LIVING ON, OFF THE ROAD: New generation of hoboes, travelers fills need in fields

A new kind of hobo is helping harvest the sugar beet crop in the Red River Valley. Lately, however, they have been more hoping than helping, stymied by the warm then wet weather that has delayed digging of beets by American Crystal Sugar growers....

Micaela Madden, left, Jena, center and Chris Jeffries, front, hung out together Monday in Red River Campground in East Grand Forks, waiting for the weather to allow the sugar beet harvest to resume so they could work. They say they are hoboes, or "travelers," hitchhiking and riding freight trains around America to work harvests and play music. They are working for Express Employment to man beet piler stations in the Valley. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

A new kind of hobo is helping harvest the sugar beet crop in the Red River Valley.

Lately, however, they have been more hoping than helping, stymied by the warm then wet weather that has delayed digging of beets by American Crystal Sugar growers.

Several are camping in the Red River Campground in East Grand Forks, near downtown and the river.

"We have been waiting more than a week," said Adriane, who asked that her last name not be published. She's 23 and from Los Angeles, but her home is the highway and the rail and she rides freight trains and hitchhikes across the country to get where she needs to go.

She was in Minneapolis hanging with friends this summer when she heard about the chance to work the sugar beet harvest here and make some good money fast.


Adriane and her boyfriend hitchhiked to Grand Forks last month, too early for the harvest. And so far, she's gotten in only two half-days 10 days ago.

She said it's getting difficult to get by being low on cash and getting whipped by last week's high-winds that wrecked tents and rain that left supplies and clothes wet.

Adriane is one of a few dozen young travelers working the beet harvest this fall for a few days of long hours in certain roles.

They are young foot-loose types, living on the road, maybe homeless, technically, traveling with friends by freight train or their thumbs, playing music for tips and finding odd jobs when they can. Word of good jobs travels fast among them.

The supper was on late Monday afternoon as one traveler sliced an onion to add into white rice he was frying in an electric griddle on a wooden picnic table laden with canned food and stacks of ramen noodles.

Chris Jeffries, 19, washed dishes in Baltimore until he hit the road two months ago, he said. He spent down time Monday playing guitar with another traveler on harmonica, the hobo's harp.

Jumping trains in the South can be easier because of the superstition that it's good luck to leave box cars open, he said.

Micaela Madden, from Petaluma, Calif., is a three-year veteran of the road.


"I've been in box cars with 20 people," she said. Gesturing to include the gathering around the picnic table, she says, "I guess we are all travelers, or just hoboes."

She was in Oregon when she heard from friends about the beet harvest here.

"I hitchhiked to Grand Forks and walked in from (Interstate) 29," Madden said.

She carries a small pack and doesn't always have a tent, sometimes just staying "in bushes," Madden said.

They stop and roost when they find a good place, then move on, playing music for money or finding odd jobs.

"If you are smart, you can get where you're going for free," Madden said.

Earlier this summer, she came on a good deal in Cheyenne, Wyo.

"We got off the train and were walking toward town and this woman offered us scrambled eggs and said, 'Do you want a job herding goats?'"


The answer was yes, so for weeks she and friends spent their days monitoring baby goats on the range.

Madden has a goal.

"I'm actually trying to get a house this winter," she said. "I've never had a house."

They are part of a workforce that often goes unnoticed during the Valley's sugar beet harvest.

Under contract with American Crystal, for 14 years Express Employment in Grand Forks has hired about 1,200 temporary workers every fall to work the beet harvest, said Al Sorensen, who is the harvest supervisor for Express.

The Express employees are separate from the 1,300 union employees who normally work in the five sugar processing factories, some all year long, some only during the nine-month processing campaign.

And the travelers are distinct from this year's replacement workers hired by a Twin Cities' employment firm to work inside the plants instead of the union workers locked out by American Crystal since Aug. 1 because of a contract dispute. But this year, because of the lock-out, Express is providing maybe 1,350 harvest workers, perhaps 100 or so of them are young travelers, Sorensen said.

Mostly the Express workers man the 39 piler stations up and down the Valley where beets dug out of farm fields during the harvest are brought to be stockpiled.


During the nine-month sugar processing campaign, those beets are hauled from the station stockpiles into the five factories in East Grand Forks, Crookston, Moorhead and Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D.

But once the beets are piled, the Express workers' job is done.

Express employees get paid starting wages of about $10.60 an hour, and expect to work 12-hour days, seven days a week for the harvest which usually takes two to three weeks.

They get overtime -- time-and-a-half -- on Saturdays and double-time on Sundays, Madden said.

Besides the travelers, the Express workers include people who travel in RVs to work harvests or other temporary work, as well as more traditional migrant laborers who also work the potato harvest in the Valley, Sorensen said.

But the young travelers are a more recent, slice of American working life, part of a kind of counter-culture not unlike the hippies of the 1960s, Sorensen said. "But they are hard workers," he said.

Adriane wanted that point driven home.

"Because we are hoboes and ride the trains and hitchhike, people think we are lazy bums," Adriane said. "We are not lazy bums. We work hard."


The word "hobo," in fact, first came into the American lingo in the 1890s as thousands of men traveled the rails for mostly farm work, often in the wheat harvests in places like the Red River Valley, when more hand labor was needed for a month or so.

One theory of the mysterious origin of the word, "hobo," in fact, is that it came from calling these transient workers, "hoe boys."

As the sugar beet industry developed by the 1950s, thousands of migrant laborers from Texas, mostly Mexican-Americans, would spend months every summer and fall working in the fields, hoeing weeds and thinning beets. Many would stay to help out during the harvest, too, andmany ended up moving to the Valley to live and work year-round.

But improved machinery, beet seed varieties and pesticide use the past decade has eliminated the need for most hand labor in beet fields.

This new generation of hoboes and travelers is filling a need by its fluid nature, Sorensen said.

Because of the delay, Express has promised them double-pay on the first day they start work again, which might be tonight or Wednesday, depending on the weather.

"It's great pay," Adriane said. "It's just that the weather has been screwing with the harvest."

They get paid with cash cards, more or less like the phone cards one can buy in retail stores, with the appropriate wages entered. The card can be cashed out at any bank, Madden said.


It's a willingness to do about any work that makes them valuable, Sorenson said.

Madden has an indoor job during beet harvest, working in the lab at the East Grand Forks factory, checking and entering data from beet samples.

Jena, 24, from Wolf Creek, Mont., asked that her last name not be published.

"I'm retired from the road," she said. But she made a special trip by bus to work the sugar beet harvest.

"I'm going to Puerto Rico this winter, and when I get back, I'm going to buy a car."

From 17 until she was about 21, Jena lived on the road, from New Orleans' French Quarter to the West Coast, playing music for tips.

She's since settled down, most recently in Montana.

"I don't accept handouts anymore," Jena said. "I don't hobo anymore."

The promise of hard work for a short time for solid bucks brought her here to camp out with travelers, some whom she knows from her time on the road.

"If I walk out of here with $2,000, I'm OK with that," Jena said.

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