By Paul Holder
Longtime Waco resident recalls growing up in South Waco.
It was the coldest night in the recorded history of Waco (February 12,1949). In Alaska the night met the standards to fall in the “three dog” category. We lived in a small, quite small, house at 2705 Clay in Waco. There was a kitchen-dining room, a master room (living room-bedroom combination), a bathroom and an almost uninhabitable storage room on the north side. The storage room did have a bed, but it was also blessed with broken window panes and no gas outlet for a space heater. The room bore the brunt of the north wind. In fact, there was only one space heater in the house. Fortunately, it was in the master room. The master room had both my parents’ bed and mine. Unfortunately, my mother would not allow the heater to be on after we went to bed. She maintained that restriction for all 99 years of her life. Yes, my friends, warmth was an issue. The house had no insulation and if the wind was blowing the wallpaper would vibrate cacophonous melodies. On that night my parents slept with “Rotten Egg,” a grungy looking cat who held the distinction of being their first pet. A year later his mysterious disappearance brought forth fruitless searches for this valuable family member. On that night our dog Sport and Kitty Baby shared my bed. In the storage room bed my Uncle Bob (mom’s brother) managed to make it through the night while praying the weather would be better on his next visit. His presence would prove to be a blessing for me.
Memories in some ways are the last vestiges of life. They assert powerful declarations of life. There is so much truth to “carpe diem.” Reflecting on that cold night and other similar ones two basic thoughts are so pervasive: (1) in the days after cold/cold nights I was always tired. I was in my teens before I realized that sleeping under tons of cloth and cotton did not generate vigor. God Bless my grandmother Nancy Ida McKamie for the labor and love she poured into each of her quilts! (2) while there were some detriments to the quilts, I still fondly remember creating a warm spot in the bed. Moving from that warm cocoon was dangerous because I was surrounded by cold, but if I moved my leg a little, I could expand my warm spot in this hostile environment.
Uncle Bob was helping build B-36 bombers in Ft Worth. He brought me a frameable photo of the bomber which I have cherished for over seventy years. The next morning we awoke to see that it had snowed most of the night and there were icicles hanging from the roof eaves. This was an entirely new world for this five-year-old. Mom made some snow ice cream. “God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.” Bob said he was going to cross the street to Louis and Ona Durrett’s house. Ona was my aunt, and she had lived in Canada and the Yakima region of Washington. When he came back across the street he was pulling something. That something was a sled. We walked up to 28th and Clay. To the north of Clay is Webster and at that point, Webster is probably 60 feet lower than Clay. If you go down 28th and make a sweeping right turn onto Webster you will drop another 20 feet before you hit 26th street. More fun than I had ever experienced and my kindly uncle consented to two more trips.
My dad had helped run his grandfather’s grocery store in Wannville, Alabama. In 1948 he changed the garage of our small house into a very small grocery store. In 1948 most households were one auto homes. Every day grocery items like milk, bread, cigarettes, snuff, toilet paper, eggs and many items I left out could be found at Holder’s Grocery and Market. One customer joked the store was so small that he and his wife would not fit in it at the same time. We certainly expected very few people to stop that day. One of the few who did was “Hobo Jane.”
Hobo Jane was the “Queen” of the Tramp Shack. I am well-aware that the term is not politically correct, but it is historically correct. There were four tramps who lived in a very small sheet metal abode on the southwest corner where 26th street meets the MKT(Katy) tracks. Jane was the only woman in the group. She was a single woman living with three single men, but dominated what happened there. From musings of my father, I suspect she was in her late thirties, but her face was “weather worn” and revealed furrows as deep as those of ranch hands who fought the sun all day. Her vision stayed largely focused on the place for the next step, severely limiting her eye-contact with others. She had seen parts of the US from a boxcar. Women hobos were very rare. My dad rode boxcars from Northern Alabama to Los Angeles and back. He indicated he had never seen a woman riding the rails. I have always thought this was a factor in their friendship. On that icy February day Hobo Jane climbed up the ice/snow covered hill on 26th street and entered our store. She purchased a package of Camels, some snuff, a roll of toilet paper and a loaf of bread. Of course, the items were “charged.” Jane wanted to know about a big empty carboard box she spotted. Dad immediately gave it to her, She ripped one side from the box. At that point she said, “Boy, come with me.” A glance at my dad proved to be permission to do as told. She never knew me by my street name (Bedo). I was always “boy.” When we got to the corner of 26th and Clay she sat down in the box. I was told to push. It is a moment that will always be a part of me. There was a tremendous morphing. Suddenly she looked like the teen-age girl headed out to the prom. She smiled at me and yelled and I pushed. She was aglow. Whatever demons haunting her were cast aside. She nearly made it home in her cardboard vehicle. In fact, I think the cardboard box worked as well as my aunt’s sled. At the base of the hill she stood up and waved a “thank you” to me. It was somewhere about this time that my dad stopped using the term “tramp” to reference the four who lived there.
