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Riding the Rails With John McClaughry: Conservative Thought Leader, Politico, Hobo


Published June 13, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 23, 2018 at 2:19 p.m.

  • Marc Nadel

Feather River John lazily strummed his guitar in the back of a speeding Ford Ranchero, hat slung low to shield his eyes from the brilliant northern California sun. Beside him in the bed of the coupe-truck, Hot Shot Timer plucked away on a battered old banjo. When they weren't singing — mostly out of tune, according to Hot Shot Timer — the two shot the breeze about nothing and everything, as kids in their early twenties do.

It was 1962, just outside Yuba City. The two were young, footloose and foolish, with the vast expanse of the American West laid out before them. Adventure awaited.

As they traded old country and western tunes, the friends' idyll was interrupted. The car came to a stop, and the two young men heard shouting voices and barking dogs. They turned to see two policemen running their way, guns drawn. "We've got 'em!" yelled one.

The car belonged to neither Feather River John nor Hot Shot Timer. Even if it had, it wouldn't have gotten them far on its own. The gleaming new Ford sat some 25 feet up on the third deck of a car carrier attached to a string of train cars bound for an auto dealership.

As the cops closed the distance, bounding over the tops of boxcars, Hot Shot Timer turned to his friend. "John," he said, "I do believe we've been got." Sure enough, the two ended up at the police station.

These days, Feather River John is better known by his given name: John McClaughry. He's a key player in Vermont political circles, a conservative thought leader who for decades has been a thorn in the side of the left — and, on occasion, the right.

Now 80, McClaughry has been a prominent state legislator and a candidate for governor. He founded a Libertarian think tank, the Ethan Allen Institute. He served briefly as a senior policy adviser in the Reagan White House. For the past 50-odd years, he's been the Town Meeting Day moderator in his Northeast Kingdom home of Kirby, population 490.

And, for several years in the '60s, he was a hobo.

From 1962 to '65, McClaughry made a habit of hopping trains. He estimates that he logged some 5,000 miles in boxcars over those years.

"I rode the rails through 19 of the 29 states that I was at one time down and out in," he tells Seven Days.

While that revelation may come as a surprise to many, McClaughry hasn't entirely kept it a secret — at least, not from his closest colleagues.

"I wasn't particularly surprised to learn he was a hobo," says Rob Roper, now the president of the Ethan Allen Institute. McClaughry served as president from the think tank's founding in 1993 until Roper took over in 2009. Over the years, he's regaled Roper and others with occasional tales from his days riding the rails.

"Look at the way he came to Vermont," Roper observes. "He showed up with a backpack and built a log cabin."

That cabin, built in 1963, still stands on McClaughry's property. McClaughry didn't construct the larger cabin he now lives in, but he did design it.

McClaughry is quick to note that his hoboing was inspired by the financial destitution and wanderlust of youth, not by the desire to adopt a permanent transient lifestyle. He was, in essence, a step or two above a tourist in the hobo kingdom. (And, yes, there are hobo kings. Queens, too.)

"To say I was a hobo might be a bit of an inflation, because I had a place to go back to and enough money in my pocket to eat," he says.

While he may demur on the term, for a time McClaughry was by most definitions a bona fide hobo — he even has the hobo name to prove it. And Feather River John has stories to tell.

A Hobo Works and Wanders

Hood River Blackie; Feather River John; John's then-wife, Alice; and Hot Shot Timer in front of an old Maine Central caboose in McClaughry's yard circa 1974 - COURTESY OF JOHN MCCLAUGHRY
  • Courtesy Of John Mcclaughry
  • Hood River Blackie; Feather River John; John's then-wife, Alice; and Hot Shot Timer in front of an old Maine Central caboose in McClaughry's yard circa 1974

For almost as long as there have been trains in America, there have been hobos — wanderers who ride the rails without paying, looking for work, never settling in one place for too long. From the late 1800s to the mid-1970s, hobos were a common sight all over the country. During the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of men and women rode the rails seeking jobs. Hobo encampments — commonly called "jungles" — could be found along rail lines from sea to shining sea.

While they may be easy to confuse with bums, the ranks of hobos have included famous folk: Red Skelton, Merle Haggard, James Michener and Woody Guthrie, to name a few. In addition to McClaughry, the Green Mountain State has been occasional home to another notable hobo: folk singer Utah Phillips.

It's important to get a few things straight about hobos, McClaughry notes. First and foremost: Though itinerant, true hobos are not vagrants.

