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A Hobo’s Song: Philipsburg’s Luther Gette, ‘King of the Hobos,’ reflects on a life of hopping freight trains – with his PhD in French lit along for the ride

by on December 31, 2019 11:37 AM

You don’t meet a lot of hobos with a doctorate. But Luther Gette, 81, of Philipsburg, isn’t like a lot of people you meet.

Gette is, among many things, the curator of the Philipsburg Historical Foundation and a 2019 winner of the Centre County Historical Society Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation. Gette earned his undergraduate degree at Penn State and went on to obtain a PhD in French literature from the University of Wisconsin. He’s been and done and seen a lot, much of it from a train car, where he often chose to live as a hobo.

“Everybody asks me, ‘What did you do with your PhD out on the road? It’s in French,’” says Gette. “I say, ‘It came in very handy. What if you’re up in Montreal looking to get a freight train?’ I talked my way through that.”

Gette has a map in his bedroom covered in a spiderweb of red lines depicting all the places he’s traveled by train.

“One of those red lines is from Montreal to Newport, Vermont,” Gette says. “And it was a wonderful ride. But I had to talk with all these guys in French, ‘Where is the train?’ ‘When are they leaving?’ and all that.”

Gette, who is unmarried and has no children, worked part-time at a hospital in Madison for years, with seven days on and seven days off. Along with 21 days of vacation, the job and a couple of layoffs gave him time to travel. After he retired, he become more active on the rails from 1995-99.

‘I was hooked right away’

Gette caught the train travel bug when he was a child growing up in Philipsburg.

“When I was a kid, we lived one block away from the railroad, at Maple and Front,” Gette says. “In those days, the trains were really running. So, I was hooked right away. As soon as I could walk around, I saw the trains go by.”

For 10 formative years, the frequent trains that stopped in Philipsburg “imprinted” on Gette, and his entire life has been influenced by the railroad.

“There was a huge train that came in the morning from Clearfield,” he says. “I’d always watch that if I wasn’t in school. In the summertime, I had an old Schwinn – with those old balloon tires – and I had a schedule: I’d watch the morning train come through, a double-headed steam with lots of smoke, then I’d take a little break, then at noontime, the New York Central showed up. Then about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the local train from Osceola came back toward Clearfield, so there was always a little something to do, train-wise.”

The brakemen of the small trainyard in Philipsburg taught Gette the art of hopping a train. It’s important, Gette says, to remember that even if a train is going slowly – about 10 mph – your body, too, is moving at 10 mph, so, “You have to hit the ground running, and you’re OK. I did not learn that the hard way, but I have taken tumbles getting off trains.

“I was 8 years old, and I knew how to get on and off a train when it was moving,” he says. “I watched [the brakemen] do it, and I did it myself.

“The first time I actually rode a freight – I sort of count the times I hung onto the end of the freight trains with my Schwinn bicycle and they pulled me out of town – but the first time I actually hopped one, I hopped a coal car and went to Osceola – four miles. Well, about three-and-a-half, because the yard was on the east side of town up there. It was nice; I caught hell when I got home. I did that only twice in my life, from Philipsburg to Osceola. Each time was memorable, though. The second time I took a ride, a little bit after that, everybody panicked because I jumped off the train before we got to Osceola, and they thought I got thrown off the train, and they were all looking for me.”

‘I didn’t want to sit around doing nothing’

Gette received his PhD in 1970 and says that by that time, “I was tired of teaching, and I didn’t want to sit around doing nothing the rest of my life.”

So Gette returned to his first love: railroads.

“In the ’60s, the passenger trains were dropping like flies [because of] interstate highways, airplanes, and so forth,” Gette says. “Passenger trains were disappearing, and they did disappear. So I said if I wanted to ride any more lines, which I wanted to do, I’m going to have to take a freight train. So that’s how I really started riding freight trains, on lines where the passenger trains were gone, and nowadays, a lot of those lines that had freight trains are gone, too.

