It came to my attention recently that Britt, Iowa, is home to the annual Hobo Convention. Britt has a Hobo Museum, as well, which displays materials collected by hobos and is open between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. The convention includes a parade and a crowning of a King and a Queen of the Hobos and seems to be quite a crowd-drawing event and has earned press from sources as varied as NPR, Buzzfeed, The Economist, and The New York Times. Special Collections does not offer up much regarding the hobo culture of the Midwest, but I did find a vivid photograph and interesting history related to the Hobo Convention in the Wayne O. and Gayle Carns Burchett Papers (MS 355).
Meet Harry C. Beetison, one-time King of the Hobos.
According to commentary provided by Ann Burchett Barton, the Burchetts’ daughter, Mr. Beetison crossed paths with her mother Gayle around the time of the Great Depression. Gayle’s parents, Francis and Lucille Carns, and the rest of the family met Beetison through their generosity to the hobos who rode the rails across the U.S. in search of work. The collection also includes a few newspaper articles about Beetison that paint the man as a colorful character. His platform for Kingship, for example, included edicts such as: “to make bumming easier, to cover box car floors with straw and hay, and to give every hobo a better chance to have a place in every town and city throughout the nation where they can rest up…” (article circa 1937). According to another article, Beetison – a native of Ashland, Nebraska – once campaigned for a seat in the state legislature before earning his hobo title. Other clippings include a poem by Beetison and tales of his travels through a number of states; in 1945, Salt Lake City’s Deseret News called him a “gallivanter par excellence.”
There is some mystery around Beetison: the clippings refer to him as King David I but the list of hobo kings and queens refers to a King David II. King David II shows up again on the list in the 1960s – did Beetison return to reclaim his crown? We know he’s buried in his hometown, Ashland, but there’s no telling where he went in between. I’m planning on making the trip to the Hobo Convention this year, so maybe the museum will hold some clues as to the Burchett family friend’s life. In the meantime, this small slice of family history offers a glimpse of Iowan and U.S. history as well.