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As in the Great Depression, today’s economic refugees may take to the road

As coronavirus devastates economy, refugees again might take to the road in search of opportunity

How do you write a travel column when you cannot travel? How do you write with historical perspective when you are in the middle of an historical moment?

Now more than ever, we need history and the humanities, for ourselves, for our sanity and to give us guidance for the weeks and months ahead. We need stories to tell us truths, to show us the way, to remind us that as Americans we have been here before and survived. That’s what I do as an historian. I tell true stories.

One thing is certain. Crises peel away rhetoric and reveal offhand, poorly thought-out remarks. Crises reveal character – in our politicians, in our neighbors and in our families. Leaders emerge and those who cannot lead show their weaknesses. Statistics for the coronavirus are startling, even overwhelming, and yet so are the acts of compassion, of dedication, of gratitude. In a crisis, it is not who we are or what we own, it is who we become and how we respond to the changes thrust upon us. Just ask any first responder – police, firefighters, and now nurses, physicians, health care workers and grocery store clerks.

The virus is real. It is here, and it promises devastating impacts on our area, including tribal reservations. What is less well-known are the impacts of the 1928-29 flu epidemic that traveled by train, came in three waves, killed 10% of the Native American population in the Northwest and forced to their graves 100,000 Americans.

Hopefully, with care and masks and gloves and social distancing, we will not have those deadly statistics in the 21st century with the coronavirus, but we will have acute economic dislocation, job loss, business failures, forced retirements and more homelessness. If COVID-19 echoes the Spanish flu of 1918, does the economic aftermath of a modern-day pandemic echo the Great Depression of the 1930s?

Across the nation, 44 million Americans rent their living spaces. Will foreclosures and evictions place a younger generation on the road? Over the past seven weeks, an estimated 33.5 million American workers have filed for unemployment benefits, according to The Associated Press. These out-of-work people may be coming west this summer in large numbers. We have stories about that, too.


My family roots are in Minnesota where my Auntie Em lived with her husband, a butcher, in a small town. With thousands of Americans unemployed during the Great Depression, men hit the road. In the 1930s, that meant riding the rails, seeking shelter in open boxcars and sleeping, often hungry, with the rhythm of the rails as boxcars swayed side to side. These men became known as tramps, as hoboes, regardless of their previous social status. They had their own lingo and phrases. In hobo camps, they shared “Mulligan stew” or anything edible that could be found, cut up and cooked in a rusty, dented pot over an open fire.

Tramps also had a specific script or written language. They marked with chalk on telephone poles or wooden fences those homes that might provide a meal in exchange for chopping wood or doing chores. My great-uncle’s butcher shop became marked in that manner. He had hoboes coming around looking for lean meat, a pound of burger, anything. And he was generous, one of those traits that comes out in a crisis like we are experiencing now. He gave away and traded cuts of meat. One of the things he traded for 90 years ago, I still have.

It’s a small wooden pair of pliers carved from a single block of pine. Over the decades it has seen hard wear, and I have only half of it now, half of a wooden pair of pliers, but I remember my Aunt Em giving it to me, telling me stories about her generous husband. I have the carved wood on my desk as I write. Upstairs, I also have a framed photograph of the chicken coop Aunt Em and her husband came to live in during a frigid Minnesota winter after he had lost his butcher shop. They lost their apartment over the store. He, too, had been turned out.

This small piece of wood is a token of family heritage that I treasure. It represents a story from the Great Depression and how desperate times were. Auntie Em always lived simply, carefully, never remarried. My mother bought her a small house of about 650 square feet, and Aunt Em loved it because it was the only living space she ever owned. When she passed away, we loaded up her possessions, her boxes of books, to take to a church thrift store. Leaving her house, I tripped on the sidewalk, fell forward and books came flying out of a cardboard box. Then $20 bills slowly fluttered to the lawn.

“Ah,” my younger aunts said. They laughed. Folks who had survived the Great Depression never really trusted banks. So we unloaded the family station wagon, took everything back into the house, shook out the books and clothes, and in small denominations of $5, $10 and $20 bills, found about $800 that my aunt had squirreled away and forgotten. My other aunts chuckled. They sat on the front steps and told more stories.


As an historian in Lima, Ohio, in the mid-1980s, I interviewed Depression-era residents in a railroad town where seven rail lines intersected. I learned about the hard times of the 1930s and two essential community characters – Lima Slim and Onion John. A railroad detective like my grandfather, who carried a Colt .38 Police Positive pistol, a billy club and a leather-covered, spring-steel sap for hitting hoboes behind the ear, Lima Slim was also in the parlance of the time a “railroad dick” or a “bull” who chased tramps off trains. My grandfather spoke a hard line but was understanding and not a bully. Slim, however, preferred throwing hoboes off moving trains, kicking their cans of Mulligan stew into the dirt, and generally abusing his police powers.

He appears in Studs Terkel’s magnificent Depression-era compilation book “Hard Times.” Slim earned the hatred he received. He’d swung off trains so many times that he permanently dislocated his shoulder. The massive amounts of aspirin he swallowed in handfuls ate through his stomach lining and caused a painful death. His nemesis in Lima, Ohio, was Onion John, a preacher from the wrong side of the tracks not affiliated with any church denomination. Onion John had an old mission church with a woodstove that he kept warm. To feed hoboes passing through, he took a wagon out to local farms to gather produce. He always brought back onions and made a thick onion soup with tiny pieces of meat, carrots, turnips and taters.

Riding the rails, hoboes knew that if they could slip into town without being caught or beaten by Lima Slim, they could get a warm cot, a bowl of soup, gospel music and a down-on-your-knees prayer service with Onion John. Times were tough. Hoboes could only stay a day or two before being asked to leave, but they left with gratitude and with their dignity intact.


The unemployed won’t travel much by trains this summer, but they will be living out of their cars, hitchhiking, sleeping on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. We’ll see them on trails and in town. Dispersed camping is legal for 14 days and then they must move on.

As we recover nationally from the coronavirus, let us not forget our own compassion and our opportunity to give back to fellow Americans. In future decades, there will be stories told about us, too.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.