When I was a child in the 1950’s, “hobos” or “tramps” would come to the door and ask for a quarter or a dollar or something to eat. They knew my father was a minister with a soft touch because other hobos would put a secret mark on the curb in front of the house.
One stormy Christmas Eve in 1958, an old man in worn-out clothes came to our house in Mississippi looking for a place to sleep for the night. His name was “Mr. Jones” and he was trying to get from Birmingham to Memphis to see his kids. The church had a special fund, and my dad called all the hotels in town but they were full. My parents decided to take a chance on the kindly-seeming old man and put him up in the guest room. They apologized to him that we would have to lock him in the room for the night, and he said he completely understood.
The next morning the old gentleman sat with us as we opened our Christmas presents, and he pulled out of his pocket three silver dollars, one for each of us three kids. I still have it. The other two silver dollars in my collection may belong to my sister and brother, but I don’t remember how I ended up with them.
The term “tramp” came into popular use in the 19th Century and referred to transients, migrant workers, or just people who lived a wandering homeless lifestyle. Their numbers increased dramatically after the industrial recession of the early 1870s.
Tramps often hitched rides on trains, so many towns built “tramp houses” (Boston Globe article) beside the tracks to provide for them and keep them out of the rest of town. The tramps would be locked in at night and sent them on their way the next morning. Ipswich had a major railroad passing through it, and saw its share of tramps.
There is a reference in the 1896 Ipswich town report to the “Tramp House.” A small building once sat beside the Depot in Ipswich and its original use is uncertain. It bears similarity to the structures that other towns used to house tramps. When the Depot was torn down, the building was moved to the back yard of one of the oldest houses in town, the “John Brewer house on High Street next to Dunkin Donuts. Could this be the Ipswich tramp house?
Kathy Hegarty responded:
“Pictured on the far left hand side of the photo of the Ipswich Depot is a small hip-roofed building. It was the old express luggage building. It was moved to our property at 82 High St., as best we can determine, in the 1950′s.
It has the original Victorian lighting fixtures, distinctive train building features and the big sliding door. It is apparently quite significant to “train junkies” who know of its whereabouts, as we’ve had visitors who have made their way here from some distance to take take photographs for their collections. I’m not sure how they know it is here, but it seems that it is noted in some places. At some time in decades past it was outfitted as a boutique with sliding glass doors on the back wall, where the owner of the house had set up a shop.”
Gavin Keenan adds,
“An obscure photocopied document that I have, entitled “Did You know these facts about Ipswich,” speaks to this issue as well. In addition to the Police Station and Town Hall basement, “thousands” of tramps were housed in a barn owned by Mr. John B. Mitchell on Mitchel Road. A true humanitarian, Mr. Mitchell is said to have never turned anyone away, allowing them to sleep in the hay, provided they did not smoke. “Of the many thousands, not one was known to let him down.” (Great self control, I’d say!) A tramp told the author of this document (perhaps the late Howard Bowen) that “Mitchell’s Barn was known among tramps from coast to coast. Even in California.”
The town also used a room at the Ipswich jail on Green Street for the purpose of housing transients overnight. Mattresses, blankets, heat, and a few items of food were provided, and the men were often expected to perform some form of labor in exchange for “room and board.” The jail was taken down to build the high school which is now the Ipswich Town Hall.
The number of tramps in need of assistance grew to over a thousand each year, exceeding the town’s resources. The town made increasingly stringent demands of the tramps, which brought about an almost complete cessation of migrants passing through town for a couple of decades. When the Great Depression came, many people lost their jobs and homes, and hobos once again became common.
IPSWICH TRAMP REPORT, 1899
“At the police station long needed improvements have been made. For years the tramps have made it a practice to sleep on the floor of the guard room, and the unfortunate prisoner who occupied a cell, was sure to find plenty of “live stock” in his clothing. The entrance to the guard room has always been poorly arranged, and a dangerous one for an officer to handle an unruly prisoner in. As it is now, a new entrance has been made, doing away with the necessity of going through the dark cellar, and the tramps are not allowed in the cell room. A new hot water heating plant warms both the tramp room and guard room and does it well. Other needed improvements have been made about the hall at a small expense.
–Respectfully submitted, Geo. A, Schofield, John A. Brown, Chas. E. Goodhue, Selectmen, Ipswich, Feb. 20. 1899.”
IPSWICH TRAMP REPORT, 1900
“For the year ending December 31, 1889: Whole number of tramps cared for at the police station, 1018 as seen in the following report: January 186, February 103, March 184, April 157, May 53, June 13, July 11, August 6, September 39, October 50, November 116, December 100, Total 1018.
The number of tramps have decreased about one-half this year, this we account for partly by working them in the morning when there is anything to do, and by searching them when being put up, as quite a number or them have money to buy food and lodging which they are made to do, and by so doing they are not dependent on the town.”
–Respectfully submitted, Frank B. Page, Chief of Police, Ipswich, Mass., Jan. 1, 1900.”
IPSWICH TRAMP REPORT 1905
“I desire to call your attention to the fact that since the month of May last, there does not appear in the report submitted to you, any care of tramps at your police station. Commencing with the month of June, tramps applying for aid were told that assistance would be furnished to them, but were also told that they would be brought before the court in the morning on the charge of vagrancy; that if it was then shown that they were traveling about from place to place, having no employment, and seeking none, they must take their chances of being sentenced as a vagrant.
Only in rare instances did any of them applying for aid wish their past record inquired into, and there was only one instance where an examination of their records warranted any assistance being rendered, and this was where an old soldier, who had just lost his employment and chance of earning a livelihood, and at the time he asked for aid was looking for employment. In this case he was given a lodging and breakfast at the Franklin House. These “traveling gentlemen” are now taboo Ipswich, so that now it is a rare thing to have any application made to us, by them, for any assistance.
–Respectfully submitted, Albert S. Garland, Chief of Police. Ipswich, Mass., Jan. 31, 1906″