A White County Hobo


Former President, White County Historical Society

White County has had its share of a cross section of humanity - a normal percentage of those who followed the educational path to become doctors, lawyers, well-known politicians, workers in NASA, airlines, etc. Then there are those who have followed more-hidden paths. One of these is the subject of this reminiscing. For convenience and to cause no ill feelings of any reader who might relate to this individual, I will refer to him as "Rip."

Ina Leach

Bill and I were married in 1933, and after our school year at Walker ended, we moved into his parents' home in McRae to help take care of his father who was in his terminal illness. That fall a mature-looking man came to the door of our home one afternoon and asked if Bill Leach lived there. When I told him he did live there, but was not home right then, he said, "I have known Bill for several years, and I am working for a farm family about three miles out. I had to come in to get a few things I needed, so inquired about Bill and found where he lived, then I thought I would stop." There was the explanation of who he worked for; he would probably be there for several weeks; the invitation to come back at his convenience; and Rip went on his way. Later, he found Bill at home for several visits, but he preferred visiting on a one-to-one basis and weather permitting, they always stayed outside. After a few weeks, he told Bill that he was through with the work where he was staying, and we saw nothing more of him. The next fall, Rip again appeared at our front door one mid-afternoon. After he and Bill had a long visit in the porch swing, Bill came inside and said, "Rip doesn't have any place to stay and wondered if we would let him sleep in our barn loft on the hay."

This did not seem to surprise Bill any, but I was rather shocked. Then Bill explained, "Rip is a professional hobo, but he wants to stay around and work enough to buy warm clothing for the winter." The little contact that I had had with him had caused me to notice an above-the-usual "run" of vocabularies of more or less migrant workers. Now this "hobo identity" did not seem compatible with my previous impression either.

Surely the man needed help - but NOT sleeping in a barn loft! As there was a sort of storage room with windows that had room for a cot, a sort of dressing table with a mirror hung above it, and a chair, Rip was soon showing enthusiasm about his "living quarters." He asked for a hammer and nails. A nail on the wall made a hat rack; nails made a horizontal support for a pencil; longer nails made a shelf for his comb. This was before the days of electricity unless one had a Delco system, so we put a kerosene lamp on his dressing table, but the remainder of the table was used for books and writing space. He indicated that he would need some space for these.

As "Cotton was King" at that time, Rip had no trouble finding work. He borrowed money to buy the usual six feet long, heavy canvas "pick sack" that was the pre-employment equipment necessary to apply for a job with a farmer harvesting his annual "money crop." Rip was not a person of fast motion; therefore his daily earnings were quite small, but each time he was paid, he carefully stored his money in a cloth tobacco sack that was secretly attached inside his clothing so that it was always with him, and could not be located easily. So far as meals were concerned, Rip was a member of our family. Bill's elderly mother, who was a member of the household, was held in almost reverence by Rip. Courtesy toward her was outstanding. They were often in conversation about historical events, which was surprising as she seldom accepted the responsibility of conversation with the masculine sex, unless it was a person of long-standing acquaintance. This behavior might be interpreted as unladylike.

A very good friend of Bill's came to our house one night to see if we knew of anyone who could finish picking his cotton. A family emergency had arisen so that his family would be unable to do this work, yet he wanted it to be done before rain came. Rip had finished the job he was on that afternoon. Bill and I agreed to go with him the next morning and the three of us would pick as much as we could as he had found no other help, and we knew of none.

Equipped with a cold lunch and three "pick sacks," we were in the field as soon as the dew had evaporated enough for picking. We found the cotton was rather scattered and grass had grown much since it was "laid by" in early summer. Sacks did not fill easily! We had our cold lunch by the wagon that we emptied our sacks into, and rested only a short time, as we hoped to finish the picking before night.

The afternoon began to get quite warm. We picked down the scattered rows at about the same speed, all tiring and practically nothing was being said. Suddenly, there was a burst of profanity in a very excited voice from Rip! Of course, he had our immediate attention. Then came "Pardon my language, Mrs. Leach" rather calmly spoken, followed by another rush of profanity as Rip jumped up and down shaking his overalls' legs and again apologizing, "Pardon my language!" Then another episode of cavorting and verbalizing the unprintable.

Finally, Bill got the question through, "What's wrong, Rip?"

"A blankety-blank snake is up my britches leg!" Rip yelled as the cavorting continued.

The demand "Pull your pants off, Rip!" came from Bill.

