A Look Into One Delaware County Man’s Hobo Lifestyle

Shortly before passing away at 80, a Delaware County appliance repairman revealed the details of a train-hopping hobo lifestyle that consumed his younger days. There are others out there with similar itinerant tales to tell. But their numbers are dwindling.

With a vague sense of pride, Burma-Shave recalled the primitive camp he’d maintained in what was once a wooded area of King of Prussia near a Pennsylvania Turnpike entrance in the 1970s. It was basically a hammock, and he used it as a go-between when hitching rides to Harrisburg and points west. He’d vanish for weeks at a time, riding the rails, leaving a wife and three kids at home in Delaware County. “She didn’t want to know much,” said Tim of his wife. “She’d say, ‘Let me know when you get there, and don’t call me if you get caught.’ She’d tell the kids, ‘Daddy will be back. He’s off visiting friends.’”

Such was life on the road.

Now in their 40s and 50s, Burma-Shave’s children know little about the wanderlust days he recounted before dying suddenly this past spring, soon after the interviews and photo shoot for this story. Burma-Shave’s real first name was Tim. We know his last name, but we agreed not to print it in exchange for his story. “I guess I could be called a post-Beat Generation freight train rider. But hobo? No,” said the freelance home appliance repairman, who passed away last year at 80. “I didn’t go from town to town to earn my living. Not many people in tiny towns would invite you in to fix a washing machine.”

Pictured in the shadows of an overpass at Cynwyd Station, once a hobo hangout, Tim rode the rails for decades. His last name has been withheld out of respect for his family.
Pictured in the shadows of an overpass at Cynwyd Station, once a hobo hangout, Tim rode the rails for decades. His last name has been withheld out of respect for his family.

In one attempt to get to Chicago from Cumberland, Maryland, Tim threw his gear into one boxcar but couldn’t get himself into the next, almost falling under its wheels. “My gear went west, and I was stuck in Cumberland,” he recalled. “I caught another train back to Philly.”

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Quietly and skillfully, Tim hopped freight trains for a quarter-century. “When riding, you don’t stick out,” he said. “You can’t be seen.”

Just about every August since 1900, the National Hobo Convention has convened in Britt, Iowa. There was a break during the World War II years, as many hobos served. The COVID-19 outbreak prompted another rare cancellation in 2020. The convention provides an economic boost to a town of a few thousand. There’s a museum, a hobo camp with a boxcar for meeting space, a parade, musical instruments and song, vintage vehicles, lots of patched and repatched denim clothing, a national hobo memorial, an annual hobo king and queen, and cauldrons of mulligan stew. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the convention drew some 10,000 attendees. Now, a busy day attracts maybe 2,000. They’re young, old and extremely old.

“We want to preserve this history in a positive light,” says Connecticut Shorty, a former hobo who’s on the board of directors of the Britt Hobo Day Association. “We need to get the real history of hobos out there. We look at it as a history of a unique culture that’s pretty much gone. Hobos helped build America.”

Tim attended his share of conventions, and he’ll be forever recognized in an annual roll call of known deceased hobos. “I’d love to go back,” he said prior to his death. “I went 20 to 25 times by various means—trains, hitchhiking. At one point, I talked a friend with a pickup into driving out. I’ve always preferred traveling inexpensively, not ever really having any money.”

Tim recalled riding through a state like Iowa in a “wrath of God” thunderstorm. “The thunder and lightning were going from cloud to cloud,” he said. “It was so absolutely dramatic—like the gods were battling in those clouds. The downside was getting off the train soaked and having no place to go.”

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The hobo lifestyle revolves around free choice, finding your way and living without burdens. Many travel for adventure, perhaps opportunity. Tim rode the rails “for the thrill.” Centuries ago, the nation’s first hobos were men in search of work after the Civil War, then again during the Great Depression. Lore has it they humped around with hoes, ready for fieldwork. Hence the name “hoe boy.” Today, a male is a “bo” in hobo slang. A female is a “boette.” “We call West Coast, Hollywood-type hobos showbos,” Tim said.