"A hobo works and wanders," says McClaughry in the darkened great room of his Kirby log cabin. A faint tinge of woodsmoke hangs in the air as he sits beside a large picture window overlooking the front yard of his mostly wooded 23-acre spread. Beyond his property, beneath a sodden spring sky, stretches a panorama of rolling green pastures and forested mountains.

"That is, a hobo will work to make some pocket money," McClaughry continues, "but he'll leave even if there's more work, because he has a footloose tendency to just keep moving." He's dressed in worn jeans and a heavy, red-checked flannel shirt with a gaping hole in the elbow — "to suit the hobo tales," he says with a wry chuckle.

Hobos' search for work is a key factor distinguishing them from, say, tramps — who are essentially hitchhikers, according to McClaughry — and bums. "Bums are too drunk to do anyone any good," he explains.

The late Phillips would agree, though he put it slightly more lyrically, according to his friend Rik Palieri.

"Utah would always say that a hobo works and wanders, a tramp dreams and wanders, and a bum drinks and wanders," says the Hinesburg folk singer, who has spent years researching hobos. Much of his work can be found at the Library of Congress.

"You never call a working hobo a tramp," Palieri adds. "That would be very disrespectful."

There may be no honor among thieves, but among hobos it is paramount. In 1889, the Tourist Union '63, a labor union organized for and by hobos — yes, really — outlined a code of ethics. Among the 16 tenets of ethical hoboing are general guidelines for good behavior: Don't get drunk in public, respect the law, act like a gentleman. There is also this: "Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants."

When Feather River John and Hot Shot Timer — real name Barry Vogel — were pulled from the train in 1962, they were on their way to New York City, where they had jobs lined up. Adventures were had along the way, sure. But the trip had a purpose.

That day, the police were sweeping for hobos. At the station, they were processed by the cops and a railroad bull — hobo slang for railroad security. When the officials got to McClaughry and Vogel, the two pleaded their case.

"We told them we were students at [the University of California, Berkeley], which we were," recalls McClaughry, who was between his first and second years of postgraduate studies at the time, "and that we had jobs in New York."

He adds that it was obvious from their decidedly less shabby appearance that they were not typical hobos. When asked why they were hopping freight trains, McClaughry reiterated, "Because we're students, and we're broke."

"They were puzzled by us," says Vogel by phone from his current home in California. The police told the railroad bull they didn't want to keep the young hobos. The bull responded that he had no use for the pair, either.

"John," Vogel recalls saying sarcastically, "I'm starting to get the feeling that we're not wanted."

And with that, they were kicked out into the street.

I Hear That Train a-Comin'

Feather River John riding the rails in the 1960s - COURTESY OF JOHN MCCLAUGHRY
  • Courtesy Of John Mcclaughry
  • Feather River John riding the rails in the 1960s

McClaughry caught his first train when he was about 12 or 13, he thinks. It was a hot summer day, and he felt like a swim.

"So I hopped a train and rode seven or eight miles to a swimming hole," he recalls.

McClaughry is a train buff who grew up in Paris, Ill., surrounded by railroads. The main line of the "Big Four," aka the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, sat about 100 yards from his front door. The Egyptian branch of the New York Central Railway, which also operated the C.C.C. & Stl., was about 200 yards to the west.

"I was suitably immersed in rail issues early on," says McClaughry, whose great-uncles worked on railways.

He got his first taste of hoboing several years later. Feeling restless on a long weekend at Berkeley, McClaughry drove his Plymouth to the Western Pacific rail yards in Stockton, Calif., and asked about trains heading east.

"I found myself in a boxcar heading up the Sierras," he says. "That was just a weekend trip, a couple of days and back."

With no destination in mind, McClaughry ended up in Portola, about 200 miles northeast of Stockton. His return took him through the Feather River Canyon, hence "Feather River John."

"You chose your own moniker," McClaughry says of hobos. "That one seemed to fit."

He was essentially self-taught in the art of hoboing, though he learned some tricks from veteran hobos along the way. For example, how to get on the train.

"The best way is to secrete yourself in the back of a gloomy boxcar until you hear those two whistles," McClaughry says. Two whistles, he explains, mean that the conductor is calling for air hoses in preparation for departure. They're eventually followed by one long whistle, which means the train is rolling out.

Hiding in a boxcar is the easiest and safest way to hop a train. But it's not always the most practical.