"I can't. Blankety-blank it! Pardon my language, Mrs. Leach," as Rip held to the overall leg and danced, jumped and ran about in a small area.

To which I yelled, "Pull 'em off, Rip. I'll go to the other end of the rows while you and Bill manage this," and I left them.

Rip was grasping his overall leg to hold the snake away from his leg. Bill realized by this time that the held area did not show enough bulk to include a snake, and no motion as of a snake wiggling inside, so began to calm Rip somewhat.

Climax! The investigation revealed that tickle grass had been picked up by the bottom of the leg of his overalls and was working up his sweaty legs!

The rain did not come that night. The cotton was finished the next morning.

A few nights later, Rip expressed appreciation for our hospitality and told us he would be gone when we got up the next morning. After a few days, I cleared the storage room of his temporary arrangements, and found numerous portions of pages carefully written quotations from books that he had chosen from our bookshelf. He read by the light of the kerosene lamp, several hours every night, regardless of his day's work. War and Peace (Tolstoy) seemed to be one of his favorites.

I believe we had a letter from him sometime during that year, giving us an idea of where had been in the previous few months.

About two years later we moved to a rural area in southern White County. Our little house faced a road that ran parallel to the Rock Island Railroad. One late spring morning, we noticed a man walking down the railroad track from the direction of the nearest town. There was nothing unusual about this at that period in White County history, but it was unusual for him to leave the track and come to our front gate. We recognized Rip, and greeted him with "Rip! What a surprise! How did you know we were living here?" Again, he had come into McRae, inquired of Bill, and kept walking the railroad tracks until he found us. And, again, he wanted to work to get some new clothes. Whatever was available for work, he would try. Our area was now chemical wood territory. Hardwood was cut into four-foot lengths and shipped into Memphis for further processing.

We had only one bedroom set up, so again Rip went into arranging his own living quarters in an unused room, that again seemed to give him quite a bit of pleasure. Arrangements were made for him to cut chemical wood with a man who needed a helper. Rip would get a percentage of the check, as the tools and transportation of wood was taken care of by the local timber cutter.

By this time Rip had accepted me as one he could trust, so that I was permitted to share many of his past experiences and knowledge he had gained, and a way of life that was not a typical White County style. As he told me, this deviation from the normal began with an event of his quite early teens. Late one Sunday afternoon he decided to walk over to the community church as he "didn't have anything else to do."

At that time White County was dry - no alcoholic beverage was legal. "Bootlegging" was a means of getting a better price for corn raised on small farms. According to Rip's story, a local "bootlegger" with wares in his car came along and asked Rip if he wanted to ride. Before they were to the church, a White County deputy sheriff had stopped them, confiscated the "moonshine" and labeled Rip as accomplice. As a result, Rip was sent to the Boys' Reform School for a year.

Seemingly, he had received little if any support from his father and stepmother. In fact, Rip felt that the stepmother was glad to be rid of him, whatever the circumstances, and discouraged the father's giving Rip any assistance.

Rip felt that his life in the school was made somewhat easier by an inmate being in the room when papers were being filled for his entrance. When asked his age and birthdate, the boy began making hand motions to attract Rip. When asked his grade level in school, the boy indicated "4". Rip gave that as his grade. When Rip was asked about farm work as to how much cotton he could pick in a day, the boy indicated 75 pounds, etc. Rip considered this a very friendly gesture and realized he had really been befriended in the following days when he was given excessive amounts of work to do in each subject in school. By its being on a fourth grade level instead of sixth, he could accomplish his task without meeting daily punishment, as well as coming nearer to the assigned amount of farm work.

He said by the time the year was over with no communication, and he felt no kind thinking from any family member or relative, he had no desire to see any of them again. When he was released from his sentence, he climbed into the first boxcar he could get into to ride wherever it would take him.

An older man was already in the otherwise empty boxcar that had a small crack left in the almost-closed door. The older man was concerned with Rip's youthfulness and began to talk to him. After several hours talking as moods and thoughts changed, Rip considered the older man was a kind person who was "down on his luck" and could be trusted. He felt that the older man knew that he needed guidance, and wondered if he had probably helped a son to develop sometime earlier in his life, but any family was never referred to in any conversation. He and rip stayed together with the older man giving training in the ways of the vagabond until Rip felt able to go out on his own.

