Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983
A VISIT WITH SYLVIA SIEBKEN
Edited by Le Anne Ruble Photography by Beth Anne Burwell
Hoboing was the best part of my life. I liked it a lot, and I'm going to do it again someday when I get out of this nursing home.
I did most of my hopping trains before I got married, but I still did some after. My first husband, James Crawford, was a detective on the railroad, and he used to call me down for hoboing because I had a pass, and he wanted me to use that pass instead of hoboing. When he died in 1936, I went on the hobo full time until I met and married my second husband.
I liked to bum trains because when you bum, you're your own boss, and you can do anything you want. We did, anyway. When we ran out of money, we would just stop and work. We had to work or starve to death. A lot of times we couldn't get a job we wanted. We had to take what we could get. We didn't want to spend our money to ride. We wanted to keep it for other things.
I hoboed with a girl friend everyone called Sparky. I wasn't alone any of the time. When we hoboed, we didn't want anyone to know we were women. We wore bib overalls and those caps with long bills like they used to wear. We'd put our hair up in the caps. We never had any accidents while we were hoboing because we knew how. Boy, if we didn't know when we started, we knew how when we quit!
Now, I'll tell you how to catch a train. You catch a freight train while it's getting all stacked up. You don't catch passenger trains very often. You couldn't catch a train while it was in the station, because there was too many cops around. We waited till it got out of town until it stopped, got slow or went up a hill. It's harder to catch a train when you're small because your legs aren't long enough. I was too short, and I had to hang on to where I could get my legs up. You had to be strong.
We always got on the last end of the car so they couldn't see us coming down the track. You could get on the end of the car and pile on. The cars got little stairs up, and you just get on there, go up, and jump into the car you want to get into. We didn't always have to get into the back car of the train. We got on top of it and ran down the boxcars. Some of them had walks on top. If they did, we could just get on top and run down. When we came between cars, we'd climb down the ladder and then up.
We'd always wait to get off until they would come to a hill, 'cause then they would be real slow. We'd get off and away we would go. If it's going fast, you don't ever jump off. I nearly got thrown under it once doing that. We went through a tunnel one time, and the cars were rambling through there. They were coming about ninety miles per hour. I jumped off and fell down a ridge. I' just laid there until Sparky came and helped me up. I was skinned up but I wasn't hurt bad. We knew we had to get off because we were coming to the city. We had to watch for the breakman to know when we could get off. They'd be out there with a light and we could see to get off.
If we rode into the city, they looked the trains over, and if they spotted you on the run, they would take you in and ask you if you had any money. If you said no, they'd say, "Get on out of here then. We don't want you." We did have .money though. We had our paychecks.
One time we got caught hoboing. Sparky said she wondered if they'd put us in jail, and I told her I didn't care if they did because I was too tired to care. They didn't put us in jail, but they did ask us where we were going. We told them, "Oh, up where all the sawhorses are." They asked, "Where is your mother?" I said, "She's home." They asked us why we were on the hobo. We told them because we wanted to go somewhere. They knew we were not telling the truth. They asked us how we were going to get home because they couldn't let us go unless we went home. I told them they better let us go, and I told them my husband was a detective on the railroad. I told them who my husband was, and they said, "Oh, we know him. Go on. Get on this train and get out of here."
We'd usually try and find an emptybox car to travel in. That way there was nothing in there to hurt us. Something real funny happened one time. We were in a box car that was full of lumber. We found out that lumber and wood would kill a person if it slipped when they jerked the train. We crawled inside the lumber 'cause it was raining. The lumber was packed so that you could crawl in the holes. I crawled in one and I rolled right in on top of another hobo! I got scared to death and rolled out. My girl friend asked me what was the matter, and I told her that somebody was already down there. She had a little squeaky voice. I told her to quit talking and to let me talk 'cause my voice sounded more like a man's than hers did. Finally whoever it was down there got out. They asked us where we were going. I said that we didn't know and guessed we'd get off at the next stop. We made sure the next time we bummed we were alone.
