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Hobos Reunite In Iowa

August 11, 1989

BRITT, Iowa (AP) _ Midwest John, Ohio Ned, Steam Train Maury Graham and others are spreading their bedrolls this weekend in Britt, home of the National Hobo Convention.

About 40 hobos from across the country hitchhiked and hopped freights to be on hand for ceremonies, including funerals for two ″brothers″ buried in the town cemetery.

″It’s a homecoming of sorts. We’re a vanishing breed. There’s no young guys out here anymore,″ said 36-year-old John Becker of Sterling, Ill., known as Midwest John.

Becker’s traveling partner, Ned McNamer of London, Ohio, said life on the road is getting more dangerous. Both men wear long sheath knives hidden underneath sleeveless jean jackets covered with souvenir buttons.

″We came here from the North Town rail yards in Minneapolis. That’s a real jungle,″ said McNamer, who sports the name Ohio Ned. ″In some parts of the country you could get killed for anything - rings, shoes - you name it.″

″It’s a little lonely, sure. But it all depends on what your tastes are. If you like a 9 to 5 job, fancy slacks, that’s nice, too,″ Becker said. ″But for some of us there’s always that urge to see what’s up over the hill.″

The hobos, mostly men, wore red bandanas, caps and many carried sturdy walking staffs. They gathered Friday at the Evergreen Cemetery for services for the Pennsylvania Kid and Hafey the Bo. They are the fourth and fifth hobos to be buried at the Britt cemetery. A tombstone also sits in the cemetery for all unknown hobos who have died.

″We remember all of our deceased hobos, those who in hobo terminology, ’have caught the westbound,‴ said a hobo named Frisco Jack.

Members of the Britt American Legion fired a rifle salute and blew taps for the Kid, whose real name was Paul Wilson. Wilson, a World War II veteran from Franklin, Pa., died in June at age 80.

Whiskey was sprinkled on his tombstone.

″I know some people may look down on it, but it was what he requested,″ Graham told the other hobos and a crowd of about 50 who attended the hourlong service.

″People think hobos don’t make friends. But that is the main point of our lives. Friends are the wealth of life,″ said Graham, a short man with a long white beard and mustache who was crowned King of the Hobos in 1973.

″Pennsylvania Kid was the only man I knew who shaved with broken glass. He’d get a piece from a broken bottle, wrap it up in toilet paper and put it in his pocket,″ said Graham, a Toledo, Ohio, native.

Hafey the Bo, whose real name was Al Zale, was a hobo from Los Angeles who got his nickname because he suffered from chronic hay fever. He was remembered as a kind and gentle man.

″We’re going to miss those guys,″ said the El Paso Kid.

The National Hobo Convention first came to Britt in 1900 when Thos. A. Way, T.A. Potter and W.E. Bradford decided to do something to show the world that Britt was a lively little town capable of doing anything larger cities could do. The convention became a fixture in 1933.

The Britt Chamber of Commerce, which runs a small hobo museum in the lobby of the defunct Old Chief Theatre, plans to expand the museum to honor hobos, said Marian Malek, chamber secretary. Plans also call to move the five graves of the hobos to a reserved section of the cemetery.

″Hobos are a decent lot. We are not bums,″ said Joe Baker, 59, a hobo from North Carolina. ″I’ve known no other life since I was 13.″

″Hobos have hearts, too, and they cry and laugh like everybody else,″ Graham said.

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