Real hobos ride the rails as a way of life

by deb saine for the logansport (in) pharos-tribune

They call him Iron Horse Brad.

But Brad Villars doesn't consider himself a full-fledged hobo. He says he hasn't earned the right to call himself one because "ridin' the rails" has never been his lifestyle, just a hobby.

The hobos, Villars says, respect him for that.

He's only ridden the rails a few times, and just for fun.

The Indianapolis native grew up in Frankfort, which is where, as a kid, he became fascinated with the hobo way of life. But he didn't have the chance to actually talk with anybody until years later when he met the legendary Steamtrain Maury.

Villars had moved to Logansport and taken his son, Quint, downtown to the Iron Horse Festival.

"We got to talkin' to (Steamtrain), and my son became fascinated. He said, 'Wouldn't it be neat to get the ol' hobo to come to the house to visit us?' So I invited him to supper."

Steamtrain agreed to come... but said he could only stay a few minutes.

"He sat right over there," Villars says, pointing to an easy chair in the living room. "And a few minutes turned into four hours."

After listening to the ol' hobo's stories, Villars decided to write letters to other old-timers. He says he wrote to everybody. Fourteen years later, he has 14 or 15 photo albums, each one filled with about 300 letters, including those from the best male friend he's ever had -- Liberty Justice from Kansas City.

One room in the two-story house he shares with his wife, Merry, is devoted to all-things connected to hobos that he's collected over the years. Hats hang from walls as do two paintings of Steamtrain, including a watercolor by Teri Partridge. There are framed photographs on every wall, pictures of many of the hobos he's met, friends he's made.

The same set of bookshelves where he stores all those letters has a half dozen miniature trains on top. A canteen and a sleeveless jean jacket covered with patches hang from a coat rack.

Villars also has a 3-foot-by-6-foot cherry stained wooden chest he's got padlocked. Inside are more hats, newspaper clippings, and all kinds of other things, he says. To the right of the chest are several walking sticks he's carved using a pocketknife, another hobby he picked up after Steamtrain gave him a walking stick as a gift. There's a footstool, too, where Villars has stacked a number of books, books with titles like "Done & Been" by Gypsy Moon and "Ridin' Free" by Guitar Whitey.

According to Villars, hobos have gotten a bum wrap, intending no pun. He says that in the old days, the Depression in particular, folks were afraid of those who rode the trains.

"But they couldn't find work. So they'd hop on a train whenever they heard about a job," he says. "Most people think of hobos as bums, but they're not. They were starving and trying to make money. Some are even ashamed to tell you (they rode the rails)," he says. "I bet you that most anybody you talk to, they had somebody in their family who was a hobo." For Villars, it was six of his uncles.

Beginning in 1900, hobos from all over convened in Britt, Iowa, for what has become an annual event. Encouraged by Steamtrain to attend, Villars went to Britt for the first time in 1989 or 1990. It was at that convention where he met all the men he'd been writing to, including his new best friend, Liberty.

The two teamed up for a short ride, hopping on a train bound for Mason, Iowa, from Britt, then they hitched a ride back. He says that was the most fun he's ever had in his life. That was one of a handful of the short trips Villars has taken.

These days, it's gotten to be too dangerous, and a primary reason why is due to a gang known as FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America). "They're killers," Villars says, and then he goes on to tell a story about why Guitar Whitey finally quit a few years ago. Whitey has a photograph of himself standing next to another alleged hobo who ended up being arrested and convicted for murdering women, using illegal train rides to get to his victims.

"In that picture, you can see the ax sticking out at the bottom of his pack," Villars says in disbelief.

Hobos don't need much, Villars says, many of them traveling with nothing more than the shoes on their feet, the shirts on their backs and a pair of pants. Others add a jacket, a jug of water and a deck of cards.

The deck of cards, he explains, is for playing Solitaire whenever you get lost. "Just about the time you get ready to lay down a card, there'll be somebody standing behind you telling you where they think the card should go. That's the fellow you ask for directions."