May I sleep in your barn tonight, Mister - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
It was a very sad entry in the death register of 1889 for Hullett Township that provided the idea for this column. Name: unknown; Age: unknown; Cause of death: unknown; Religion: unknown. His profession was written down as pauper/tramp. On the bottom of the registration was the note “Nothing is known of the above. He was interred by order of the reeve”.
Tramps, hobos, kings of the road, itinerants and vagabonds were all names assigned to the people who travelled around the countryside looking for a place to sleep and food to eat. Some of them were quite willing to do a small amount of work, just enough to obtain a meal. Others were not so inclined and instead freely took that which was not theirs, sometimes in a violent manner.
Everyone loves a circus, but in June of 1885, the Brussels Post warned that the worst crowd of “sharpers, deadbeats and pickpockets” followed the circus and that citizens needed to be aware. One ploy used was to ask a citizen to change a large denomination bill into smaller ones. The money was counted in front of the citizen and looked to be legitimate but in the end, the slicker made off with half the money.
The Huron Expositor, in 1887, reported that a Clinton woman, at her front door, told a tramp to go on his way. A short time later, she noticed the same person sitting on her back step lacing up his shoes. When she complained, he asked for time to finish tying his shoes. Later, her husband arrived home from work and went to pick up his new shoes that he had left on the back step. Instead he only found a very well-worn pair that the tramp had left behind.
In the days when homes were heated with woodstoves, there was always a pile of wood that required being split. Most tramps would gladly chop wood in return for a hot meal. Not so in the Clinton area in 1895. A group of seven tramps descended on the area, causing concern for the residents. When some of them called on Mr. James Stevens on the Base Line, asking for a meal, he refused them, saying that they had been seen playing cards along the railway line and that if they had used their time more wisely, they could have earned their food. In 1902, The Blyth Standard printed a story attributed to a Mr. Peter Sands of Pennsylvania, who claimed to understand the signs that tramps and hobos affixed to structures to advise those who came after them. A diamond shape indicated “abundance” while a circle stood for “nothing” or zero meaning a person would be wasting their time begging at that residence. A cross symbolized work, as in sawing or chopping wood, the only task that most tramps could reliably do. A double cross indicated hard work. The presence of a man on the property was noted by a straight up and down line, while a woman was denoted by a crude hourglass shape. The combination of the signs for woman and abundance were a welcome sight to the tramp. A horizontal line with two vertical lines underneath each end meant “dog” and “beware”. One of the more encouraging signs was a rectangle with a semi-circle on top, much like the drawing of a pail, which represented “booze”. Finally, a square filled with horizontal lines indicated the likelihood of spending some time in that town’s jail. Whether all these signs were in use in Huron County is not known, but what our forefathers understood was that the travellers that came this way did have some system to help them.
Once railways were established in the area, they provided a way of travelling around that was easier than hoofing it. In 1900, the superintendent of the Grand Trunk Railway notified all agents, operators, road masters and section foremen to be on the lookout for tramps.
Municipalities had different ways of coping with those who tramped along the roads and byways of Huron County. In 1880, it was reported that over 81 tramps had been “accommodated with lodging in the Clinton lock-up in March of that year”. In this way, the men had a safe place to sleep overnight and had at least one meal before being sent on their way.
In April of the same year, Blyth Council voted to send all tramps to the Huron County gaol (jail) in Goderich. In 1895, Gaoler Dickson reported the following to county council. There were 15 prisoners in custody: one was a woman, from Brussels, who was described as a vagrant; three were males considered insane and were awaiting transport to the asylum; one man was sentenced to 20 days for being absent from the House of Refuge and the remaining 10 were vagrants who were sentenced to three to six months hard labour.
During the Great Depression, many work camps were set up throughout Canada to provide food, lodging, medical care and some rehabilitation. Wages were low and the labour, such as smashing rocks to build roadways, was hard.
In 1892, the Canadian Criminal Code stated that “a loose, idle or disorderly person or vagrant could be fined $50 or imprisonment not exceeding six months, with or without hard labour”. By 2019, the same criminal code dropped vagrancy as a crime.
Even though, in fiction, the tramp was often a romanticized character, the realities of life on the road were often very grim indeed.
“May I sleep in your barn tonight, Mister?
It's cold lying out on the ground
And the cold north wind is a-whistling
And I have no place to lie down
Now I have no tobacco nor matches
And I'm sure I can cause you no harm
I will tell you my story, kind Mister
For it runs through my heart like a storm”
By Charlie Poole