’Bos to Bears

Hobo Day history filled with oddities, characters

When a hobo is a school’s homecoming symbol, it’s not surprising that through a hundred years of celebrations, some interesting characters and creations would be part of its history.

In fact, a couple characters appeared in that very first parade — Friday, Nov. 1, 1912. The yearbook account reports, “‘Samantha Jane’ from Volga, who was continually flirting with the hobos, was recognized as Mr. Johnson, while ‘Cholly,’ with his monocle, stick and gaiters, was Mr. Kelly.”

They could be seen as predecessors to today’s Weary Wil (established in 1950) and Dirty Lil (1976).

Samantha Jane and Cholly apparently faded quickly from the Hobo Day scene, but bums and floats became more prevalent. In the Nov. 7, 1919, Hobo Day parade — held after the 1918 Hobo Day was cancelled because of World War I — 14 floats brought up the end of the procession.

In addition, there were a number of special stunt groups scattered throughout the parade, according to the yearbook.

An irreverent mix of characters

A year later, the yearbook declares, “The one feature that makes Hobo Day, November 5, 1920, stand out above similar occasions in the past was the mammoth parade, extending for several blocks, composed of a greater number of floats and original stunts than before.”

Interspersed with the contingent were a thousand students dressed as hobos, peoples of various nationalities, “and clowns of great many varieties and species who ordinarily call themselves students,” the yearbook states.

Like today, the parade ended downtown. Unlike today, when the parade ended, a whistle blew to signal the beginning of begging.

“‘Bos’ could be seen running helter-skelter through the back yards and alleys after the handouts were kindly supplied by the Brookings ladies. Then all the food was consumed in a manner characteristic to beings of this nature,” the yearbook describes.

Hobo Day — It’s not just for students

It wasn’t long before Hobo Day was more than a campus activity. The yearbook reports 14,000 people from South Dakota and neighboring states were on hand for Hobo Day Oct. 28, 1922. Half of those people attended a huge noon barbecue.

The crowd consumed two large steers, the hindquarters of two more steers, boiled potatoes and six barrels of coffee.

Spirits by the barrel

Celebrating Hobo Day with alcohol isn’t a recent discovery. The Nov. 2, 1929,

Collegian student newspaper reported that a Brookings farmhouse was raided and 600 gallons of grape and rhubarb wine with an alcohol content of nearly 9 percent were seized.

It was reported that the stash was in town for Hobo Day, “but the liquor is safely reposing in the Brookings County jail.”

This was during the country’s prohibition (1920-33).

By and large, the campus and community were law-abiding, according to an article in the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls and reprinted in the Nov. 6, 1929, Collegian.

“Hobo Day is freeing itself from the stigma of hobo atmosphere in the matter of intoxicating liquor, much to the satisfaction of the powers that be, including the federal prohibition enforcement department.

“Several dry agents, headed by E.L. Sonn, deputy administrator in charge of prohibition in this state, were in Brookings to have a ‘look-see’ at the refreshments situation there.

“They expressed the opinion that Hobo Day was the driest and most orderly yet on record, for despite the large crowd there for the occasion, very few arrests were made and all of the officers agreed that there was much less evidence of liquor than existed ever before under the same conditions.”

A columnist in the Nov. 6 Collegian did note, “Several raids and arrests were made on the liquor traffic of Brookings last week, showing that the county officers and stool pigeons have been busy.”

Watch out for suspicious visitors

But on campus, the greater concern seemed to be invasion from the rivals down south. The following was printed in the Oct. 23, 1929, Collegian:

“All men of the college were pressed into service Tuesday by Arvold Thompson, president of Blue Key, to check any efforts of University students to ‘Paint up’ the college campus during the four days and nights preceding Dakota Days, Saturday at Vermillion.

“The Pharmics officiated as ‘watchmen’ last night, members of the department keeping an all night vigil, ready for the invasion of any students of the Coyote institution, who might be bent on marring or painting red the college campus.

“Tonight the General Studies students will be on the look-out for visitors from the University, Engineering students will act as sentries Thursday, and the Ags Friday night. Men will start their night watch early in the evening and continue until daybreak.”

Humility bared in defeat

On the football field, the rivals competed for the Little Brown Jug, which resides today in the office of SDSU football coach John Stiegelmeier.

It later became tradition for the student body president of the losing team to surrender his trousers at midfield to the student body president of the winning team. Former SDSU Alumni Association director V.J. Smith recalls, “That’s how I lost my pants in October 1977.”

A yearbook photo from Hobo Day 1963 shows State’s Mike Raffety gleefully watching Larry Pressler shed his trousers.

‘Every student must have some part’

While it can’t be said that fans never stepped over the boundary of bad behavior, Ivan C. Johnson, student president, wrote in the Oct. 25, 1930, Collegian, “The State College Student Body has a reputation of being good sports. Once in a while a misfit gets in when the door is left open, and starts a little razzing — but he doesn’t last long.

“This week we know a spirit of true sportsmanship is going to predominate in all our activities.”

Student body president in 1931-32 was none other than Ben Reifel, who became the first Lakota to ever serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a statement published in the Oct. 7, 1931, Collegian, Reifel stated, “We want our parade this year to be … full of life …, and the only way in which we can accomplish this is to have plenty of students intermingled with the floats. The Hobo Day committee met and decided that every student must have some part in the parade.

“Freshmen and sophomores, especially, if not selected to help on a float should get busy on a stunt of some kind.”