We always hid when the cops went through the trains. They came and stood in one corner of the car and looked all over. We used to get in those battleship cars. They've got two or three big humps in them so they couldn't see us. They never thought of looking there, so we didn't dare get up to where they could see us.
When we caught passenger trains, we had to get on the rods and that was bad. The rods were under the cars. We had to get on them and try to lay on them. We traveled that way two or three times.
We had to always find out when the trains left, so we just walked in the station and asked them. They would say, "Are you here to get a ticket?" I'd say, "No, wherever I go I got a pass."
At night we'd go to the hotel to sleep. We had our money for that. If we weren't in a town, we'd just stay out where we were. We used to stay in the sage brush, and we'd get all those wood ticks on us.
We took food with us on the train sometimes, but sometimes we about starved ourselves to death. But I loved those days, and I'd like to be back in them. Sometimes we'd just go to farmhouses and ask for something. People would fix us a great big sandwich, and they'd put it on a party pasteboard plate. They really fixed them for us.
We stopped at a place once because we were about half starved to death. We were dying for something to drink too. Sparky asked me where I was going to get a drink at, and I told her, "There's a well." We went up to the well, and the Salvation Army was there. They told us they had good pancakes and had some soup. Crazy combination we thought, but we didn't care. The head man of it all said,"You know, you've got to pay for this. "We said, "We do?" We asked him what would happen if we didn't have any money, and he said he'd have to hold us there. We argued with him for a long time, and he finally told us he was just joking. He told us he knew we were girls and just wanted to see what we were doing. We told him we were just trying to get home. Before we left he told us again we'd have to pay, so Sparky washed the dishes and told them all that it looked like they needed haircuts, so I had to cut all their hair.
Hoboing is not any more dangerous now than it was then. Some of those detectives were risky with their guns. I always carried a gun because we didn't know what we were going to find on the railroad. We never had any trouble, though. I don't think I'd a-shot them anyhow. I've still got my gun. It's a pistol. I used to be a good shot, but I don't know how good I am now.
Of all the hoboing we did, we mostly rode the trains in the west. The farthest east we went was to Chicago. All this time I'd been traveling all over. I've been in twenty-eight states. We'd get homesick when we'd get so far away from home. I'd do it over again, though, if I had the chance. It's a lot of fun. You wouldn't quit if you ever tried it. You think, "How in the devil did I do that?" And you did it anyhow. It's been a long time since I was on a train. Now I generally travel by car.
I was born in Wyoming in 1902. My birth town was a little coal mining town called Cumberland. It's a ghost town now. They moved all the houses. They just took them whole. The house we built was on skids. We could move our house anytime we wanted to. I went back there and visited to see where our house was. I didn't think I'd ever forget where it was, but I forgot.
People like my father who worked in coal mining towns as a rule never moved until the mine blew up. Whenever the mine blew up and they were lucky enough to still be alive, they packed up and moved. Whenever the mine went out, the town did.
I had a good mother and daddy. They were both Scotch, English and Irish. My daddy never laid a hand on any of us kids.
He left the spanking to my mother, and boy, she could whip with both hands.
I had six brothers and four sisters. I'm third to the youngest. I can only remember two of my brothers. Most of my brothers and sisters died early. They told me I didn't die because I was too mean, and they didn't want me up in heaven. I told them I'd see about that. I'd talk to God.
I got along with my brothers and sisters. We were an awful close family. My brothers worked and helped Daddy out all the time. Mom did all the cooking. She even learned me to make bread but I never would cook.
I had a lot of chores when I was young. I hated housework. I still do, but I liked outside work. My mother used to make me get down on my hands and knees on the floor and scrub it. If the floor didn't turn white, we had to do it again. Oh, I hated that. I also had to get caol and wood in every night for the fire to cook breakfast the next morning.
I was a real tomboy, that's what I was. They never could get me to milk cows, though. I just wouldn't do it. I'd ride them but I wouldn't milk them. We had one old cow you could ride. I'd take all the kids the cow could hold, we'd ride her down to the river, cross it and pick strawberries. We'd fill our boxes with them, then we'd go milk the cow, put sugar on them and eat.
