This story originally appeared in the Kearney Hub
LINCOLN — University of Nebraska at Kearney assistant history professor Nathan Tye was recognized this week for his research on jobless drifters.
History Nebraska announced Monday that Tye is the recipient of the James L. Sellers Memorial Award for the best article published in the state historical association’s Nebraska History Magazine in 2018.
Tye wrote the article, “Billy Clubs and Vagrancy Laws: Confronting the ‘Plague of Hobos’ in Nebraska, 1870s-1930s.”
In a November 2019 interview with the Kearney Hub, Tye described the life of hobos.
“There would be a pool of guys coming in on boxcars,” he said. “You’d hire them on for a couple of days to help with a building project or something. They were the source of casual labor in the state for a long time.”
Tye researched the topic of hobos and transient labor in the Great Plains for his doctoral dissertation. The “plague of hobos” often caused great concern for upstanding residents.
“That actually comes from a Kearney Hub article from the teens,” Tye said of the term. “The problem was that a large group of men passed through on a seasonal basis. A colleague of mine described them as ‘indispensable outcasts.’ Farmers couldn’t harvest without them. They needed a certain number of men to work for them, especially before mechanization. You needed a lot of guys to harvest your wheat and thresh it.”
Poorly paid, these individuals lived on the margins of society.
“They’re doing what they needed to do to survive,” Tye said. “It’s funny now, but farmers would talk about chickens coming up missing when the hobos came through.”
As a historian, Tye wanted to examine the lives of the people who tramped through Nebraska to better understand the role they played in the formation of our society.
“We’re a rural state,” he said. “Back then most people farmed. And they knew that they would have to have hired hands on occasion, but folks usually didn’t think about them having a history. You might have a guy on for a season. Your grandmother or grandfather might remember the threshing crews coming through with a steam thresher. But you might not think about them having a history or what their larger story might be.”
According to a History Nebraska press release, judges from Chadron State College selected Tye’s article for the award. Judges said, “The author masterfully uses a wide range of primary sources to overcome the fragmentary nature of the archive and place the important and overlooked voice of hobos into Nebraska history.”
Tye received a $1,000 prize from the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation through the support of Catherine Sellers Angle.