"If it's a hot yard and the bulls are looking for prey, you don't want to go where they're patrolling," says McClaughry, easily slipping into hobo slang more than 50 years after his last ride. In this situation, a hobo needs a more athletic means of getting aboard: running alongside and jumping on while the train is motion. "It's a much more risky business," he cautions.

Catching a train on the fly isn't as simple as it looks in the movies, McClaughry continues. For one thing, you can't do it safely unless the train is going very slowly — five to 10 miles an hour, tops. It's also crucial to grab the front ladder of a car, rather than the back one.

"If you grab the front and have to let go, you'll get bounced around but thrown clear," McClaughry explains. "But if you grab the back and can't hang on, you'll get amputated, thrown between the cars."

Once you're on the train, getting comfortable is key, he says. McClaughry typically traveled with a bedroll, backpack and guitar. He never carried or saw anyone else with a bindle — the long stick with a bandana tied at the end that most people associate with hobos.

Another guideline: Stay safe. "You always want to be wary of your surroundings," McClaughry says. "It's sort of a running safety check."

He likens the gathering of hobo intelligence to his later stint as an intelligence officer in the Marine Reserve. "All your sensory organs are working: Who are these people? Where is there danger? Is there a bull out there that wants to put me in jail?"

Off the train, further intel comes from hobo symbols, glyphs drawn on water towers or buildings. Two shovels means work is available. A cat on the side of a house indicates a "nice lady." A flattened smiley face means a hobo can sleep in the barn. A crucifix alerts hobos to a source of food handouts — as long as they're willing to talk religion.

Hoboing can be dangerous, but McClaughry says he never encountered any trouble on the rails.

"I was young and strong," he says. "If I'd been 70 and hurting for my years, I might have been a little more careful about who I fell in with."

Then again, there's not much point in stealing from a hobo.

"What are they gonna take from you?" McClaughry asks rhetorically. "If you're gonna commit a crime, you're not going to rob somebody with nothing to steal."

Generally, he says, hobos on the trains he rode maintained a loose collegiality. "You get in a car, sort of nod and look like you belong, and it was all right. It was sort of a 'We're all in this together' thing," he says. "There's us and them, and them is walking around the yard with billy clubs and pistols."

In addition to staying safe on the train, it's important to know where it's headed.

"It's not always clear where the train is going, if you're in an unfamiliar place," says McClaughry. "Hobos are always recalculating. GPS has kind of redefined that verb, but hobos have been doing it forever."

One day, Feather River John was in need of some recalculation in a rail yard outside St. Louis, Mo. And he learned firsthand that the relationship between hobos and bulls isn't always adversarial.

"I got so fed up with the lack of intelligence I could gather that I walked right up to the dispatching office of the railyard," McClaughry says. "I asked a couple of railroad workers which train was going down the road to Rose Lake."

The dispatcher turned from his desk, startled, then directed McClaughry to a nearby caboose.

"He said, 'I'll tell ya, kid, that caboose is gonna be on the next train to Rose Lake,'" recalls McClaughry. "'You just go over and sit in that caboose, and pretty soon you'll be where you want to go.'"

McClaughry went and sat in the caboose, fiddling around on his guitar. After an hour or two, he heard the train back into the couplet. Just then, the brakeman swung himself on board. McClaughry assumed he'd be booted.

"He looked at me, seemingly not surprised at all, and said, 'You know any minstrel songs?'" says McClaughry. He did. As it turned out, the brakeman was a member of a minstrel club in St. Louis. Minstrel clubs have since faded out of existence for their offensive portrayal of black musicians. But at the time, they were still popular in parts of the country.

"I'm flogging away trying to remember the chords, and he's down on one knee wailing, 'Mammy! Dear old mammy!'" McClaughry remembers. "We're rolling along through the tunnel, and he's singing away. We got to the other side and bid farewell; then I caught the next train to Columbus, Ohio. End of story."

Go West (Wing), Young Man

President Ronald Reagan with McClaughry at the White House - COURTESY OF JOHN MCCLAUGHRY
  • Courtesy Of John Mcclaughry
  • President Ronald Reagan with McClaughry at the White House

McClaughry didn't ride the rails to the White House to serve in Ronald Reagan's administration. Well, he may have taken a subway — but if so, he paid the fare. By then, he'd long since given up hoboing.

As he neared the end of grad school at Berkeley, McClaughry had narrowed his choice of places to settle to Alaska, east Tennessee and Vermont. The first was too far away and too cold. East Tennessee, he notes, was next to west Tennessee, then part of the segregationist South.