I used to do everything. I even went down and loaded coal for my dad. They had cars loaded up with coal, and I'd put his number on them. I didn't mind to go down in the mine to load coal. My dad liked it, but he told me to stay out of there. He told me it wasn't safe. He said it was full of gas, and the miners were even talking about it, but they didn't get it shut down in time because it blew up.
Let me tell you about the time I stepped on a mountain lion. I was only a kid. I had been to a show with my two brothers. We had to go up an incline to get to the show. All the coal cars came down that incline. We lived right at the foot. We were coming along and it was a dark night raining and lightning. We were coming under the trestle where the cars run down and empty in the boxcars. I stepped on something and I hollered. Just then lightning struck, and I saw it was a lion. I just froze to the ground. I couldn't move. My brother came, grabbed me by the arm, and he said, "Come on. Get going. That's a lion." They got their guns and went to hunt the lion. They found its tracks but they never did find the lion. I probably scared the lion, too.
We lived in Conroy, Wyoming, when I went to grade school in a little log cabin school. I was the meanest kid in all the school, and I got in a lot of fights. One boy at school who had whipped all the other boys was considered the winner. They were all scared of him. The bully was bossing my little brother who was even smaller than I was. I didn't take anything from anybody. I walked up to him and told him to take what I dished out, and he did. I beat him up. Then everyone started to help me out because I was boss. It's generally boys that fight but I was an exception.
I went to high school when I lived in Sublette, but finished my last year in Montpelier. The houses were owned by the coal mining company. They used the union Hall for the school. I was the shortest one in high school but I played basketball. I was a good player. I didn't grow much until after I was nineteen. I was four feet, eight inches when I graduated from high school. I never did eat much, but I was always strong.
When I was a teenager I ran away a number of times and went on the hobo. I don't know why I wanted to leave home, but I did. I think it was because we had so many kids. I think when you have a big family, you want to get out. I don't know if I'm right or not. I'm just saying that because we had a big family and I wanted out. After I got out I wanted to get back in.
I also decided to run away from home because I wanted to work and they wouldn't let any girls work then. I didn't like it. They were just supposed to sit around home and do all the work there.
I did everything after I ran away because I was doing it on my own. My parents never worried about all the things I did. They knew I wasn't home, but they didn't know what I was doing. I always told them I was working in a cafe or something. I used to write letters home once in awhile. The last time we ran off, I never wrote home for three months.
The first time I ever hoboed, we were living in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and I wanted to go see my sister. She lived in Reliance, Wyoming, down by Rock Springs which was a coal mining town, too, but it was a pretty big one. Sparky was with me then and we caught the train and went to Rock Springs. Then we tried to hitchhike from Rock Springs to Reliance which was eight miles. We never got a ride so we walked the whole eight miles. We weren't gone long, two days. We just went and got our bellies full and then went home.
I went to Montpelier, Idaho, while hoboing and finished high school there while staying at a friend's house. My friend and I got on the train after I graduated and we went down home, but we left the next day because we knew if we stayed, they'd keep us. I was sixteen, and that time I ran away for good. Isn't that something?
Another girl friend I hoboed with, Minnie, had three children, but we didn't take them on the hobo. She left the children at her sister's house. We ran out of money at Salt Lake City so we got a job dipping chocolates. We worked there about three weeks.
We had decided to go to Elko, Nevada, because Minnie had a sister that lived there. We stayed there about one week before we got our own place because we had a job then. It was a job I'd never done in my life. It was in a laundry and I didn't know anything about a laundry. I went in and the manager, who was Chinese, told me I was the boss. He told me to make them work. When I went out of there at the end of two years I knew everything there was to know about a laundry.
I then found out my brother was sick and I went back home to Wyoming to help take care of him till he died. I was married at home when I was almost eighteen. I met my first husband in a cafe in Wyoming. He was the cook. I worked in the cafe as a waitress.
When he became a detective on the railroad, we moved to Denver, Colorado.
I went on the hobo some while we were married. Several times my husband got mad at me because I hoboed, and I could have had a pass. He never did catch me hoboing, though. He wasn't even on the trains we took.
