Thoughts of late 19th century and early 20th century America frequently evoke images of the romantic life of the hobo. Unlike tramps or bums, who only worked when they were forced to – or never worked at all – hobos were migratory workers, preferring to travel from place to place in search of menial work on farms, in factories, or for individuals. Nobody is quite sure where hobos originally came from, but after the end of the Civil War people noticed a significant rise in the number of vagabonds catching free rides on freight trains, in whatever direction they fancied at the time.
With the onslaught of the great depression, hobo numbers in the US skyrocketed, and even became a legitimate way of finding work during that dark period. It was a dangerous lifestyle – with hostile railroad guards, the danger of being caught between freight cars, and inclement weather. However, after the Great Depression ended, hobo-ism also became a life of freedom, a life of unshackled possibilities. Even today, there remains a sizable hobo population in the United States, composed primarily of people dedicated to living a life that allows them to be the masters of their own destiny.
Clarendon Hills, as one of the main suburban Chicago stops on the westbound railroad, had its fair share of hobo wanderers. In fact, Clarendon Hills became a bit of a hobo hotspot during the early years of the 20th century, especially during the Great Depression. During these years, it was not uncommon to see the shimmering lights of hobo camp fires around the pond on what is now Burlington Avenue, right next to the train tracks. This was a popular spot for hobos to camp for a few days in makeshift tents, grab some food from the surrounding fields, take a quick bath in the pond, and then to catch a train west to continue their hobo life elsewhere.
Of course, little evidence remains today of these camps, and local township laws have made such things illegal, but every once in a while a modern-day hobo can be seen sleeping amongst the reeds, waiting for the next train to come so they can continue their grand adventure.
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