Wandering Man, Part 3

I haven’t been able to trace Frank’s travels very well due to a limited paper trail. Did he stay primarily in the Southeast or go wherever the train tracks and his inclination took him? How did he survive on a daily basis? Begging, borrowing, or stealing? Did he live in hobo jungles, or campsites, near the rail tracks? Did he suffer the hurt and humility of being thrown off a car by the railroad security known as bulls?

I found a telling news article about a Frank McCune in the Columbus Enquirer dated 19 Jan 1940. He was rescued by firemen from a burning freight car in Americus, GA, where one of his companions unfortunately died. He stated some men had been smoking near a pile of papers in the car, and it caught on fire[1]. I strongly suspect this is our Frank. How many other companions did Frank see killed or maimed on the railways of our country?

For an eye-opening look at the hobo lifestyle during the Great Depression, PBS produced a documentary in 1999 called “Riding the Rails” as part of its American Experience history series. Read about it and watch a preview here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/rails/. There’s also a book by the same title. It’s free for subscribers at Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.

In Lexington, MA, the National Heritage Museum houses an archived collection of letters, photographs, and books donated by Errol Lincoln Uys about the people who rode the rails during the Depression. Read about the hobo lifestyle and what Great-Uncle Frank might have experienced: http://nationalheritagemuseum.typepad.com/library_and_archives/great-depression/. For further information, visit Uys’s website at http://erroluys.com/RidingtheRailsTeenagersontheMoveDuringtheGreatDepression-Archive11.htm.

A couple of interesting tidbits I read are that some hoboes created “tramp art” and they had their own form of communication. Tramp art was a style of folk art created from whatever materials were on hand, especially cigar boxes and scraps of wood.  See images on this website: http://www.folkartisans.com/sup/tramhist.html.

Hoboes made up their own means of communication by scratching or penciling symbols onto signs or posts which served them well since they didn’t have mail or phone service. The symbols let others know about ‘friendlies’ and ‘unfriendlies’ in a locale. Take a look at some of the ones most commonly used: http://www.worldpath.net/~minstrel/hobosign.htm. I would show you these images here, but they’re copyright protected. I’m sure Great-Uncle Frank used these symbols on his travels and possibly contributed some of his own for future travelers.

Frank seemed to have still been on the road in 1940 because I haven’t found him yet in the 1940 U.S. census. Unfortunately, I did find him in 1943 in the Georgia, Central Register of Convicts, 1817-1976, arrested in Muscogee County for public drunkenness and sentenced to $25 or 12 months, with the last 9 months suspended[2]. So, as I suspected, alcohol seems to have been a factor in his lifestyle choices.

My Dad remembers one specific time that Frank returned to town while Dad was in elementary school. Frank helped him with his homework and the pronunciation of ‘Pocahontas.’ Dad said Grandmother was never happy to see Frank arrive because “he created extra work for her,” but I venture that Grandmother didn’t mind the extra work as much as Frank’s possible influence on her children.

Lonely Georgia tracks
Lonely Georgia tracks (Wikimedia Commons, added by Michael Rivera (own work) 23 Aug 2014 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARailroad_tracks_looking_northbound_from_US84_overpass.JPG).

To me, it would have been a sad life with no roots or a home or a soft place to land at the end of the day. Did he feel emotionally disconnected from others, was he an alcoholic, or did he just have a more adventurous spirit and relish the road and the unknowns each day would bring? Did he ever enjoy a semblance of a family? To our knowledge, he never married or had children. But we can’t say for sure.

In my search for information on Frank, I located another surprising record. A Frank McCune, born in Alabama in 1898, had enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army in New Orleans, LA, on 7 Sep 1942 during World War II.[3] He was single, with no dependents, and listed his civilian employment as a kitchen worker. I’ve wondered if this was our Frank looking for a home again in the military, but I haven’t yet found any corroborating evidence as proof.

In 1946 when he was 49, his lifeless body was found a few days before Christmas under a highway bridge near Griffin, GA, where his Dad had died 35 years earlier. The newspaper article about his death said he died of a heart attack[4]. Georgia does not have his death certificate online so I will need to order a copy through Spalding County Vital Records to verify the obituary notice information.  The news article paraphrased grandmother McCune saying that Frank had recently been in a veterans’ hospital in Mountain Home, TN, and they had not seen him in over a year.

The article said that Frank died in a gray suit with $1 in his pocket. He’s buried in a Griffin, GA, cemetery, thanks to the assistance of the Salvation Army. My research on the Great Depression and the hobo lifestyle revealed that the Salvation Army often provided meals and beds for these men. Daddy remembers going to the graveside service with his Dad and Uncle Billy. It was just the three of them and a minister. Years later he searched for Frank’s grave in the cemetery, but couldn’t find it.

Frank McCune – one of the millions of homeless Americans over the decades – a hobo and wandering man, significant to no one but us. He’s our ancestor, and his home is in our hearts.

 

[1] “Transient’s Death Probed at Americus,” Columbus Daily Enquirer, digital image, Genealogybank.com (http://www.genealogybank.com: accessed 14 Feb 2016), 13.

[2] Georgia, Central Register of Convicts, 1817-1976, Muscogee County, Misdemeanor Sentence Register, 6 Mar 1943, Frank McCune, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 27 Feb 2016).

[3] U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946, index only, Frank McCune, 7 Sept 1942, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 27 Feb 2016).

[4] “Bridge Death Laid to Heart Attack,” newspaper unknown, copy in possession of Christine Ellington.

5 Comments

  1. Michelle said:

    What an interesting and sad story. My Grandma wrote in her life history about the hobos coming through the area, but I didn’t know all of the things that you shared here about them.

    April 26, 2016
    Reply
    • Christine Ellington said:

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, Michelle! I visited your very interesting blog and enjoyed several of your posts. Our ancestors share some similar life stories, and I have an ancestor from Walker County, AL. We also have a murder in our family which I mentioned in my first blog post and will get back to in a few weeks.

      April 26, 2016
      Reply
    • Christine Ellington said:

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, Michelle! I visited your very interesting blog and enjoyed several of your posts. Our ancestors share some similar life stories, and I have an ancestor from Walker County, AL. We also have a murder in our family which I mentioned in my first blog post and will get back to in a few weeks.

      April 26, 2016
      Reply
  2. Julie said:

    Do you have any information on what cemetery he was buried in and if his grave is marked or unmarked? I would like to see if I can find it.

    Daddy still donates to the Salvation Army because of his Uncle Frank. He’s told me several times how they took care of his Uncles’s funeral and he’s never forgot it.

    April 27, 2016
    Reply
    • Christine Ellington said:

      The cemetery is directly across from the public library.

      April 28, 2016
      Reply

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