I went to barber school in Salt Lake City, Utah, at Molar Business College in 1929. When I took the barber career course, I was the only woman there and was one of the first lady barbers. I decided I would go to Park City, Utah, to set up my barber shop. Park City had one silver mine, one copper mine and three gold mines. I got business from all those mines. At first they didn't like having a lady barber, and it took some getting used to because there just weren't such things as lady barbers back then. They asked my friend, "Are you going to let that Jane cut your hair?" He said, "Yes, she always cuts my hair." They asked, "Does she give good hair cuts?" He said, "Yes, you better go try one." So they went. They came back again, too. I think I had my shop up three months, and then I hired another guy who wanted to come in and barber. He said he had his own chair and I said "Okay, come on." Having only one chair means I only had my chair in the office, and he said he'd bring his in so there would be two chairs and we could cut twice as much hair. Oh, it was crowded. We were busy all day long. I liked it.
I didn't want to leave there because I was making good money. I charged six bits for a haircut and a shave, two bits for your shave and four bits for your haircut.
They had a boxing match every month in Park City. They thought one time that it would be fine to set it up that two ladies would fight. There was a little girl that came in. She was a boxer and they tried to get me to box with her but I said, "Oh, no." Then I thought, why should I be afraid of her? She was only as big as I was. She told me not to be afraid to hit her, because I couldn't hurt her. I told her that was all right because she couldn't hurt me, either. I set her off her feet once, and she set me off my feet. They never said which one won. They gave each of us fifteen dollars. That was really something.,
My first husband and I were married sixteen years, and then he died of sugar diabetes. That was before they could do a whole lot for it. They just let them die. He was in Los Angeles in the V.A. Hospital for a long time. When he died, I went on the hobo again. I just didn't have anything to do.
I went to Salt Lake and started into the horse business. I had just got acquainted with the guy who had the horses. He told me I was about the right size. I asked, "The right size for what?" He said, "The right size to be a jockey." I told him I didn't want to be a jockey. I didn't know how to ride a horse because I just rode the horses we had at home. He said, "Well, then you're just the one I want."
I got a job there taking care of all the horses. I had to wash them down and comb their manes and make them look slick and pretty. I knew all about that because I did that to my horse. I also worked riding horses and exercised them. I had to take them around the track they had, which was about two miles, and run them hard. They were any kind of horse you could imagine, quarter horse, everything.
Taking care of the horses was a neat job. It was Kitt Kearnes Stables. He had the best stables there was, but it wasn't large enough for many horses. There were about a dozen horses. People had to take their horses to another stable, but all of them wanted me to race them.
They played a trick on me. They brought some horses in and said to me, "Don't you ride this horse." They knew if they told me not to ride it, I'd ride it. I asked them why I couldn't ride it. They told me it was because it didn't like ladies. I said, "I bet it would like me." They said "No, it won't. You can't get anything on that horse." "Okay," I said, "Just bring him up here and I'll take him out for a spin." I had a spin! He started running and he wouldn't stop. He went around the two mile track twice and he finally got tired. He ran up to the gate, and those guys hollered, "Hey, whoa!" That horse just pitched me off. When I fell, I tore the seat of my pants out. Those guys were standing off laughing at me. I didn't want them to see that I tore my pants. I wasn't going to turn around, and they weren't going to turn back, so I started throwing rocks at them. I was letting them have it. Then they turned around and started running. They told me they'd see me later when I got my new pants. I did get a new pair of pants.
The worst thing about all my riding days, was that I always came in second. I don't know why, but I did. That's what made me mad, because I couldn't win. I kept on and kept on but there was always one horse ahead of me.
I was taking care of my mother in Wyoming when I met my second husband, Walter. Seems I've known him all my life. He loves me.
That was a railroad town where I lived, and I knew all the men. I had my pick. I picked a pretty good one, too. He worked as long as he could work, but it didn't kill him to work that hard. He was working on the railroad when we met. I married him in 1939. He's still alive and I'm still married to him.
