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   On March 4, 1913, the U.S. Mint released a newly designed 5-cent piece made of copper-nickel and depicting the head of an Indian, with an American bison on the coin's tails side. American sculptor James Earle Fraser, who designed the coin, struggled to capture the spirit of a bison named Black Diamond. “He was ... the contrariest animal in the Bronx Park Zoo. I stood for hours ... catching his form and mood in plastic clay,” said Fraser later. “He refused point blank to permit me to get side views of him and stubbornly showed his front face most of the time.” The ornery bison was soon famous, circulating through the hands of millions of Americans.
   One of those Americans was George Washington “Bo” Hughes, and what he would do with his buffalo nickel would change the fate of the coin forever. A black teenager born sometime at the end of the 19th century, Hughes was what was known as a hobo, one of the uncountable thousands of American men who hitched rides on trains and traveled thousands of miles on the railroads in pursuit of work and their next meal.
   Hughes left home for a simple reason: He was hungry. “I had nine, 10 brothers and sisters when I ran away from home, didn't know none of 'em much. I just knowed I was hungry and cold, and I hit the road,” he told a researcher in 1981. After escaping the poverty of his home, Hughes crossed the country in pursuit of warm weather and short-term work as a laborer or farmhand. He slept in “jungles,” hobo camps located near railways, where bands of men awaited transit from one state to the next.
   A subculture born after the Civil War, hobos typically were men forced into transience because they had lost their jobs or simply couldn't find work in their hometowns. Many had no alternative to the hobo life, but some were simply drawn to defy the status quo of the era, which, for many poor, uneducated youth, would have meant working in a factory.
   Hobos came to embody a type of American sentiment − an independence and self-reliance born of adversity. As the historian Kenneth Kusmer wrote, “Their experience represented an incipient rebellion against the new work disciplines and institutional strictures of industrial society.” A teenage Jack London, author of “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” traveled the United States as a hobo after working in canning factories and mills in California. And H.L. Mencken helped clarify the term in the 1930s: “Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels.”
   It could be a punishing life, but also one of freedom. Hobo William Davies described it in his poem “A Greeting”:
   My pockets nothing hold,
   But he that owns the gold,
   The Sun, is my great friend −
   His spending has no end.

[  The carving on the right was not done by Bert ~ V-Dubya  ]
   In addition to inspiring literature, hobo culture created art, using the buffalo nickel as its most famous canvas. In one hobo jungle, Hughes met a man named Bertram Wiegand, who had a talent for resculpting buffalo nickels with a chisel, knife or nail punch. Wiegand pushed and molded the soft surface, turning the Native American chief into a portrait of a clown, famous person or hobo, and the buffalo into a variety of animals like elephants or horses. He signed his work by removing the “LI” and “Y” in the word “LIBERTY” stamped on the nickel so that the coin read “BERT.”
   “Bert taught me 'bout all I know,” Hughes said of their friendship. Indeed, nickel carving was a skill Hughes would practice for nearly 70 years, creating some prized and famous hobo coins. There were many; as the Depression created new masses of Americans without employment or prospects, the number of hobos swelled, and nickel carving was practiced by more and more of them. Mostly anonymous, these carvers became known by the trademark characteristics they gave their portraits: “Needle Ear,” “Rough Beard,” “No Neck.”
   Working the copper of the small 5-cent pieces was painstaking, but it was a way of increasing the value of a nickel, an asset for a hobo trying to survive. Hobo coins were bartered for food or clothes or sold for money.
   Still, the poverty of life as a transient was relentless and grueling. There were other dangers besides starving or freezing: Railroad police were notoriously brutal and would sooner beat hobos than arrest them. “One time a railroad detective caught me,” Hughes said. “I was little and he was big. When he got through puttin' knots on my head, I was nearly as tall as him. Back in the '30s, they was mean.”
   In 1938, the buffalo nickel was discontinued, with 1.2 billion coins minted since its launch in 1913. In the decades following the Depression, the numbers of hobos circulating on the nation's railroads began to decrease. In times of greater economic stability, fewer men turned to migrant work and the railroads as a way of life. Some hobos signed up for military service in World War II.
   But Hughes never quit the hobo life. Even in his 80s, he moved from one camp to another, riding freight trains to get there. Reflecting on his experience as a hobo, Hughes said: “Christmas probably means more to me than to most folks. Not many of us bos left, but we make camp in Florida every Christmas and tell our tales to each other, and then just fade away when it gets warm. Used to be 40-50 of us, but each year, just a few less. Last year only nine of us showed up. Been nearly 30 years since Bert was there. Guess all of us'll be gone someday.”
   Hughes disappeared from a hobo camp in Florida shortly after his only interview in 1981. Among the belongings he left behind was a worn copy of “Ivanhoe.” Today, his original hobo coins sell for thousands of dollars at auction.
   Maura R. O'Connor is a writer living in New York City.
{ This is an archival copy of the original webpage. }