Skip Navigation Links

Trains and hobos in Minonk in the 1960's

Submitted by Mike Gebhards - October 4, 2015

I often reminisce about growing up in Minonk, in the 60's. I remember the tame squirrels, at the Minonk park, when I was a kid. We used to sit on the steps of the old band stand and feed them acorns and walnuts that we got from Benny Janssen's yard.

Benny always told us that squirrels were mean and would bite our fingers off if we weren't careful. Then he'd laugh really loud. We had some colorful characters back then, and Benny was one of the best. He really liked to get us kids going, and had some tall tales he liked to tell us. One time he told Bob Janssen and me that if we ever fell off the cliff at the jumbo, we could tie garter snakes together and climb back up. I remember riding old car hoods down the west side of the jumbo. That last jump at the bottom, was a wild ride. I still don't know how we kept from getting killed doing some of the things we did.

Benny was Bob Janssen uncle. He told us that the swamp behind Bob Janssen's house at the end of West Sixth Street had alligators in it and the hobos would jump off the trains by the swamp, never to be seen again. I do remember seeing hobos out there and along the tracks near where the sewage treatment plant is located now.

We boys liked to talk to the old hobos that stopped in the camps near Minonk. We took them apples from our yards, and food from our parents' gardens and they told us stories about how they lived hopping freights all over the country. There was a time in my younger years that I dreamed of being a real hobo and living the adventure they lived. There was a camp out at the ditch by the township shed, one at the jumbo in town, one out at the swamp, and one near the north mine. They had 4 different camps to stay at and which one they used depended on which track they were taking, and in what direction.

The only time I remember seeing the hobos, was during the warm months. I think most of them traveled the IC north and south, and the AT&SF east. I don't remember any of them ever saying they were going to Peoria, but a lot of them jumped off the IC, and took the AT&SF to Chicago. In the fall, they traveled back south from Chicago to the gulf states for the winter.

When Frank Swisher had the junk yard at the North mine, the hobos would camp in the old mule shed just west of the pond. I remember them cooking bullheads on willow sticks, kind of like kids do hot dogs. I tried it once and it's a good way to cook fish in a hurry. One guy I remember claimed to be a retired university professor who got tired of the system and took to traveling. He seemed to know an awful lot, so I think he probably was what he said. I often wonder what became of those old hobos.

I never saw a young hobo. For some reason, they were all fairly old. We lived in the old Silldorff house at the corner of Oak, and Seventh street. We had 2 Jonathan apple trees on the side facing the tracks. I remember the hobos jumping off to grab a few apples to take with them while the train crews were switching. We didn't care. The train crews also helped themselves to the apples.

I remember myself and some of my friends taking a ride in a box car. We found out the cars were going to the TPW yard over by East Peoria, so we figured we could jump off at Benson and hike the tracks back home when we got done. Well, the train didn't slow down enough to jump off at Benson, Roanoke, or Metamora, so we had to get off at the TP&W yard in East Peoria. Lucky for us, Willis Brown worked there, and took us all home. My dad would have had a hissy fit if he found out. Willis was a good guy. It was lucky for us, that I knew who he was.

I've thought about writing a book about all the things we did as kids in Minonk. Everything from fishing at the reservoir, climbing the jumbo, hunting fossils. I could probably write 200 pages or more just about what I did. Life was an adventure back then. We'd take off on our bicycles, and ride out to Pattonsburg, and fish all day. Sometimes we'd camp overnight.

The things I remember about living in Minonk as a young boy will always be in my memories as some of the best times I ever had. The hobos are long gone, and so are the trains they rode in and out of Minonk. I still think about the stewed apples they cooked over an open fire and many of the stories they told us of their travels. Growing up in Minonk was special, and you had to live it to appreciate it. Young people today don't have a clue what they missed . How could they know? You had to live it to know it.