First of a series
They were not thieves or vandals, recalled Ingrid Julsrud abut the vagabonds she encountered during her youth in the village of Houston. Called tramps, hoboes and bums, they were regarded as harmless or at worst, a nuisance “They never harmed anyone. To us kids, they were a source of wonder, curiosity and mystery.” It was all during an era before public welfare. Some able-bodied and even educated men preferred living by charity rather than steady work. But after the 1929-30 Great Depression, there were penniless men who really sought a job. “We really felt sorry for them.”
In the 1870s, they had traveled through southeast Minnesota mostly on foot. However, for young Ingrid during the first two decades of the 1900s, they arrived on freight trains, especially as the weather warmed. They were loners, not traveling in pairs or groups. “We would see one tramp alone sitting on top of a box car… or dangling his feet from an open door of an empty box car.” Ingrid, while riding a passenger train, passed a tramp sitting next to a bonfire, cooking something in a tin can or pail. Maybe it was coffee. Tramps often asked her mother for ground coffee.
Some artistic hobo drew a map of Houston on the wall of a coal shed near the tracks. He had marked homes where hoboes stood a good chance of receiving a meal. Her house was marked, since her mother fed many vagrants through the years, never turning anyone away. She thought one never knows when she might be feeding someone who really needs it.
One tramp came to the house every spring and fall for several years, prompting her mother to call him “her Irishman.” He predictably arrived about dusk, shortly after supper. As the dinner dishes were being washed, there would be a rap at the door, and her mother would say, “There he is, my Irishman.” He would leave with a sack full of food. However, he did not show up one spring or the following autumn. They never saw him again, a mystery that left them with bit of sadness, not knowing what happened to him.
Ingrid’s favorite tramp story was that of Cora Schonlau who had not been able to rouse her husband Gerard for breakfast one Sunday morning. After calling him a third time, Cora exclaimed, “I wish a tramp would come along and I’d feed him your breakfast.” As on cue, there was a rap at the back door. It was indeed a tramp, a black man. “Come right in,” Cora said, “breakfast is all ready.” He acted surprised when she put told him to sit in Gerard’s chair. His reaction turned to fear when she set food on the table, seated herself and began to talk. “I’m sure he thought I was a crazy person,” said Cora. The meal ended with his thank you and a speedy exit.
At some point, Gerard had come downstairs, surveyed the kitchen scene and went back upstairs. “If Cora had gotten herself into this situation, he figured she should take care of it,” noted Julsrud.
Many vagrants were in town only once, while there were those who became permanent but homeless members of the community. Martin Roneberg, had been a schoolmaster in Bergen, Norway. In the late 1870s, he taught parochial school in various Norwegian settlements in Allamakee County, Iowa, before crossing into Houston County, where he lived for 30 years as a vagrant teacher.
Roneberg was not the most gracious guest. Through the years, his always healthy appetite increased. At the table, he would take the largest potato and the best cut of meat and still might complain about the meal. He became less patient with the children and less attentive to hygiene. As he was welcomed into fewer homes, he therefore made more frequent visits where he was admitted.
He suffered with a stroke in 1911 and with no known relatives, he went to live at the Houston County Poor Farm. After he died later that year, county officials found $2,200 sewn into the lining of his clothes, a bank deposit of $400 and a receipt for a $1,500 contribution to an old folks home in Wittenberg, Wis.
Sources: 1993 book by Ingrid Julsrud, “Remembering Old Times, Houston During the Post Card Era” and 2002 book by Percival Narveson, “Percival Narveson’s Historical Sketches”