“There are plenty of lines that I’ve ridden on a freight train that are no longer around, like the mountain division of the Maine Central,” Gette continues. “And I got that right in the blaze of a fall afternoon in October – everything just fantastic. We went from Portland, then we got to Bartlett, New Hampshire, then we had Crawford Notch to go through. But that’s all torn up, except for a little tourist line right at the notch. When you got up there in the old days, in the White Mountains there were summer resort hotels. I think there’s one of them left – a big white building with lots of porches, all wood – the only one that hasn’t burnt down.”

Gette muses fondly on his past exploits, reflecting on a long-gone cast of colorful characters and the bygone “good old days.” But he doesn’t seem gloomy or overly nostalgic about any of it – more whimsical, recalling close-calls and mishaps with a lighthearted laugh and a signature “ta-da!” when something really tickles him.

Gette remembers one of the first freight lines he rode in the ’70s. The Green Bay and Western Railway – all torn to pieces now – was “a beautiful railroad with some real nice dairy land and little hills and vales.”

“I guess I’ve been to every state one way or another – by passenger train, freight train, hand car,” he says. “Some people are very picky about whether they got this line on a freight train or passenger train. I say, if you can buy a ticket and ride on a passenger train, who the hell needs to ride on a freight train, right? And you know what? I can see all that stuff still, if I were an artist who could draw, I could draw all that stuff.”

‘King of the Hobos’

Gette had been hopping trains for years before he became a full-fledged staple of the hobo subculture.

It happened in Jefferson, Wisconsin, around 1984. Gette found a piece of wood inscribed with a hobo’s name, “Peoria Shorty,” and his natural curiosity and love of history prompted him to learn more.

“I tried to find out who Peoria Shorty was, and nobody knew,” Gette says. “But that’s when I started talking to people. I had been riding freight trains, but I had not met up with people who went to the hobo convention. I wrote a letter to ‘Steam Train’ Maury Graham – he was one of the great old-time hobos in Toledo. ‘No, I don’t know anything about Peoria Shorty,’ he wrote back, ‘but come on and talk to me over in Toledo.’ So I did.”

Gette set to work reading all the books available on the hobo lifestyle (Citizen Hobo by Todd DePastino is a favorite). Fast-forward a few years, and Gette attended his first Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, in 1988.

“It’s a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, flat as a pancake,” he says. “[The hobos have] been meeting there since 1900, because the town originally enticed them by giving them a boxcar full of beer. It was like a promotion. The hobos are fixtures out there.”

Gette says he “always went back” to the convention after getting to know the kindred spirits who gather there.

“I talked to people and I fell in love with them, basically,” he says.

The love must have been mutual, because in 1995 Gette was elected “King of the Hobos.”

“They give you two minutes to say why you should be hobo king,” Gette explains. “They did it by applause. The first year I ran, I gave a big serious speech and I didn’t win. The next year, I asked, ‘Would you mind if I sing a song when I run for king?’ [The MC] said, ‘You can do anything you want as long as it only takes two minutes.’ So I sang a song and they made me king.”

A fading tradition

According to Gette, people still do hop freight trains and hobos do still exist (Minneapolis is a hobo hub) but, “The old hobo culture is pretty much a thing of the past.”

People who continue to live the romantic life of a hobo learn the ins and outs of the rail system “through the grapevine,” Gette says, or from a legendary, albeit mysterious, figure about whom Gette says he is “not supposed to breathe a word.

“His mission in life is to put out a guide every year of where you can catch a freight train, and it does change,” says Gette. “Companies merge, and he keeps ahead of it. You get his guide, and he will tell you in detail – you can catch a train here, where the train is going. He rides 25-30,000 miles a year. He knows how to stay out of sight, and he knows how to get through all these places.”

Gette hopped his last freight train in 1999, but the energetic octogenarian is more than happy to share his lifetime of captivating stories with anyone who’s interested. Gette is a popular speaker and performer, full of not just riveting tales of the rail, but also local history.

Should you encounter the hobo king, be sure to inquire about the “bullet hole” in the jacket he found and continues to wear to this day, the time he was escorted off a train in handcuffs, the “mythic baloney sandwich of the Erie County jail,” or when he nearly became a criminal on his way to Pueblo, Colorado.

And be sure to absorb a little of the joie de vivre he exudes and undoubtedly acquired through a life of freedom and adventure riding the rails through this beautiful country.

 

Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.

 

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