Friday, August 16, 2013

The Hobo Chairs

Click image to enlarge.

It was the middle of the Great Depression and during the Dust Bowl years. Hardly anyone had any money. Even in West Virginia, dust coated everything during the summer and farmers often resorted to chopping down trees to feed their cattle, when the grasses in the pastures gave out. My granddad was working away in the oilfields while my grandmother ran the farm and the dairy with what friends and relatives had ended up on their doorstep destitute. Those folks received little or no pay, but they got room and board, and Grandma had a reputation as a fantastic cook.

An unexpected knock on the back door wasn’t an uncommon thing in those days, as bums and hobos stopped to ask for work or for food. The difference between bums and hobos was that hobos would work for their food, bums wouldn’t. And so, it was no surprise when a soft knock came at the back door one morning, and a dusty, unshaven white-headed old gentleman stood there with his hat in his hand. He asked my grandmother if she had any small jobs on the farm that he might do for a meal, but my grandmother told him that he didn’t have to work for a meal, and that she’d be happy to fix him some breakfast. He politely, but firmly, told her that he’d worked for his living all his life, and wished to do so as long as he was able. He reminded her that the Bible said men were to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. (He didn’t know that he was speaking to a preacher’s daughter.) She said that she was sure she could find something for him to do, but that she wanted to feed him first, since people work better when their stomach isn’t growling. He reluctantly agreed.

After he ate, they spoke of work and Grandma learned that he had done split-bottomed chairs earlier in his life. She struck a deal with him to put new bottoms in a couple old chairs in exchange for lunch and supper that day, a night’s sleep in the barn and breakfast the following morning. As he walked slowly up the hill to cut a white oak sapling for material, she recalled that his hands seemed awfully stiff and his vision appeared to be less than ideal. He finished doing the two chairs not long after the family shared their supper with him, and Grandma let him wash up in the cellar house, before he turned in for his night’s sleep in the barn. He ate breakfast with them the next morning and Grandma put some food in a flower sack for him to eat for his lunch and supper on the road. After thanking her profusely for the chance to earn his room and board for a day, he started on his way in good spirits.

The work that he’d been so happy to perform was coarse and loose by any expert’s standards. His stiff fingers and bad vision, combined with his limited time, made the chairs into objects that many wouldn’t use. Still, with an old cushion thrown on them, they were useable. And used they were. Anytime someone asked about them, Grandma told them the story of the proud old gentleman who insisted on earning his way in life. And so they remained on the farm, even when the depression was over and the extra seating wasn’t needed any longer. They were kept not for their value, but for the honest man they represented. When my grandparent’s had passed away, and their home was torn down by an opportunist aunt, my dad took the chairs. When Dad passed away, and my mother moved to town, I took them to my own home. For twenty years, they’ve been in my basement, used only rarely, when I was tinkering down there.

I’m no spring chicken, so I’m looking to thin down a lot of my stuff, so my stepson won’t have to wonder what to do with it all after I croak. He’s a pretty good guy, but he’s not into antiques, especially “rustic” ones. I’m going to take them to a guy that has an antique shop and an auction house and see if I can get a few dollars for them. I’ll run off a couple copies of this story and attach one to each of the chairs. Maybe someone else will want them as a reminder of old times and good people long gone. May God bless them if they do. © 2013



Sixbears said...

The story is what makes the chairs. Funny thing, I made a chair much like that once while killing time at my dad's hunting camp.

Used dry wood from the firewood pile for the cross pieces and green wood for the uprights. As the green wood aged, it shrunk around the dry wood and held fast without glue.

kymber said...

ack, Mr. Smythe - i don't know why i always feel like i've been cutting onions when i visit your blog. i'd take those chairs in a heartbeat. i don't care how you would charge for them, i would take them and use them until they completely fell apart.

we just watched a series on netflix about "the dustbowl" and the suffering of the people during those times - it's unimaginable! and yet, somehow, against all hope, they woke up each day and tried to hope. that old gentleman hoped that he could get a meal and a place to sleep for some honest work. and your grandmother treated him with generosity, decency and respect. ugh. it's the onions on your blog getting to me again.

thank you so much for sharing the story of those 2 chairs. your friend,

Sunnybrook Farm said...

We had chairs like that at home and even at the barbershop. I got one a couple years ago for $3 which was no where near what it is worth. I screwed antique glass insulators on the legs and now it is like the telegraph operators used so they were not grounded.

Scooney Adrift said...

Great story.
My grandmother could never turn anyone away who knocked on her back door needing a meal. She later found out that someone had carved a cat face on a tree out by the road, which was the Hobo sign that a free meal could be had at that house.

Brian said...

A good story about a gentleman of the road. And the seats look like they will live on . Thanks for sharing :)

Gorges Smythe said...

Wise move, Sixbears.

Well, kymber, I wish the buyer had been more impressed. I sort of felt like he ripped me off for what I took him today. I've got the picture, though, and you've got the story. Glad you liked it.

So, SF, is that your "sitting on the patio in a thunderstorm" chair now? ;-)

Yeah, Scooney, I've read that they had a system to describe the people in a place.

You're welcome, Brian, and thank you.

Mamahen said...

Gorges....I agree with your friend Kymber! I hope whoever gets them, understands just what they stand for :'(

Gorges Smythe said...

Well, Mh, I put the story in an envelope and taped it to a wrung of each chair. They'll have the knowledge, at least, whether they have the appreciation or not.

Kathy Felsted Usher said...

That's an inspiring story, maybe more people need a pair of hobo chairs to remind them of how life's supposed to be. Good luck on the sale, I hope your notes on them help to bring a better price, who could turn down such honest chairs?

Gorges Smythe said...

I'm afraid it will be the dealer that will benefit from the story, Kathy, but I still hope someone gets them who appreciates their story.