Whatever you do, don’t call him a bum. Or tramp, wastrel or homeless person.
Jim Morphew is a hobo — in fact, King of the Hobos, officially crowned at the Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, in August.
The designation is a matter of pride for Morphew, who is 83 and lives in Oakdale.
“A hobo travels and works. A tramp travels but does not work. A bum does neither,” Morphew said. “A bum sits and begs.”
Never mind that his hobo peregrinations were in the 1940s. Officials at the Hobo Convention define a hobo as anyone who has illegally hopped onto trains — at any point in the past.
Morphew’s coronation, with a Folger’s Coffee-can crown, came with full hobo benefits, including free burial at the hobo cemetery in Britt. But most important, it distinguished him from the hobo wannabes.
“These are people who like to mingle with hobos, but they were never hobos themselves,” Morphew told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “They say they are ‘hobos at heart.’ ”
Morphew’s adventures began when he left the family farm in Oakdale in 1945. He was 16.
The nation seemed to be made for hobos. There were few freeways, mostly just narrow roads where drivers could pull over almost anywhere to pick someone up.
There was no stigma attached to hobo-ism. “People invited me into their homes, even though they didn’t know me from Adam,” Morphew said.
Hobos had honor. “I didn’t want to break any laws. I never hitched through city or town — I walked or took public transportation,” he said.
Hobos worked when they needed money. Morphew found odd jobs — sometimes, very odd. He washed dishes and stacked wood. He picked cotton in a town called Earth, Texas.
“That was backbreaking, dragging that 10-foot sack of cotton behind me,” he said.
And hobos were cool. Famous hobos included Clark Gable, Art Linkletter and Arlo Guthrie.
In his first adventure, Morphew hitchhiked to New York state, saw Niagara Falls, then was deported from Canada for “lack of funds.”
Two years later, he zigzagged across the county in several trips over a six-month period.
One took him to Fargo, then south to New Mexico and Texas. That trip included the hobo-required ride on the rails, from the Rio Grande to San Antonio.
“In Albuquerque, I stayed in a YMCA for $1.25 a night with cold and cold running water,” he said. He carried two small bags, one for dirty clothes, the other for clean. “Most hobos didn’t have anything, and they would be eyeing your bags,” he said. “You slept with one eye open.”
Morphew usually carried $2 in his wallet for safety. “If you didn’t have anything, you might get beat up” by frustrated robbers, he said.
He was robbed at gunpoint in Texas by a man who stopped to pick him up. “He drove about a quarter mile, then threw out my wallet,” Morphew said.
In all, he covered 28 states.
Today, like most hobos, Morphew has settled down. “We are not all poor people. We have a lot of professional people, doctors, attorneys, military people. We have some millionaires.”
He retired in 1996 after owning an RV building and maintenance business for 32 years. He has a wife, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He still picks up hitchhikers if they are alone. But only men, never women. “No cotton-pickin’ way. That would just be trouble.”
And riding the rails? Forget it.
“It is totally illegal and highly dangerous,” Morphew said. “You can drop between cars, fall off a car or fall trying to catch a moving freight.”
But to some, the lure of adventure will always be irresistible. “There are always those adventurous souls,” he said.