In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
distinctions were made in the definitions for hobos, tramps and bums. “Hobo”, may
derive its roots from homeward bound, in reference to a time after
the Civil War, when discharged soldiers hopped on trains in order to get home.
Two generations later, the term was popular again during the Great Depression, to
describe men again hopping trains, traveling from place to place looking for
work, either steady or seasonal. A “tramp”, on the other hand, was someone who
traveled from place to place but did not seek regular work. Tramps depended on
the kindness of strangers or other means of support besides gainful employment.
The term probably comes from the idea of tramping from place to place. Lastly,
a “bum” does not travel and does not seek work, although earlier in life may
have held a steady job. A bum is often an alcoholic. The term was probably
taken from the German slang word ‘bummler’, meaning loafer.
The song, “Big Rock Candy Mountains,” dates to the hobo era.
It describes a lush outdoor life for the unemployed, with perfect weather,
empty boxcars, food aplenty, cigarette trees and streams of whiskey.
Furthermore, “There ain't no short-handled shovels, No axes, saws nor picks, I'm
goin' to stay, Where you sleep all day, Where they hung the jerk, That invented
work, In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.” Versions later recorded for children substituted
candy canes and lemonade for the cigarettes and whiskey.
Long before there were state or federal programs to support
the poor and infirm, responsibilities fell on families and towns. A person or
family appearing in town would be “warned off,” i.e., made to leave if they had
no proof of financial support, such as a job or relatives to take them in. If
an existing resident came into hard times, the town would arrange to pay for
that person to be taken into someone’s household via auction at town meeting –
lowest bid winning.
|The "William Smith" house was built circa 1780, added to over the |
years. In 1892 it was purchased by the Town of Maynard to serve
as housing for resident and transient poor. Closed 1920. Image
courtesy of Maynard Historical Society.
In time, towns established a workhouse, poorhouse or poor farm,
with a paid resident manager. In 1891, the Town of Maynard rented a building
owned by Lorenzo Maynard to function as a poorhouse. Mr. and Mrs. Alonzo Knapp
were hired for $325 for the year to manage the house and farmland, and to put
up transient hobos and tramps. The next year the town purchased the “William
Smith” house at 206-208 Great Road as a poor farm. The Smith family were
extensive land-owners in what later became Maynard, including land sold to Amory
Maynard for the construction of the mill and mill pond. Poor Farm residents and
transients (the aforementioned hobos and tramps) were expected to work
according to their ability, which included working the farm fields on the other
side of Great Road, that in 1928, was transferred to the school department “for
athletic and playground purpose,” in time becoming Alumni Field.
Transients were expected to report to the police station
before evening. They were taken to the Poor Farm where they got a meal of herring
and crackers, and a bed for the night. Those caught ‘sleeping rough’ were
arrested and spent the night in a jail cell without a meal. This system was needed
to reduce the numbers of non-resident men wandering about town evenings and
nights, scaring homeowners by knocking on doors and asking for food and permission
to sleep in a barn or shed. The number of transients spending nights in Maynard
rose and fell with the national economy, suggesting that men were roaming in
search of work after having lost their regular jobs. In good years the counts
for the year were in range of 100-200 men, but in bad times, often exceeded 1,000.
In return for a meager meal, access to a washroom and an outhouse, plus a roof
over their heads for the night, the men were expected to cut firewood for the
By 1910, Maynard’s Poor Farm had steam heat, electric lights
and a telephone. Mr. and Mrs. Dunham, the managers, received a salary of $500 a
year. The Poor Farm was closed in 1920. The few remaining residents were transferred
to the Hudson Poor Farm. The building became a rental property, finally sold
off in 1947.
In time, state and federal agencies and programs took on
care of the institutionalized, the indigent, the mentally ill, the homeless,
with varying degrees of successes and failures. One Stow-related anecdote: March
1911, Phineas Feather, former superintendent of the Gleasondale Mills,
attempted to murder Alfred Gleason, mill owner. Feather and Robert Bevis were
injured in the struggle for Feather’s two guns; Gleason was unharmed. Feather
was remanded to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane, an
institution under supervision of the wonderfully named Massachusetts State
Board of Health, Charity and Lunacy. He was released in 1915.