Life on the Open Rails

by bryon s. houlgrave for the charles city (ia) press
october 24, 2004

On the early morning of June 19, 1963, a 14-year-old New Hampton boy stepped onto an east-bound freight train destined for the unknown. The ride, which lasted less than 40 miles, would change his life forever.

Now at the age of 56, he vividly recalls that ride from his hometown New Hampton to Oelwein inside a car loaded with iron-ore. More than 40 years later, a name change and a thousand tales to share, Iowa Blackie, the name he was given in the 1970s by a group of hoboes while in Hampton, has lived a life most dream of, visited places most will never go and met people of varying sorts.

He supports himself by working wherever he can, and selling books of his collected works of poetry detailing his life as a hobo.

Iowa Blackie began chronicling his travels in 1987. Shortly before the new year, he resolved to write a journal in poetry form on a daily basis.

"In 1988 I wrote a four-page poem, which later became five, about my first train ride," Iowa Blackie said.

For a year, the hobo handed out Xeroxed copies of his poem to people, asking that in return they run off additional copies for him to continue handing out.

In 1989, he met a volunteer at an Iowa City shelter who was so amazed at the hobo's poetry that he took Iowa Blackie to the University of Iowa computer lab and helped him assemble his first book of collected poetry and prose.

His work is also included in the book "One More Train to Ride: the Underground World of Modern American Hoboes," by Cliff Williams, endorsed by radio personality Garrison Keillor.

Iowa Blackie's method of advertising has caused him a bit of trouble at times. He could literally be trailed by following a line of business cards around towns, placed everywhere from sidewalk cracks to public restrooms.

On each card contains instructions on how to order his books.

"I have a bad habit of walking along and putting them in cracks of utility poles," he said, adding that hoboes have always had some sort of gimmick to support themselves.

A fan of Mark Twain, Iowa Blackie cracked a remark resembling the Missouri author's trademark sense of humor. "One of these days I'm going to get run out of town on a rail, which, I suppose, would be very appropriate."

Iowa Blackie's material comes entirely from his lifestyle as a hobo. It's a lifestyle he chose, not fell into, he noted.

Although his unkempt countenance often evokes feelings of pity, Iowa Blackie says there is a big difference between being a hobo and being homeless. Iowa Blackie has a small home in New Hampton that he spends time at when not traveling.

"I almost bristle at the thought (of being compared to the homeless). People say that bums and the homeless pretty much fit together."

But that's not entirely true, Iowa Blackie says.

While his appearance might prompt thoughts of 'why?' with the general public, Iowa Blackie said his life as a hobo was planned. In fact, it had been a dream of his for many years.

"By the time I started my freshman year of high school, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I went through school, I made no bones about it," Iowa Blackie said.

It took him years longer than he'd hoped, though. After a string of ruts and personal problems after high school, and a short stint in the U.S. Navy, Iowa Blackie began traveling as an active hobo.

One Fine Day

As the sun glistened off the metal wheels of the iron-ore cars of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, Iowa Blackie recalled attaching a song with his experience. "One Fine Day," by the Chiffons, epitomized the moment for Iowa Blackie.

His ride had been premeditated by a few months, he said, adding that he began planning to run away after his mother tossed one of his favorite toys.

"It just threw me for a dozen loops trying to cope," he said. "It got to be spring in 1963, and I thought, 'I gotta do something to take my mind off this.'

"So I started planning this trip. I started planning to run away by freight train."

Iowa Blackie, who was born in Charles City, planned his escape from his second-floor bedroom for the night of a middle school concert, in which he played in. After the concert, he placed a wooden ladder under his bedroom window, went to bed that night and waited until after midnight.

Then, with a small valise which contained food, and $10 to his name, he scrambled out his window and wandered off into the night, searching for his train to anywhere.

Around midnight in New Hampton, Iowa, a 14-year-old school boy was wandering the streets. He was stopped and questioned by no one. When he met up with the night cop at a Shell station, the excuse he gave was that he was camping out. The cop bought it.

An hour later, he was climbing aboard an ore car on an east-bound train.

"The train was in excess of 200 cars long," Iowa Blackie recalled. "It was moving about five miles an hour. I just walked up and got on. I rode all the way to Oelwein.

"It was such a trip, that 25 years later I'd write a four page poem about that first train ride."

Iowa Blackie said his trip would have lasted longer, but he was spotted by officials at the train yard in Oelwein. He was taken to the caboose to wait for his parents.

"My dad took it in pretty good humor," Iowa Blackie said. "But the look my mother gave me... We walked in, and she looked up at me. I could tell she had been crying.

"I said 'I'm sorry I worried you.'"

Iowa Blackie said that even though his dad charged him a nickel per mile to pick him up, which added up to a month's allowance, the trip was well worth it.

"You might say at that time I gave my heart to the rail."

The following summer, at age 15, the teenager who would become Iowa Blackie, the hobo from New Hampton, began studying the lives of hoboes. He read everything he got his hands on about the lifestyle. He began outlining his future. He would finish school, then finish his service to his country, then become a hobo.

The travels

"My folks didn't necessarily discouraged my freight train rides," Iowa Blackie said.

His first major trip came in August of 1984, when he traveled with a friend to Spokane, Wash., and back.

"After that, the following year I covered all but six states west of the Mississippi River," Iowa Blackie said.

He has also attended the Winnipeg Folk Festival in Canada. Three times, in fact.

He still travels today, although he admits he's slowed down over the years. His dream now is to become a full-time employee of a railroad company before he reaches mandatory retirement age.

"What I'd like to do is train service," Iowa Blackie said, adding that he practically knows everything there is to know about trains.

Despite his familiarity with trains, however, the hobo realizes he lacks the official experience.

"Some people would say I'm unemployable because I can't tell them where I've worked last," he said. "I haven't held a job so much as an entire month in my life."

Hoboes in society

Decades ago it was not uncommon for every town to have at least one hobo. After the Great Depression, hoboes where very active. Many people were accustomed to the presence of hoboes. Some even went to great lengths to make sure they were well-fed and safe.

Now, people are mostly indifferent, Iowa Blackie said.

"People treat me with various responses. On a scale of 100 percent, the bottom ten percent will insult me through gestures or verbally. The people on the top ten percent will do anything from wave to me to take me home with them to put me up, give me a shower and a meal.

"Other than that there's various degrees of indifference. It all runs a gamut. You get various reactions from people," Iowa Blackie said.

At once it was nice to get a meal, he said. Now, the thing he cherishes most of all is a shower.

Iowa Blackie will spend the next six months at his New Hampton home before his travel season begins. He is also putting together material for his new book.