To make the necessary distinction between a hobo, a tramp and a bum, a 2019 Smithsonian magazine article described a hobo as an itinerant worker, or someone who travels to find work. A tramp travels, but mostly doesn’t work. A bum neither travels nor works. In the societal stratosphere, and in a free democratic country, it would appear the options are by choice—“radical politics,” according to the magazine. Or at least radical individualism.

Perhaps the closest modern-day approximation to that itinerant culture are the real-life characters in the critically acclaimed 2020 film Nomadland. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her portrayal of Fern, a nomad living out of a van. The film was based on the 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by journalist Jessica Bruder, who brought to light the surprising number of older Americans blindsided by the last recession who continue to bounce around the United States in vans, RVs and other vehicles taking seasonal jobs.

Chicago was the birthplace of the American hobo, mostly because it was so centrally located for the departures and arrivals of trains headed in every direction, taking with them industrialization’s expanding migratory workforce. A hobo bible was written there in 1894. Laura Carpenter, a doctoral student in American studies at the University of Iowa, has launched a hobo archive. And a team of archaeologists from Washington, D.C.’s American University explored a hobo camp in rural Pennsylvania in 2017.

Here on the Main Line, locals talk of a surviving hobo camp on the slopes by the Schuylkill River near Cynwyd Station at Conshohocken State Road and Bala Avenue. It was discovered a decade ago during restoration efforts and the creation of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail. Evidence included carved and spray-painted hobo code, leftover clothes, and other artifacts. “It was inhabited,” said Jerry Francis, former president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, who died this past spring. “The tracks were right there. They could hop off, get into the clearing and build bonfires. There are cliffs and caves to get out of bad weather.”

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Greg Prichard, a historian, planner and preservationist in Lower Merion Township, is writing a book focused on the stretch of track between Overbrook and Paoli. He says the creeks and wooded areas hobos traditionally sought were all there around Cynwyd Station, and the steep incline would’ve slowed freight trains, making it easier to jump. During work on the station, officials ran into at least one squatter. “He climbed his way up into an overpass,” Francis said. “He didn’t want to be evicted, but he was never threatening. Maybe it was more of a homeless camp by then.”

A freight train rider since the 1970s and a Pennsylvania railroad expert, Luther “the Jet” Gette says suburban Philly, with its rich railroad history, offered plenty of places for hobos to roam. “It was a pretty good place to bum the stem,” he says.

By “stem” Gette means the main street of a town. “Stems were little sections where you could bum a meal, get a cheap hotel or find an all-night Chinese restaurant,” says Gette, who now lives near Penn State University. “Usually, hobos—the traveling nation—aimed for the seedier side of town. Often, if you tried to bum from wealthier neighbors, the servants would call the police, so they usually stayed away from opulent places.”

Tim hobo

Tim recalled riding through a state like Iowa in a “wrath of God” thunderstorm. “The thunder and lightning were going from cloud to cloud,” he said. “It was so absolutely dramatic—like the gods were battling in those clouds. The downside was getting off the train soaked and having no place to go.”

Bernard “Uncle Ben” Kramer popularized the existence of local hobos in the pages of the Ardmore Chronicle, which he bought in 1953 and edited and published until he sold it in 1974. His work, however, was often questioned. In his 1980 obituary, the Main Line Times noted that his writing was greeted with “both accolades and brickbats.”

Francis’ parents knew Kramer. He once admitted to them that the only way he could meet a deadline was to make up what he didn’t have. “But everyone believed him,” said Francis. “Once I became involved with the historical society, I found that anything written by Uncle Ben was suspect.”

Vine Creek was a power source for the local textile and paper mills in Lower Merion Township. It ran parallel to the railroad bed that’s now the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Penn Valley. A ravine there called Bowler’s Woods was a place students avoided while walking to Lower Merion Academy. “It was always foggy, and there were loud, scary noises there,” recounted Francis. “Maybe the hobos wanted to be left alone. They got up in the morning, built camp fires, and eerie smoke came out of there.”