The home for these four was no larger than many bedrooms. I’m certain there was no more than 150 square feet under the roof. The shed/shack was apparently built in the late 1930s. One of the Cameron Mills workers who walked approximately a half-mile to work each day (Mr. Richards) attested the building had been there for as long as he had worked there. He was employed in 1939. There was a large back porch, and in nice weather there would be one or two sleeping there. The house was made of tin and boasted only one window. Facing toward Waco Creek, the window undoubtedly offered a nice view of the beauty of that section of the creek. There was no running water. Waco Creek supplied that, or in warm weather there was a hydrant at the Bell’s Hill Baseball Park. Unfortunately the baseball field was two blocks away. No gas. No phone. “Officially” there was no electricity; however, most of us thought they somehow had managed a non-metered tie to the adjacent electric lines. There was no plumbing. Yes, there was an outhouse, and the putrid smell of human waste greeted anyone getting near the abode. In the time I remember no one had an auto for most of those years. The creek provided Sun Perch and a little farther upstream by Little Lake was that minute flow of water known as Holder’s Creek. Holder’s Creek still flows into Waco Creek by the old Baylor track stadium. I suspect it has no more flow than the flow generated by having both of your hot and cold waterspouts open. It still flows but is encased in concrete. At one time there were more crayfish there than anywhere else. Yes, anywhere else!
One day Jane told us there was a new boarder. He was hostile, and they were trying to oust him from their presence. One night the matter degenerated into violence. The newer dweller prevailing. She also mentioned he had referenced our little store and my mother in very negative terms. Dad was working for Mid-Tex Motors (Buick). He was torn between going to work and standing guard at the store. Leaving mom by herself was a scary proposition. I still remember the discussion over the kitchen table that night. We needed the money. The next day the loser in the “Tramp Shack” fight came to the store with a warning about the pure evilness of the man. Within a week the dark side presence walked into the store and wanted credit. Mom said “no.” She sent me next door to get Mr. Beard. Mr. Beard could be our “hero.” Well, there was a problem with that.
Mr. Beard was probably eighty years old. I loved him dearly. He was another grandfather to me. He had promised he was going to get me a horse. In truth he might could have done that. His daughter had married well and now owned a large ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Yes, her place was within twenty miles of the “alien incident.” Yes, she was a believer. When it rained, my dog Sport and I would hurry next door to sit on his porch. It was from Mr. Beard that I learned that thunder is caused by clouds bumping heads. Yes, I will stand behind that explanation. I rushed into the store with Mr. Beard only a couple of paces behind me. Efforts to engage the potentially hostile actor produced virtually no responses, but Mr. Beard kept talking. Fortunately, the Pure Milk truck with Dub Corbell showed up a few minutes later. A sigh of relief could be heard from mom as the new Tramp Shack resident silently left the store. There was no real incident, but I’ve always thought it was a close call. Mr. Beard, Dub, Jane, and the other resident who warned us, if you guys are reading this-from your Heavenly perch…Thank you once again!
The “Tramp Shack” provided protection from the elements. Jane said that the minus 5 degrees was not felt where that wood stove was blazing, but about three blocks down the tracks men were seeking warmth and protection from the ice in cardboard shelters. This was Waco’s western Hobo Jungle. There was an East side Hobo Jungle next to the Katy Railroad shop. On some nights Jane’s door would be open for a hobo to escape the elements. Approximately two years later the heat from that wood stove burned down the “the Tramp Shack.” Jane was nowhere to be found. She simply disappeared. Well not exactly. Approximately a month later she showed up at Holder’s Grocery and Market to pay her debt. I was not there , but she reportdly asked about “the boy.” As I think you can tell I have nothing but fond memories of her.