"That didn't sit well with me," he says.

So he bought 200 acres in Kirby for $12 an acre in 1962, after visiting the Green Mountains one weekend with his then-girlfriend. (He's since sold all but 23 acres.)

McClaughry built his first log cabin in 1963, as "a place to put down roots," and then went to Washington, D.C., to find work at a moderate Republican magazine called Advance. He moved to Vermont for good in 1970 and served in the Vermont House of Representatives for several years in the 1970s, before Reagan came calling in 1980. But he has never really laid Feather River John to rest.

The hobo lived on vividly in others' memories, too. In April 1983, True West ran an article called "A Hobo in the White House," authored by Hood River Blackie, one of McClaughry's closest hobo friends. (Hood River Blackie was also a mentor to Phillips, who penned a song about him, "Hood River, Roll On.")

The hobo briefly chronicled, with various degrees of accuracy, both McClaughry's political accomplishments to that point and highlights of his hobo days. Among the former were working on Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, serving under Vermont senator Winston Prouty and Illinois senator Charles Percy, being named to presidential commissions by both Nixon and Jimmy Carter, and being a speech writer and policy adviser to Reagan. Among the latter, the time Feather River John and Hot Shot Timer jumped from a moving freight train and the latter busted up his nose.

"The 'Hobo in the White House' piece is not a trustworthy source for anything," McClaughry cautions.

Hood River Blackie did get at least one thing right: McClaughry's role in the formation of the Hobo Foundation in the mid-'70s. Along with Hood River Blackie and a hobo king named Steam Train Maury Graham, he established the organization as a nonprofit and registered it in Vermont as a 501(c)(3) in the late 1970s. Though McClaughry was no longer involved by this point, in 1989 the foundation was responsible for starting the National Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa.

Britt, also the site of the National Hobo Cemetery, has long been the center of hobo culture in the U.S. It hosts an annual celebration, Hobo Days, that draws thousands of hobos from around the country to see the annual crowning of a hobo king and queen. The title carries little responsibility; it's more of an honorific.

Compared with the other two founders of the Hobo Foundation, "John was more educated — not necessarily smarter, but more educated," says hobo queen Connecticut Shorty, aka Betty Moylan.

Moylan, a 75-year-old former insurance worker from Hartford, Conn., rode the rails in the 1990s as a retiree, logging 5,000 miles. She never hoboed with McClaughry, though he did once meet her father, Connecticut Slim, who hoboed for more than 40 years. And she and her sister, New York Maggie — also a hobo queen — visited McClaughry once in Kirby.

"He had the skills to get the Hobo Foundation incorporated as a nonprofit," Moylan observes.

Steam Train Maury Graham was the foundation's first president, Hood River Blackie the VP and Feather River John its secretary. Hot Shot Timer, aka Vogel, was the foundation's lawyer.

"The best part is, I've never had to do anything; they've never had any trouble," says Vogel. "Which is good, because I'm not licensed in Vermont, let alone Iowa."

While opening the museum may be the Hobo Foundation's most visible accomplishment, that wasn't its primary mission, at least not to start.

"Hood River Blackie was really concerned about the ultimate fate of old hobos," McClaughry explains.

John McClaughry and Wanda Grant at Town Meeting Day 2017 - FILE: NANCY PIETTE
  • File: Nancy Piette
  • John McClaughry and Wanda Grant at Town Meeting Day 2017

Hobos, by and large, don't have retirement plans. So the Hobo Foundation was created to help house elderly hobos. One project was raising funds to lease government land for a hobo retirement camp. According to McClaughry, it never amounted to much, and the land was already in use, albeit informally, as a hobo jungle.

"Hobos are big on informality," he notes.

The altruistic intentions of that project might surprise Vermonters familiar with McClaughry's conservative politics. But former Vermont governor Jim Douglas says they're not out of character.

"John has always served the interests and needs of his constituents well," says the Republican who held the state's top post from 2003 to 2011. Douglas has known McClaughry for years in various political capacities. Most notably, both were on the Republican ticket in 1992, when McClaughry ran for governor against Howard Dean, who won the election. Douglas ran for U.S. Senate, losing to incumbent Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

If one views hobos as McClaughry's constituency, then it makes sense he would work for their interests, just as he's long taken up the causes of economically struggling farmers in Kirby.

"It was a charitable cause," says McClaughry of the Hobo Foundation. "And there's crazier things that have been incorporated."