Cynwyd Station was also an arrival point for those headed to the Belmont Driving Park. Opened for Philadelphia’s Centennial in 1876, the harness-racing track was known for its “seasonal gypsy problem,” Francis said.

Two editions of the Radnor Historical Society Bulletin in 1982 and 1990 highlight the history of the headwaters of the Gulf Creek spring area that runs through North Wayne. A reservoir there was long known as a “bums’ camp” populated by “those migrant tourists of the period just preceding hitchhiking.” The focal points of this hobo jungle were fine spring water and an inexhaustible supply of fallen chestnut limbs and other firewood. The railroad and its semaphore signal were clearly visible from the camp. If the signal told a freight train to slow down, that was as good as an authorized station stop for a hobo.

Not too far away in Pennsburg, Montgomery County, the East Coast Hobo Gathering was held annually from 1992 to 2003 on property owned by the exclusive Perkiomen School, even if officials there deny it. It was once supported by a previous head of school, and run by a local hobo named Redbird Express. “We did have hobo jungles here well into the ’90s because we had the farms,” says Larry Roeder, longtime publisher and editor of the Town and Country newspaper in Upper Perkiomen Valley. “They were able to sleep in the barns, though they were always required to hand over their matches.”

Tim—aka Burma-Shave—was raised in western Michigan in the 1950s near a VA Hospital, a river and a freight yard. Just outside his house, World War II vets came and went on trains, picking up meals, paychecks, medications and cheap wine before heading to the river. “As kids, we’d hang out there, too,” Tim remembered. “We’d run into the vets and chat. That’s where I began an obsession with the railyard. I was 10 or 12.”

Often in trouble in a household with a strict father, Tim planned to run away. He rolled up his sleeping bag and hiking gear and was on his way to the railyard when he was spotted. “‘What the hell are you doing? We’ve been looking for you for two days,’ my father said,” Tim recalled. “He whupped my ass right there on the side of the road next to a Burma-Shave sign.”

Tim continued to reflect on the genesis of his nickname and the famous string of varying Burma-Shave billboard ads placed a few hundred feet apart, each with a continuing message for passersby. He still recalled how the one sequence read: “Within this vale … of toil and sin … Your head grows bald … but not your chin … Use Burma-Shave.”

Shy and leery of people, Tim found his way to the East Coast in time to attend Monsignor Bonner Catholic High School. “But once you get that creosote in your blood, it doesn’t leave,” he said. “It didn’t leave me. Trains have always fired up my imagination. I always wondered, ‘Where does that track go?’ I found out a few times.”

In the 1970s, it would take Tim about five days to get to Chicago by freight car. Once onboard, “a railcar’s sway will put you to sleep,” he said.

It was certainly risky. In one attempt to get to Chicago from Cumberland, Maryland, Tim threw his gear into one boxcar but couldn’t get himself into the next, almost falling under its wheels. “My gear went west, and I was stuck in Cumberland,” he recalled. “I caught another train back to Philly.”

Even at 80, Tim was “looking for an excuse to be the last free man.” On summer nights in eastern Delaware County, he’d hear trains whistling by on nearby rails. It brought back memories. He’d pledged to get back to the National Hobo Convention in Iowa. “It’s changed from the days of the real old guys—hobos with no pretention and no showboating,” said Tim. “Gradually, people started showing up dressed in costume. It’s not quite the Mummers, but it’s pretty sad. They sell souvenirs. It’s commercialized, but you have to put it in context. It’s in Iowa in the middle of nowhere.”

Nomadland scene
Hobo culture received a 21st-century update in the critically acclaimed 2020 film Nomadland. Frances McDormand won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Fern, a modern-day nomad living out of a van. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Right to the end, Tim valued the hobo’s role in history. “I guess it was part of my history from early on,” he said. “It was the way I came up. Why can’t we do it anymore? Age, certainly. Security and the consequences of getting caught. But if I knew I could con my way onto a hind rear unit—if I knew I could do that again—I’d give it a shot. Wanderlust is the strongest lust, and I absolutely still have it.”

Visit britthobodays.com and hoboarchive.lib.uiowa.edu.

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