In 1900, Britt, Iowa, became the the first city in the state to host a national convention. The city council of Britt sought to catch the attention of the press, and therefore tourists, and with the enactment of the National Hobo Convention the council accomplished its goal.
The Hobo Convention preeminently served the members of the Tourist’s Union No. 63, a group of self proclaimed hobos which unionized in the 1800s to avoid persecution for vagrancy as they searched for work in various cities across the United States. According to the convention website, these hobos were “migratory workers” who were “homeless by choice; they worked to travel and traveled to work” (“A Little History”). By all accounts, this first partnership between the city of Britt and the members of the Tourist’s Union No. 63 went exceptionally well; however, Britt didn’t hold another Hobo Convention until 1933, a break which the Hinton News ascribed to the “citizens of Britt taking a good many years to recover.”
The 1933 convention occurred partially in response to the Great Depression; according to one spectator, “attendance [was] best when the times [were] the worst and worse when the times [were] better” (Pohlen, p. 15). In 1933, convention attendance doubled the population of Britt, bringing the small town’s headcount to over 4,000. That year my grandfather Allen Noonan was a 17-year-old high school student and one of the original 1,593 citizens of Britt who prepared the town for the influx of visitors. These preparations included “banners, tin cans, and other articles suitable for the occasion.” When over 250 delegates of the Tourist’s Union arrived at the convention they were presented with “commodious quarters in the hog and cattle pens” and given provisions to last them their two day stay (Carlson, p. 264).
The convention opened with speeches from two of the union delegates, and according to the Hinton News “both men declared they were no speakers and their remarks proved that their declaration was no lie.” There were more than union members in attendance; however, people from all professions participated in the day’s activities which included “horse races, ball games, foot races, and egg sucking contests” as well as a parade and a Mulligan stew making contest (Carlson, p. 265).
As a teenager in Britt my grandfather may have taken part in these convention activities, and I believe it would have been exciting for him to see tourists of all stripes pour into his small town. According to Diana Tumminia, Allen “grew up with an enterprising spirit” and had a particular interest in art; only one year into a collegiate track scholarship he dropped out of school to become a painter (p. 44). This interest in art may have been amplified by the Hobo Convention, for which the city council curated an art show with submissions from citizens of Britt, as well as their honored guests. Allen may even have been able to submit a piece of his own art to the show, an early showcase of his eventual career.
The most anticipated event of the convention, however, was the crowning of the King of the Hobos. In 1933 Hairbreadth Harry was the man given the title, as well as a crown “fashioned out of Folgers coffee cans” and a “long, red cape” (Carlson, p. 265). At the time he was crowned, Hairbreadth Harry was 53 years old and had been on the road as a hobo for eight years. The Decorah Newspaper described him as “wear[ing] a heavy beard, but no shoes” and the Des Moines Tribune described him as “an interesting man to know.” In the novel Seven North American Evaluation Pioneers the author recalled meeting Harry: “my sisters and I were occasionally regaled with poems by the king of the hobos when he stopped by our house to ask for food” (Williams, p. 45). The author, David Williams, recalls one such poem: “Hairbreadth Harry is no fairy; he can neither flit nor fly; Hairbreadth Harry is no fairy; he must eat like you or I; he must eat or he will die” (p. 45). I imagine my grandfather may have heard similar songs from the many hobos who flocked to his town, or even from Hairbreadth Harry himself.
Later in life, my grandfather would start a commune which emphasized egalitarianism and socialist philosophy. Attending this hobo event, which swelled to its greatest size during the Great Depression, may also have influenced these political beliefs. Allen watched the impact of the Great Depression not only on his own town, but on the hundreds of homeless people who visited his town each year which may have inspired him to advocate for philosophies that provide support for men such as Hairbreadth Harry, who, as he reminded Wiliams, “must eat or [he] will die” (p. 45).
However, the National Hobo Convention illustrates more than the desperation generated by the Great Depression. The partnership between the small town of Britt and the Tourists Union No. 63 illustrates the capacity of humanity to create community even in the most desperate of circumstances. The National Hobo Convention was a statement of pride and purpose from those in otherwise dire circumstances, and I believe my grandfather, as well as any student of history, can take solace in the portrait of human resilience which the convention paints.
“A Little History…..” Britt Hobo Days.
www.britthobodays.com. Accessed 2 March 2019.
Long, Roy. “Railroad Recollections.” The Hinton News, 25 Dec. 2001.
hin.stparchive.com/Archive/HIN/HIN12252001p02.php. Accessed 5 March 2019.
Pohlen, Jerome. Oddball Iowa: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places.
Chicago Review Press, 2005
Carlson, Gretchen. “The Hobo Convention” The Palimpsest, vol. 12 no. 7, 1 July 1931.
Accessed 2 March 2019.
Tumminia, Diana G. Alien Worlds. Syracuse University Press, May 17, 2007
Weis, Roz. “Echoes of the Past” Decorah Newspapers, 23 Apr. 2009.
https://decorahnewspapers.com/PrintArticle.aspx?aid=19714&uid=586b406c-95bd-4863-bbb6-3be897815368. Accessed 2 March 2019.
“Come Find a Queen for Hobo Harry” Des Moines Tribune, 03 Jul. 1935.
https://desmoinesregister.newspapers.com/image/?spot=23796658&fcfToken=4431693973366e6475536b547939325071556f79465479452f39504c76695772316938317369582b514f3173373175504c3134374c4431426b51762f3861762f. Accessed 3 Mar. 2019
Williams, David D. Seven North American Evaluation Pioneers.
John Wiley & Sons, Jun 27, 2016