"John is very principled, very articulate, and is someone who has the courage of his convictions and is not afraid to express them," says Douglas.

"John's views may be less and less in the mainstream as Vermont becomes bluer and bluer," the former governor continues, referring to McClaughry's far-right Jeffersonian politics. "But I think it's important for all views to be heard. And I have great respect for his willingness to continue to speak out."

Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, calls McClaughry "the conscience of the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party. He's an extremely principled person who doesn't play politics with his ideology at all."

Roper cites a June 4 op-ed McClaughry penned for VTDigger.org titled "The school property tax deadlock." As Roper puts it, McClaughry "basically sides with the Democrats over [Gov. Phil Scott]" on education funding.

McClaughry declines to delve too deeply into his politics with Seven Days — he's more interested in talking about hoboing. But, asked if he sees a connection between his hobo days and his political life, he is clear: "There is no connection whatsoever."

That may be true. As Palieri, Moylan and Vogel all note, for many modern, post-steam-train-era hobos, hoboing was more a passing era of their lives than an enduring vocation.

But those looking to square Feather River John with John McClaughry might do so by considering the namesake of his Libertarian-minded think tank, the Ethan Allen Institute. McClaughry notes that, in his frequent letters to the editor of the Hartford Courant, the Green Mountain Boys leader typically signed off as "Ethan Allen, lover of liberty and property." While hobos may not be known for their acquisition of property, few people live as freely as they do, with as few regulations and restraints.

"The IRS had a lot of questions," McClaughry recalls of incorporating the Hobo Foundation. "So I sent them a letter saying they needed to tell me why providing a safe, comfortable resting place for elderly Americans is not a social purpose. And I guess that did the trick."

And so the train rolls on.

A Hobo's Luck

John McClaughry in 2006 - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • John McClaughry in 2006

There's another way to hop on a train besides absconding in a boxcar or hooking a ladder on the fly. But it's best saved for a last resort.

"You can swing into a moving boxcar, if you're sufficiently athletic," advises McClaughry. Boxcar doors have a lever, he explains. When they're open, you can grab the lever and swing your feet up into the car. "There's a risk of ending up on your butt on the side of the tracks, but it can be done," he continues. "I've done it."

After they left the police station in 1962, Feather River John and Hot Shot Timer began hoofing it north in the direction of the railyard in Oroville, Calif. Thumbs out, they tried hitchhiking. The first car to pull up alongside them belonged to the railroad agent.

"You guys are going back to try and catch that train, aren't you?" he asked through the window.

"Well, it did cross our minds, yes," Feather River John responded.

"All right, climb in. I'll get you up there," said the agent, checking his watch.

With Feather River John and Hot Shot Timer in the back, the car took off.

"I know what train you boys want, and I wanna get you there," the agent said, hitting the accelerator.

When they reached the yard, the train had already pulled out toward the main rail line. So the agent pulled onto a dirt road that ran alongside the track, racing the train to get ahead of an empty boxcar.

When he had enough of a lead on the boxcar, the agent slowed. The hobos bailed out of the moving car, flung their bags into the also-moving boxcar, grabbed the handle and swung in. Safely aboard, they waved goodbye to the railroad agent.

Inside the car, a couple of other hobos had been watching the scene unfold, bewildered.

"This was beyond anybody's experience," recalls McClaughry, "that a railroad agent would deliver a couple of hobos to a moving freight train. There were naturally some questions." He remembers the other hobos' expressions of wary skepticism.

Neither McClaughry nor Vogel is quite sure why the agent picked them up.

"I guess he just took a liking to a couple of young hobos," suggests Vogel.

Or maybe he knew something that only a few daring individuals have experienced: There's no adventure quite like riding the rails.

"It's a different way of seeing the world," says Vogel. "You see a different part of America than you do when you're barreling down a highway plagued with billboards."

"It's a sense of independence and freedom that you can't really replace in a structured life," says Moylan.

Then again, maybe Feather River John and Hot Shot Timer were simply in the right place at the right time.

"What can I say?" says McClaughry. "Sometimes you just get lucky."

Correction, June 18, 2018: An earlier version of this story misidentified the railways near John McClaughry's childhood home in Paris, Ill. The railways were the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway and the Egyptian branch of the New York Central Railway.

Correction, June 18, 2018: An earlier version of this story misidentified the office for which Jim Douglas ran in 1992. He was a candidate for U.S. Senate.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Ballad of Feather River John"

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