The land is flat here, as far as the eye can see, a fertile brown and green expanse broken only by 7-foot-high fields of Midwest corn, and grain elevators, bleached white by the sun, that jut into the blue sky.
"I helped build that elevator," says Fred Maiszner of North Dakota, a 68-year-old hobo who started "riding the freight trains in Hoover's day. I haven't been here in some time, but you know, old dogs always stray back to their old stomping grounds."
Maiszner is sitting in front of Don's Hob-Nob Short Order Grill on Main Street, downing a can of Old Milwaukee. It's Saturday, and the streets of Britt - "founded by rail, sustained by the plow" - are packed with perhaps 40,000 people, 20 times the normal population. Today is Britt's centennial, not to mention the day of the town's 78th annual hobo's convention, when riders of the rails from east and west gather in heartland America.
But there are not many hobos here, two dozen at best, camped at what they call "the jungle," a little sheltered area just beside the white wooden building that serves as the freight depot for the Milwaukee Line.
"There's just not much hoboing left to do," says the Cheyenne Kid, 68, who's been hitching freights since the '30s. "Diesel engines killed it. Used to be a train would have to stop every so often to pick up water and coal. Now they just thunder on for a thousand miles, and the cars are so streamlined and locked shut you can't get in."
The Kid says that in the '30s, "there must have been fifteen, eighteen thousand of us roaming around. The Depression had a lot to do with it. Now I'd be surprised if there are more than a hundred of us."
"You can't just go around and do odd jobs any more," says Lord Open Road. "Used to be you could go up to the house of a widow and offer to paint the place in return for room and board. No questions asked. Now you need to have what they call credentials, and if you don't have your own paint truck, they're suspicious. And just forget about staying in somebody's house who don't know you."
"The world's just turned into a bunch of working stiffs," says Streamtrain Maury, just elected king of the hobos by the people of Britt. "It's harder and harder to understand as folks who don't seem to do anything."
Indeed, there's an ironic contrast forced by the mixing of the hobo convention and the town's centennial. Like cowboys and bank robbers, the hobos - with names like Iowa Blackie, Frypan Jack, and Boxcar Frank - conjure up the great romantic spirit of itimerant America, the forerunners of Kerouac's beat generation and the flowery days of the '60s counterculture.
"Being important is not that damn important," says Mr. Nobody. "But we all have our vanity."
Then there's Britt, the very model first edition of the town's Britt Tibune, on December 19, 1879, noted that "Britt is fast becoming the commercial center of the county and is drawing trade from every direction," largely because of the three railroad lines that cross here. "The business men are well endowed with enterprise and 'go-aheaditiveness.'"
Ninety-nine years later, the two-hour-long centennial parade is filled with almost 200 floats, most of them touting God, gravy or government. There's a covered wagon being pulled by four small John Deere tractors, all harnessed together. A horse dressed in overalls. A family of five in their old Model T with a sign proclaiming: "High spending is inflationary. Living high on the hog will destroy America." A VFW display that's a model of the Lincoln Memorial, with a Lincoln look-alike who's been greasepainted completely white. An old steam tractor driven by "Grandpa Harry Thompson, 89 years young." The Methodist Church declaring "There is new life in Christ."
And most graphic in the show, the float from the IIancock County Right to Life Association. A crib filled with real babies is being pulled by a tractor and a large sign reads: "Your Children - Britt's Future. The Supreme Court would have allowed these children to be destroyed at the beginning of their lives.God haze mercy on us."
A man from the VFW is circulating through the parade route, selling tiny American flags.
"Folks, let's make it look like America today," he says Oivind Andressen, here from Fredrikstad. Norway to visit relativies, hands over a a quarter and sticks the flag on his camera case.
At noon, after the parade, in an empty lot, hobos and townfolk, sightseers and relatives gather for the free Mulligan stew lunch that's prepared by the Chamber of Commerce. Eight hundred gallons of stew are cooked in 55-gallon drums.It's a traditional part of the hobo convention which, even when started at the turn of the century, was a clever business move by the merchants of Britt.
Through 1899, the [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] their organization Tourists Union 63) had a meeting in [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] merchants, Thomas [WORD ILLEGIBLE] T. A. Potter and W. E. Bradford, realizing the importance of the railroads and publicity for the town's economy, invited the "officers" of the union to Britt, and proposed that an annual convention be held here in August. The town, in conjunction with the Britt Tribune, invited journalists from across the land, and on August 23, 1900 - the day after the first convention - the town of Britt was on the front pages of newspapers across the country.
"It was advertising that Britt was after and she got it," editor W. A. Simkins wrote in the local paper, in an article hinting that the town, in conjunction with the journalist, had pulled a fast one on the world.
"Let the good Lord have mercy upon the reporters of the big daily papers when they go up to the Pearly Gates and try to get in. When it comes to writing a hobo convention story, these reporters of the daily press are far ahead of either Ananias or Fll Perkins.
"A convention's just a convention, says the Cheyenne Kid. "Peope say they used us. We used them. It's just that this town still has three train lines running through, and it's a handy place to meet."
The Kid is full of stories.
"Once I was riding the Silk Express from San Francisco to the East Coast. I'm going back now 45 years. That train was bringing raw silk to someplace in New England. I mean that train was carrying a million dollars. Something didn't feel right and I jumped off. I didn't realize at the time that she was so hot. They catch you on a train like that they put you right in jail, thinking you're gonna hijack it.
"Another time near Duluth I was sleeping in a boxcar behind a load of logs. I noticed these red diamond-shaped stickers on the outside of one of the cars. Forty tons of dynamite. That was '30 or '31. Got off that one fast."
Or the time Lord Open Road almost got killed.
"I got into this the hard way, 1927, when I was knee-high to a grasshopper I'd go down to the tracks when my Dad wasn't looking and sneak a ride for a mile. The neighbors would tell my Dad and he's beat the hell out of me. Finally I decided I'd had enough beatings and I didn't jump off after a mile.
"Now my constitution is as strong as a domesticated bovine. But you're going across the desert and you've gotta have water. I jumped off by this oasis and was pushing back all that green scum for the coolest drink in the whole world. Then this rancher comes up on me with a gun, says he wants a dollar-fifty for a drink. I said to him. 'I thought water was free.' We starting talking and after a while he said to me.'Are you in a hurry? I'd like to have dinner with you.' And I started laughing and I said to him, 'Me in a hurry? Took me nine months to get here.'"
The stories could go on all night. But it's getting dark now, and the stewpot is bubbling in the jungle, and the Cheyenne Kid is getting mobbed by autograph hounds in the Red Rooster Lounge.
"Jeepers, creepers," he says. "This is the rat race we're all trying to avoid."
And the Kid heads out of the Red Rooster back to the jungle, and in the process he meets Pennsylvania Pete, who glances around at the crowd and says:
"Lotta people call themsevles a tramp, but they couldn't be one with an instruction book."