When the railroad stretched its steel rails across the American West in the 1870s, it opened up a vast expanse of territory with very few people but enormous agricultural potential: a second Western frontier, the garden West. Agriculture quickly followed the railroads, making way for Kansas wheat and Colorado sugar beets and Washington apples. With this new agriculture came an unavoidable need for harvest workers--for hands to pick the apples, cotton, oranges, and hops; to pull and top the sugar beets; to fill the trays with raisin grapes and apricots; to stack the wheat bundles in shocks to be pitched into the maw of the threshing machine. These were not the year-round hired hands but transients who would show up to harvest the crop and then leave when the work was finished. Variously called bindlestiffs, fruit tramps, hoboes, and bums, these men--and women and children--were vital to the creation of the West and its economy. Amazingly, it is an aspect of Western history that has never been told. In "Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West," the award-winning historian Mark Wyman beautifully captures the lives of these workers. Exhaustively researched and highly original, this narrative history is a detailed, deeply sympathetic portrait of the lives of these hoboes, as well as a fresh look at the settling and development of the American West.
A distinguished professor of history, emeritus, at Illinois State University, Mark Wyman has written several books on immigration and the American West. He lives in Normal, Illinois, with his wife Eva.