Uncounted tens of thousands of freight-hopping hobos still criss-cross the country every year, for free. Although rumors have been purporting the extinction of the American hobo for the last century -- due to railroad mergers, new car designs and beefed-up railyard security -- they are alive, and for the most part well, at least at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, which dates all the way back to 1900. Every August, some 20,000 farmer-tanned folks descend upon this one-horse hamlet to gawk, giggle, and learn from hundreds of hapless hobos. From retired graybeard relics of the steamtrain era to full-time railriders fresh from the tracks, they each have a story to tell.

The best place to begin your journey is the Britt Hobo Jungle, which is nestled against the Soo Railroad Line at the northern edge of town. The jungle is the center of all the action. It has a pavilion, a stationary boxcar tagged by past travelers ("If our country is really against war, why don't we have a secretary of peace?"), plus lavatories and showers where the soiled travelers can sally before being cast into the spotlight, though many, like Iowegian Rick and Aussie stand tall -- grease, grime and all. This is also where hobos pitch their duct-taped tents, tie their tarps between two trees or just sack-out for the night on a box under the stars. It seems like there is always at least one campfire with a pot of coffee wedged into the coals. And if you're patient, Mr. Bo Jangles, Liberty Justice, Windy City Tom or Danville Dan might pull up a stool, stoke the fire, and pick some serious Woody Guthrie songs.

Throughout the weekend, there are scheduled hobos jams (seems like they all play at least one instrument), auctions of hobo paraphernalia (like a monkey's paw necklace or a signed collection of hobo poems) and storytelling. For an edgier experience, don't miss the hobo theater, where the younger generation act out R-rated scenes from their encounters on the rails. And don't forget about the Hob Nob, one of two watering holes in town that caters to the hobos. But be careful, as the beer consumption increases, so does the possibility of a bar-clearing brawl. Every year, at least five or six hobos spend the entire week in the Britt jail for intoxication infractions.

The highlight of the entire weekend is the annual crowning of the King and Queen of the Hobos at the Municipal Park at the center of town. This is a hilarious event. The crowd is warmed up with a free meal, 400 gallons of mulligan stew, a traditional hobo dish akin to chili made from whatever is available, from a can of beans to a fresh-killed squirrel. Volunteers and Boy Scouts ladle out this soupy concoction from huge, human-size pots. But don't be shy. The chef definitely knows what he's doing. As you bask in the sun, watching a hobo or two doing a mountain jig, those running for King and Queen will begin to ascend the pavilion stage. The candidates get several minutes to make a speech before the din of applause determines the winners. Then it's hugs and high-fives amid snapping flashbulbs.

Since hobos are one of the last authentic American breeds, the news media is often out in force to catch a glimpse of these yesteryear roustabouts. You might see a crew from CNN, a writer from Spin, a photographer from Life or a team of foreign filmmakers shooting a documentary. Once the King and Queen have posed for their last photo in ceremonial regalia, red cloaks and crowns made from Folgers cans, if you're brave, follow the crowd back to the Hob Nob. While you won't find the winners sucking down dollar drafts -- they're too busy greeting the public -- it's the last great opportunity to shoot the breeze with past Kings and Queens like Frog & Minneapolis Jewel (1998) or New York Slim & Cinders (1999) or any number of hobos who are kings and queens, at least until the hangovers hit.

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