Event Highlights Rhinelander's History of Hobos and Their Symbols

Jan 11, 2019

During the Great Depression, there was what was known as a hobo jungle in Rhinelander.

This Saturday, January 12th, ArtStart Rhinelander is holding a community event to remember it. The event ties in nicely with Dark Airing, an art exhibit on display at ArtStart through January 12th that features symbols hobos used back in the day to communicate with one another.

Mackenzie Martin has the story as part of WXPR's We Live Up Here series.

Those who have lived in Rhinelander for a long time might agree that in the 1950’s, it was a different place than it is today. Kids roamed slightly freer and there were less concerns about mysterious strangers.


Bill Vancos is the President of the Rhinelander Historical Society Museum and he says from personal experience, everything was just a little simpler back then.


“If you watch the old Leave It to Beaver shows or something like that, that’s what Rhinelander was,” he says. “People watched out for each other’s children. Today, our parents would probably be brought up on charges if they did what our parents did back then.”


Vancos was just a kid in Rhinelander in the 1950’s, but something he vividly remembers about that time are the remnants of what was known as Rhinelander’s hobo jungle.


Credit John Vachon / Library of Congress

“I can remember, we would walk those tracks and we would see... maybe some branches at an angle, like somebody might have got out of the elements with,” he said. “And we’d see the remnants of a fire and we’d even see little cans of beans and they’d be blacked on the bottom.”

While today the word hobo is often used interchangeably with the word bum, hobos in the era of the Great Depression in the 1920’s and 1930’s weren’t bums. They were people traveling wherever there was work.

“The hobo that we’re talking about really was not a freeloader, a person just looking for handouts,” he said. “They were looking for a meal obviously, but they were willing to work for it if they could.”


It was estimated that four million men traveled around looking for work like this. Rhinelander’s hobo jungle was in the area known as the hollow near the old Sportsman's Cafe, what’s now known as the Dinky Diner.


“That was called the hungry hollow back in the old days,” said Vancos. “That was the crossing of the Chicago North Western and the Soo Line Railroad. Not just in Rhinelander, but anywhere, your chance of finding a hobo village around an [intersection] was much increased simply because that was a way they could change directions if they were headed in a certain area.”


Bill Vancos knows a lot about the history of the hobo jungle in Rhinelander because for the last few weeks, he’s been interviewing people who have stories from that time period in Rhinelander’s history. It’s in preparation for an event this Saturday at ArtStart Rhinelander.


He says that even though the Great Depression was a hard time for a lot of people, the stories he’s been hearing about Rhinelander’s hobo jungle are pretty funny. Like the story of June Theil, who is from Rhinelander but met her husband John in Chicago.


“John lived his whole life in Chicago. He comes up to meet her family for the first time,” said Vancos. “and June’s father had a habit of providing the food for the people if they would stop. So it’s a Saturday morning and John is here. He’s nervous. He’s meeting the family. And June’s dad starts making breakfast. And all of a sudden, there’s a knock on the door. And it’s still a little dark out, so he didn’t want to have the guy just eat out on the porch, so he invites him in for breakfast.”


Hobo signs
Credit Symbol Sourcebook/Henry Dreyfuss via bLog-oMotives

How does one know which house to knock on for a free meal when traveling to a new town for the first time, though? It all has to do with the hobo code.

In addition to hearing stories Saturday at ArtStart, there will also be a discussion of historic hobo symbols. These are symbols that hobos used to tell other hobos where there were opportunities and dangers.

For instance, a symbol that indicates “man with a gun” might warn someone to stay away from a house, while a symbol that indicates “food here” would tip off a new traveler that this is the right door to knock on.


Hobo symbols are a big part of the current art exhibit at ArtStart by artist David Hamlow. If you haven’t seen Dark Airing yet, Saturday is your last chance.


It’s a black light exhibit, so all you see when you walk in is darkness and colorful symbols and objects made from recycled materials. There’s also a soundtrack for the exhibit by musician Nathan Tolzmann,


(Check out a video of Dark Airing here)


(Listen to the soundtrack made for Dark Airing here)


David Hamlow says hobos used the symbols rather than language for a lot of reasons back then, one of which was to keep their communication with one another secret.

“You don’t necessarily want the town that you’re entering to know that you’re thinking or talking about them that way,” says Hamlow. “This is a way to be able to convey that information without having to use written language.”

Hamlow also says that for him, these symbols bring to mind the national conversations happening right now about migrant workers.


“The kinds of opportunities and dangers that the hobo faced,” he says. “Are still faced by people who don’t have a permanent home and are kind of living in a world that’s outside established culture but dependent on it in some way.”


Bill Vancos says he’s sure Rhinelander would’ve been full of symbols indicating to hobos back then that it was a good town to stop in.


He says one of Rhinelander’s first police chiefs—Morris Straub—was instrumental in making it a tolerant place for hobos.

You can hear more about Rhinelander’s hobo jungle Saturday, January 12th at ArtStart Rhinelander from 4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. There is no admission fee and you are encouraged to share your stories.

The event is being held in collaboration with the Rhinelander Historical Society Museum, the Pioneer Park Historical Complex, and the Rhinelander District Library. This event is also your last chance to see the art exhibit Dark Airing by David Hamlow, who will be in attendance at the event. More information on the event and exhibit can be found here.

More information about the hobo jungle in Rhinelander can also be found in Tales of the northwoods: Echoes from Rhinelander's past by Mark Miazga.

This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and history of northern Wisconsin.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.