Some of the "life on the road" tips that I recall were: When one went to a house to ask for food, always offer to work in exchange for the food - suggest some chore that was not likely to be needed. Appear honest, but down on one's luck. That the "cook" would usually have sympathy, seldom suggest any work, but would provide a generous handout! Be generous in expressing appreciation. If the food looked good, eat ravenously. If one was doubtful of the cleanliness, thank the donor heartily and hurry off with the bag or box. When the food was generous and good, one should manage to leave a marking of a cross, or a letter or other mark on a fence post or tree, a short distance from the entrance to the homestead so the next needy person would know this was a good prospect.

Hay barns were warm places to sneak into on cold nights. Rural churches and schoolhouses were also usually good places for a comfortable night. Frequently, cloth curtains to use in programs presented on special occasions were placed in unused corners or storage cabinets. These made good pallets on the floor and cover to provide comfortable sleeping conditions. Rip said his custom was to fold the curtains back if he had found them folded. He tried to leave no evidence that the building had been used.

In more settled areas with larger school buildings that held heat overnight, diligent searching usually produced an unlocked window that would provide an entrance. When towns were too far apart, a culvert under the road was great in dry weather. In cool or cold weather, grass, weeds and leaves could be piled at the open ends and pulled up to stop the wind from blowing through so that body heat could be better retained. (At that time there was no mowing of roadsides or railroad right of way.)

Sleeping wherever one happened to be at night was the general rule for spring and summer so long as the weather was clear. The hobo bag served as a pillow wherever one stopped. What else was needed? And then there were the hobo camps in many places along the railroad tracks. Usually, sharing was the rule. Each was expected to contribute as he could in collecting fuel for the fire used to brew the coffee; to forage in the area for food; to share any surplus food that he had managed for; and to respect the belongings of others. Each usually had his can for making and one for drinking coffee as it was available. Some were talented in the art of foraging from fields. Others had more talent in asking for handouts in surrounding areas if there should happen to be a continuity of the same group staying together in a camp for a time.

Initiative in providing clothing to fit needs were individual. Paper bags could be weather proof for a few hours in lesser rain and could cut the penetration of strong cold winds hitting the body. We witnessed an example of this one night. Rip spent much time working with several paper bags that had held grocers from the local store. Finally, Bill asked, "Rip, what are you producing from those bags?"

"A wunk's hat," was the quick response. "I need some protection from the sun when we are clearing trees leaving no shade. This will keep my brain from cooking."

Then Bill's question, "What kind of a hat did you say?"

"A wunk's hat! Don't you know 'Down by the barn in the pasture lot, there is a hole that the wunks is got, and they can turn theirselves into Lizabeth Ann, er me er you, er the Raggedy Man.'" (From James Whitcomb Riley's poem "The Raggedy Man".) Rip quoted quite expressively as he continued to work and view the results of his work in the mirror. And he wore his favorite creation to the woods the next morning.

After about five weeks of Rip's being with us, Bill and I neared home one Sunday afternoon, to be rather frightened by smoke and a blaze reaching several feet high at the east end of our outhouse. As we brought the Model A Ford to a stop, Rip rose from his cross-legged sitting position on the ground near the burning pile of debris, with a broad smile. As we came into the yard, we could see the can of water sitting by the ready to put on the coals when the fire burned down to the proper stage to heat coffee water.

Rip explained, "I just had to get into a more familiar situation. I'm going to leave in the morning. I'm not feeling too good… Then quite seriously he suggested, "Bill, if you will let me have some money to buy some warm clothes this fall, you can collect my share of the chemical wood check when it comes in."

Before bedtime all parting arrangements were made. Rip's bundle was packed, including coffee and two cans for immediate use for preparing his favorite drink, as well as a loaf of bread and a few cans of food. When Bill questioned just what kept him going day after day, always on the move with no particular place in mind, the answer was, "You never know what you may see or who you may contact just around the next corner, or when or where you will make the next stop. Life is more exciting that way."

Again he was most courteous and sincere (he had learned this lesson well) in expressing thanks for hospitality and the opportunity to get clothes for winter. A pair of heavy overalls, shirt and a denim jacket with "long handles" for underwear fulfilled his desires for the ultimate in clothing. This was a complete new wardrobe!

We heard no further sounds, but found Rip's room quite orderly and vacant the following morning. We wondered if he "hit the road" that night after talking to us, or slept a few hours before leaving.

More than 50 years have passed with no further contact or information concerning an interesting and unusual White County native.

Ina Leach was president of the White County Historical Society in 1978. Her husband William J. Leach was president in 1985 & 1986, and her son William E. Leach was president in 1996 & 1997. Ina died June 7, 1998, at age 88.