Rochelle’s hobo history


An integral part of growing up in Rochelle was the adventure of exploring the Hobo Jungle.

The jungle held all of the requisites needed for a rite of passage. Parents warned us to stay away from the jungle. The threats, though vague, were cause for great concern. One could almost see themselves being dumped into the pot of hobo stew as part of a nutritious supper. In any case nothing good would come of a visit to the Hobo Jungle. 

“There's a race of men that don't fit in,

A race that can't stay still;

So they break the hearts of kith and kin.

And roam the world at will.

They range the field and they rove the flood.

And they climb the mountain crest,  

Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood.

And they don't know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;

They are strong and brave and true;

But they're always tired of the things that are;

And they want the strange and new.

They say, ‘Could I find my proper groove;

What a deep mark I would make!’

So they chop and change, and each fresh move is only a fresh mistake.”

So was written in The Hobo’s Hornbook by George Milburn in 1930.

In 1854, the Airline Railroad reached the area that is today Rochelle. That track is today the Union Pacific. By 1857, a second railroad, Ogle & Carrol, was constructed through the community. The Ogle & Carrol Railroad merged and grew into today’s Burlington Northern and Santa Fe.

With the railroads came a group of individuals known as hoboes. Much of what we know about hoboes comes from romanticized movies, songs and stories. Good natured, independent and happy to be free.

The hobo life was considered an individual choice. Unfortunately, that was not always the case. Spikes in the numbers of hobos riding the rails came at the end of the Civil War, WWI and during the depression.

Returning soldiers needed jobs, many also had emotional problems from what they had experienced and could not function in society. To travel across the country was a slow process. Horses were not fast and jobs disappeared as quickly as they popped up. The trains were the fastest and most economic method of travel.

In 1903 Hohenadel Canning Company opened. Asparagus, corn, pickles and peas all needed to be harvested. The jobs were here and this siren call brought the hoboes.

Rochelle was served by two railroads. Trains would roll into town and the unemployed would jump off and begin searching for any seasonal job available.

Until they received their pay, the hoboes needed a place to live. Hobo jungles were generally located in areas with trees for shade, water for bathing and cooking and far enough from the “town clowns” that the hobo could avoid the locals.

Rochelle had a few hobo jungles. The current rail diamond at the site of the Rail Fan Park was close to work and located in an area where trains slowed down to pick up and drop off cars. A perfect place to jump on or off a train.

Locations where the trains crossed Kyte Creek were perfect locations for hobo jungles. North of Memorial Park was the jungle that most of us remember. A short trip under the bridge or along the tracks and you could enter the world of the hobo.

For some, a glimpse of the denizens in the jungle was enough. A quick sighting and a faster retreat. Others braved the dangers. You could end up in the stew pot, or worse your parents could learn of your escapades.

Today, the Rochelle Street Department owns much of the land that was the jungle. For myself, every time I drive east on First Avenue past Memorial Park, I look north and smile. I can almost see the stew pot bubbling.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.

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