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.
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 schools.
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.