In 1931 my father Fraser Clarence Holder had “hit the rails.” The causal variable for those trips was “necessity”. Five of the Holder clan scraped out a living primarily on the shoulders of dad’s older brother Gordon. Gordon was a self-employed auto mechanic. My grandmother Tempe was a “decent” seamstress. The chickens did their part, and a goat provided some milk. An older cousin had made money in land investment and promised they would not starve, but the family was in ” survival mode.” My grandfather had left the family and sought the comfort of others. My father was 18 . Steady employment eluded him. The only realistic plans for gainful employment were not in Wannville, nor Fackler, nor Stevenson, nor Scottsboro. The surrounding vicinity offered little hope. Perhaps there was a chance in Huntsville or Chattanooga. Those efforts went for naught. There was a cousin in Central Oklahoma. He was in law enforcement and actually was in position to hire, or so it was thought. Finding his way across 900 miles of America proved fruitless. The cousin suggested dad hit the rails again and head to California. Though from Alabama he became another “Okie” headed for the Golden State. In L.A. he managed to get a night watchman’s position within a week and was terminated ten days later. Subsequent efforts at employment produced only negative results. He returned to “Sweet Home Alabama” with $3.00 to his name. The experience was visited often by my father in his discussions with others and had a profound effect on his view of life. Dad was gruff on the outside but in reality mighty tender. Indeed I suspect the friendship between my dad and Jane probably was generated by this experience.
Jack Dempsey, William O. Douglas, Louis L.’ Amour, Jack London, Robert Mitchum, George Orwell, and Carl Sandburg all spent time “hoboing”. Why would someone choose this life? Perhaps it was economic necessity. Certainly, my father’s year on the rails would fit there. Although I’m not certain, I believe Jane was escaping from some personal disappointment or horror. Others may be escaping the law. Still others may yearn for the freedom and independence provided. Of course, there is always the thought that the “boxcars” offered a way to see the world. Whatever the reason hobos developed a lifestyle widely emulated in the 1930’s. In Waco, hobos knew there was a place to spend the night along Waco Creek. Hobo Jungle existed from the east side of Cameron Mills to the county garage on South 20th. The “”Jungle’s” northern side was the Cotton Belt Railroad and the southern side was the “Katy”. Many of the “visitors” to the “jungle” would stay for a prolonged period. I was always afraid to visit the village as a loner, so if I visited I was accompanied by at least two buddies. The “jungle” reeked from the smell of human waste. The odor was negated some by the nearby Rainbo Bakery, Youngblood’s fried chicken, and the Cookie bakery( Weston’s) at 20th and Franklin. Years later when the cookie plant shut down, some hobos found shelter within the abandoned bakery. There were no hostile clashes between us and the hobos, but there was one incident that brought shivers to my 12 year old body.
It is 1956, and Duane Hart, Garland Dunkin and I had visited the hobos. We were walking on the Katy tracks. Yes, we were walking on the tracks. A standard practice by all of my friends was to see who could walk a rail the longest. Somewhere further to the west on the rails we ran into a hobo squatting between the rails. I can almost swear that he was covered by and projected a dark sinister aura. Our “hellos” were met by a deafening silence! He glared at us with a horrid face that would make Manson look angelic. We did not run but accelerated our walking speed. Perhaps he was not evil, but I still envision him as a fugitive from justice for some evil act. Caesar Lombrosso (the father of criminology) believed that he could tell a criminal just by looking at him. I believe this man could make Lombrosso’s case!
Oh, that February night while I warmed a spot on the mattress, while Jane probably broke into a sweat from the wood stove, the hobos were in a much tougher situation. In their “jungle” there were no permanent structures. There were no utilities. There were primarily cardboard lined enclaves into and frequently under the brush. While a few provided some added protection with boards across the top, most simply offered cardboard and a few limbs placed to fend off the precipitation. Very little shelter against the cold, the sleet, snow and any heavy rain. Usually there was a small dug out area-about a two foot in diameter and no more than about 6 inches deep in front of the shelter. The small pit would be enclosed by a ring of limestone rocks. Yes, fires would be built. To my knowledge hobos successfully managed those flames for over 20 years.
Well, there you have it. I suspect that other writers will provide some info on the Hobo Jungle, but I rather doubt that Jane has ever received any ink, nor would I expect much in the future, but she was important to some-including this one. Perhaps some local historian one hundred years from now will be fascinated by my stringing words together about her. God Bless!
June 1, 2022