Hobo Day

Like students themselves, Hobo Day evolves, but some things don’t change at all!

What I remember and what I think I remember about Hobo Day from my time on campus half a century ago may be two entirely different things. And, no, I don’t think that’s because of Hobo Week visits to Hort’s or Gussie’s.

I recall one Hobo Day (it must have been 1966 because we were renting space in the basement of a house about a block north of Zesto’s) when my roommate crawled out of the rack at something like 4:30 a.m., put on his ROTC uniform and military greatcoat and climbed to the top of some tall building to watch and report by radio the traffic patterns as swarms of vehicles converged on Brookings for the biggest one-day event in South Dakota.

Could that be so? I know he left early, and I know he left in his ROTC uniform. But where would he have climbed to watch traffic? To whom would he have reported it? What would they have done about it?

I guess it shows that Hobo Day was packing them in fifty years ago, the same way it does today. And with the 100th anniversary of the first Hobo Day approaching (Oct. 27, 2012) the crowd is sure to be huge.

Part of family tradition

I’ve been going to Hobo Day for so long it’s a red-letter day on the calendar, like Christmas and Fourth of July. It’s as much of a family deal as those holidays, too, because Hobo Day and the Woster line go back to the late 1950s when my big brother, Jim, enrolled at South Dakota State College.

In those days, our family rolled out of bed in the dark for a long trip over Highway 34 to Madison, then north and east to Brookings, arriving in time to score a parking place somewhere off the downtown area and squeeze our way into spots along Main Street for the parade.

No other parade I’d ever seen was quite like Hobo Day. The floats were works of art, the product of weeks of late-night planning, building and decorating, filled with colored construction paper and reams and reams of tissue that formed roses and violets and all sorts of other flowers.

I know the Pharmacy float didn’t win the top prize every year, but it was always among the most beautiful, and it was always the envy of the rest of the colleges. Every third or fourth entry that wasn’t a float was a marching band. Marching in the Hobo Day Parade was a very big deal for high school musicians.

I led the Chamberlain High School marching band down the parade route my senior year in high school. I was drum major, resplendent in a white Michael Jackson-style uniform with a tall hat and huge black baton. I looked pretty spiffy, right up to the moment the college guy dressed in rags strutted up and marched beside me, waving an old toilet plunger to the beat of the band.

Oh those bummobiles

The parade entries that were neither floats nor marching bands were either politicians or “hobo mobiles.” The two were easy to distinguish.

The politicians rode in one-story vehicles. The hobo mobiles were two- and sometimes three-story contraptions, usually featuring a very old, very beat-up Chevy or Desoto sedan as the foundation with a couple of additional levels of riding space built toward the sky.

Outhouses (usually unpainted except perhaps for the letters USD) and old sofas were the most common furnishings for the hobo mobiles. The vehicles themselves lurched along as if their carburetors needed serious adjusting, and the upper stories swayed precariously from side to side, to the general enjoyment of the pack of poorly dressed students hanging from every corner.

After the parade and the football game, the family would find Jim for a quick meal. We’d say our goodbyes (big brother never seemed overly sad to see us leave town) and hit the highway for home, arriving well after dark.

The week before Hobo Day

When I reached campus in the fall of 1963, I discovered a whole world of pre-Hobo Day. It included:

• Guys running around for a couple of months with scraggly beards. Early in the semester, at a very public ceremony, the razor was buried, not to be used again until after Hobo Day. During Hobo Week, a beard-judging contest chose the guys with the best and worst beards. I grew a beard each fall, I believe, but I never even made the finals for any of the awards.

• Freshmen running around in green beanies and upper class members strutting across campus with black derbies and Hobo Day buttons. By the time I was a senior, the black derbies had pretty much disappeared.

• A bum stew feed, maybe on the Thursday of Hobo Week. Men and women gathered on the campus green in front of Sylvan Theater and used oversized spoons to eat a pretty tasty beef stew from tin cans.

• On the Friday evening before Hobo Day, many of the male students gathered in the upper room of the University Student Union for the Blue Key smoker. It’s hard to imagine these days, but they used to have coeds clad in fishnet stockings walk among the male audience handing out cigarettes while the speakers told, you know, racy jokes.

• While the smoker was underway, the female students had some kind of rally on the green followed by a snake dance through the streets of Brookings and downtown to the movie theater. (I think that might be true. I was never part of the snake dance.)

The smoker is gone, and so is the snake dance. I asked a granddaughter if she went to the bum stew feed this year. She seemed puzzled by the concept.

The spirit remains, though, and that’s what keeps me coming back.

Some years ago, I had the honor of riding in the parade as a representative of the Class of 1966. As we cruised through the crowded street downtown, a tall young man in a flannel shirt and blue jeans stepped from the curb and high-stepped toward the car, waving a toilet plunger over his head.

Some things don’t change at all.

By Terry Woster ’66

Terry Woster ’66 is a native South Dakotan, growing up near Chamberlain. He used his degree in journalism to ply his trade in this state since graduation. He currently does freelance writing for several South Dakota publications.



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