Bands drum up a crowd

Organizers recruited not only parade participants, but also parade viewers.

The Oct. 25, 1930, Collegian reported: “Commercial Club Boosters, accompanied by a Hobo band made up by Prof. Carl Christensen, left Tuesday afternoon to tell the world about the big doings Hobo Day.

The band was divided into four groups.

“Each group played a few snappy pieces, distributed advertising literature and made megaphone announcements in each town visited.”

No town was too small to merit a stop. One group went to Volga, Arlington and De Smet as well as Hetland and Junius. A second group headed for Sioux Falls and Dell Rapids, but also stopped at Rutland and Corson. The third group aimed at Flandreau and Pipestone, Minn., but also caught Bushnell and Arco, Minn. The fourth group went to Clear Lake and Watertown, but included Altamont and Goodwin.

The 1912 Bummobile was given to State in 1939 and that changed how booster trips were conducted.

Reporting on the 1950 booster trips, the Collegian reported, “Biggest attraction is the Bummobile, which travels by truck on the road, but comes into its own in the parades. This is accompanied by a Hobo band, consisting of about ten members and led by Walter Sharp and Tom Brown, and as many bearded ‘bums’ as can be rounded up.

“In addition to parading before the crowds, signs, placards, stickers and cards are distributed.”

Teddy served until death

The most unique booster trips were in 1953, when the contingent included a real live bear.

It was the idea of Hobo Day committee member Vance Sneve, who borrowed the young bear from a fellow student who hailed from Minnesota. Teddy rode in a cage when Sneve drove to area parades during the summer and then Sneve kept him walking the parade route by offering him swigs from a soda pop bottle.

Teddy also made an appearance in the college’s beard judging contest.

There is a yearbook picture of college men laughing ear-to-ear as blindfolded coeds seem completely baffled by the appearance of his extremely bewhiskered “student” in the most ticklish beard judging.

Activities merit media attention

Efforts to publicize Hobo activities drew both crowds and the media. In 1955, the Minneapolis Tribune covered the happenings of Kangaroo Court and gave it a two-page story with photos in its Picture magazine. The next year Tribune staff writers and photographers produced a Sunday feature on the beard-judging contest.

The 1954 parade was unique because for the first time since Hobo Day originated, Carl “Christy” Christensen was absent from the head of the State College marching band.

However, the recently retired band director, who joined the faculty in 1906 as instructor of stringed instruments, did lead the alumni band.

Bums behind the wheel

In the early years, stunts in the parade meant freshmen doing initiation activities. By the 1950s, stunts were associated with cars — at least vehicles with engines. Many needed a prayer to make them run and were customized to match students’ crazy imaginations.

Winning the 1955 stunt car judging was John Klein, who appropriately named his entry “Terror of Highway 77.” Completely stripped of doors, roof or trunk, the vehicle had a couple coffee pots warming on the engine and a bottle of hooch tied to the driver’s seat.

As the years passed, the stunt cars became more outlandish. Some included outhouses painted with that favorite refrain: “Far across the plains of Brookings, far as eyes can see, Stands an old abandoned outhouse, called the University! It’s in Vermillion!”

In 1973, the stunt cars were first called Hobo mobile homes.

The SDSU history book “College on the Hill” quotes long-time State official and observer Chuck Cecil: “The trailers got bigger, the outhouses got bigger. There were more stunt cars and they kept getting larger and wider. The kids driving ’em had a few beers. They were three stories up, double-deckers, held together by two-by-fours.

“One tipped over. It was really scary. It turned the corner too quickly and some of the structure fell. Kids fell off. There were two-by-fours with big spikes sticking up. That started a movement to do away with stunt cars.”

Hard work a lasting tradition

Numerous other Hobo traditions have come and gone in its 100 years — bed races, torchlight parades, the Blue Key smoker and crashing the movie theater.

But one constant in the years is the work required to stage the “biggest one-day event in the Dakotas.” The yearbook stated that Bill McNamara, Hobo Day chairman for 1960, estimated that he logged 700 hours in that capacity, including 10-hour days in the final weeks.

Since 1971, the position has been known as grand pooba, stealing the title of the lodge president on the Flintstone cartoon.

But whether it’s called chairman or grand pooba, the work can be both exhaustive and exhilarating.

Abby Settje, this year’s grand pooba, gained her position in January, and formed a nine-member Hobo Day Committee in February. The students met five times during spring semester and received assignments for the summer and fall, she says.

Settje, a senior from Corona, stayed in Brookings for the summer and spent 20 hours per week working on Hobo Day.

‘Celebrating that Jackrabbit spirit’

One of her activities has been to enter the Bummobile in 10 parades around the state. “Past Hobo Day Committee members will hug us and say how happy they are to see us. We like to say people are happy to see us, but I think they’re happy to see the Bummobile,” Settje says.

Planning for this year’s Hobo Day includes a focus on the One-Month Club and elaborate floats.

The committee held a retreat in late August to develop plans to entice greater participation in Hobo events. Settje says she has been blessed with a committee that is excited to spread the word about the “biggest one-day event in the Dakotas.”

She says she understands the additional responsibility and work in shepherding the 100th anniversary of Hobo Day.

The senior advertising and graphic design major says she will know the extra work was worth it when on Saturday, Oct. 27, she sees that the parade “spectators are all happy and students and alumni are celebrating that Jackrabbit spirit.”

Dave Graves

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