We went to San Francisco during the Second World War, so my husband could go from being an engineer on the railroad to working in the shipyard. The railroad wasn't paying very good then. It was only paying thirty-eight cents an hour. He just quit and went down to build ships. While there, he was called to the army. They asked him if he wanted to go into the army or be deferred. He told them he'd go wherever he was needed the most. He didn't ever get to see his draft card. It went to the people at the shipyard. They kept him because he could do more good there building ships than going into the army. He never did get in the army. I was glad. I stayed home all that time because I had a baby to take care of.
We had one child. I never went on the hobo after Sharon was born. I wish I could have, but she was so cute. She weighed four pounds, ten ounces. The doctor wanted me to give her to him. I said, "Get your own. You're a doctor." I've got a good daughter. She's not crazy like me.
We've been here in the Ozarks, right here in Lebanon for about thirty-four years. We moved here after World War II when my sister-in-law died. My husband was talking to everyone here, liked it, and he said he thought we should make our home here.
I liked the Ozarks all right. My family wanted me to stay here so that's what I did. We lived on an eighty acre farm eleven miles east of town. Sharon was about three and a half years old when we moved here. She grew up on our farm. I think I've been pretty happy here because I've got to know a lot of people that live here.
When we got here, we built the house we lived in. We owned and ran our own sawmill. That's when I learned how to build a house. My husband knew how to carpenter and he built the house, but I was doing as much building as he was. I put in all the floors, all the window facings and the roof. That was more fun than housekeeping because I hated to keep house and I still do.
After we finished our house we started cutting wood. That's what I liked. We were cutting ranks of wood and selling it. We had the saw hooked up to the back wheel of the pickup. We used the truck motor to run the saw. Heck, we had about twenty cords of wood when we quit. I had the job of throwing the wood in as he cut it. The logs were about sixteen to eighteen inches long. We would still,be selling but neither one of us can work anymore.
Sharon used to haul wood with a mule. She'd take it down to where they were cutting wood and fill up the little cart. She'd drive it up to the house and another man would unload it. She loved that old mule, but one day he just laid down and died. He just got too old.
We raised cows, goats, chickens and pigs. We first had milking cows and sold milk. Then my husband said he was going to get pigs, so he sold all the cows and bought pigs. We raised registered chickens and sold eggs to the hatchery.
One time I even shot a hawk that got one of my little bantam roosters. I just loved that little rooster. I thought I'd have to shoot them both. I thought it would be better to shoot it because hawks take their prey way up in the air and let fall to the ground. After they squashed on the ground, the hawks would fly down and get them. I didn't think my little chickens could fly down that far, but that little chicken started to fly, and he ran like the devil when he hit the ground. I shot the hawk with a twenty-two rifle.
I had a bad car wreck in 1972. I haven't walked too good since.
After the wreck my daughter had to take care of me. She lived in Mexico, Missouri. I went up there with her. I had my leg in a cast up to the hip.
I had seven bones broken. Those took a long time to get better. Then I had a bad heart attack and Sharon brought me here to the hospital. I almost died. They said she saved my life by giving me her strength. When I came to this Care Center, I broke my left ankle. I've been here three years. I don't know if I'll be here the rest of my life or not. I hope not.
It takes a long time to tell you all this, but I remember every bit of it. Hoboing was the best part of my life. We didn't have all we wanted to eat all the time, but I loved it. If I could now, I'd do it again. Then again I had a good time when I was with the horses. I liked that.
I'm probably happier with my life than a lot of people. There is nothing that I would change if I could. I think I've had a good life. I was always afraid I wouldn't live long enough to see my daughter growed up, but I've got two grandchildren and they are pretty well grown up.
Is there anything that I haven't done that I'd like to do? I think I've done it all. Oh yes, there is one thing. I'd like to hitch a ride on an airplane.
"I nearly got killed in the deep snow when I lived in Wyoming," said Sylvia. "I was twelve. I could walk across the top of the snow, but I fell in a deep hole. My sister laid down on her stomach, but she couldn't reach me. I told her to grab my hand when I jumped, and she finally caught it and pulled me out."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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