Indispensable Outcasts

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Frank Tobias Higbie, textIndispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930.

Commentary


Alex Bradshaw Fall 2012

Higbie explores the social, economic, and political lives of hobo, or transient, workers and of the people with whom they came in contact in the Midwest region of the US. Higbie declares that the only way to possibly understand the lives of these workers is to balance and evaluate their various identities, experiences, and roles, all of which cannot easily be fit into those that have been previously ascribed to the workers, either in their own times, or in the historical record.

Higbie’s analysis does not result in his coming to any conclusive assertions about the nature of this history. This lack of certainty is partially caused by the documentary shortage that is the inevitable result of the nature of transient workers’ lives. Social and labor historians can conduct highly detailed studies of life in particular regions and in particular industries, but this cannot include workers who hat comprehensive accounts of the lives of workers whose positions and locations fluctuated frequently. Higbie used labor records, oral histories, and interviews conducted by contemporary social service groups, in addition to other evidence to tell this history.

Hobo workers have had difficult relationships with the communities with which they interacted. They were often seen as exerting negative influence over those communities, bringing with them shiftlessness, immorality, filth, criminality, perversion, and any other number of devastating qualities. Higbie argues that this was both true and false, or neither, according to particular situations.

Andrew Salamone Spring 2016

In his 2003 work Indispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930, Frank Tobias Higbie examined the interaction between seasonal workers or hobos, labor markets, and established communities in the Mid-West during the 1910s and 1920s. In particular, he explored the tension between the status of these individuals as social outcasts with the important role they played in the country’s economic development and changing concepts of community and family. He argued that hobos “created a culture different from the wider culture, not because of their isolation from society, but because of a tension between their marginality and their similarity to the rest of society.”

Higbie argued that tracing the movement of these seasonal workers shows that they did not simply aimlessly wander across the Midwest, but rather were guided by “economic structures, family, and individual survival strategies.” He asserted that their participation in jobs as diverse as farming, building railroads, and mining placed them at the center of the region’s economic development. More important, their involvement in activities such as farming “threatened to disrupt established relationships centered on family and social ties.” He contended that these “laborers hired to work on farms represented the incursion of the outside world into the moral and economic structure of the farm household.” Beyond disrupting the structure of individual households, “tramps threatened the community by setting a bad example for other workers,” because to Progressive Era reformers, they appeared to be “insufficiently committed to wage labor.” Implicit in this threat, according to Higbie, was that all workers might be susceptible to this lack of commitment, leading to a conflict between class and community.

Higbie focused part of his analysis on the conflict between farmers and laborers in South Dakota during 1915-1917 to challenge the establish narrative that “rural social conflict was a clash between community and outsiders.” He argued that “harvest hands, vigilantes, farmers, and others were part of a broader regional community.” To Higbie, the root of this conflict was the changing nature of the country’s economy as it moved from an agricultural to an industrial nation. This transition was made more complex by the efforts of the IWW to unionize seasonal workers. It was difficult for many farmers to differentiate between individual hobos seeking jobs and IWW sympathizers trying to organize them. Railroad executives, bankers, and other businessmen were equally opposed to this activity and added another layer of complexity to the situation.

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