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Men off the Road

by Gertrude Springer

Photographs by Lewis Hine

September 1934

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There was a little experience to go on. The Rev. W. E. Paul of Minneapolis had demonstrated that cast-off men may be salvaged by work and steady living and the community profit thereby (see Taking the Work Cure at Medicine Lake, by Morris Lewis, Survey Graphic, January 1934, page 30). While none of the 200 federal transient camps now in operation over the country follows the Minneapolis pattern exactly they all, to some extent, stem from it. Most of them were pioneer projects set going under conditions that were themselves a test of the stamina of the men.

In New Jersey, for instance, the first camp was set up last November by a gang of six transients under a leader, in an open bathing-pavilion full of last year's dead leaves, with little equipment to start with beyond a heap of picnic tables, a couple of pails and an abandoned milk can. Water had to be carried half a mile. In New York a gang of twelve men broke through the February snow in Bear Mountain Park to a disused shack and with others who came later built from the ground up a convenient, well-planned camp, a permanent useful feature of state property. At a camp site on property owned by the State Department of Mental Hygiene the "pioneer detail" of twelve had to seek shelter from the winter storms in an abandoned railroad station until it could throw up its own barracks. Yet within five months these same men and others like them had completed a water and sewage system adequate to serve the purpose which the state proposes ultimately to make of the property. "Give us time and material," says the director, "and we'll build anything from a three-legged stool to a battleship. We've got the talent, but you mustn't crowd us."

Not all transient men go to the camps, partly because there are not camps enough, but chiefly because they are not as adapted to camp life as it has so far developed. On the whole there is a pretty effective screening-out of unlikely material in the treatment centers. Chronic hoboes, men in bad physical condition from disease or disability, youngsters out for a lark, none of these are counted good camp timber. For them, as for transient families, there are other methods of treatment. The old hoboes do sometimes get to camp, but they do not as a rule stay very long—it is not their kind of a show; they have to give too much for what they get. No man goes to camp without a frank, unadorned explanation of just what he will get there and what he will be expected to give in cooperation, work and decent conduct. No man goes against his will though most of them, it must be admitted, go more from curiosity about "this new racket" than from conviction that it will be good for them. They've heard that before and it makes them laugh.

The camps are clean, orderly and rough. Every man has a decent bed in an airy bunk-house and an outfit of workclothes, underwear and shoes. To wash himself he takes his turn at a basin or shower. He does a regular tour of duty at kitchen-police and washes his own clothes with such facilities as may be. Assigned to a work-squad he puts in from four to six hours a day. Regularly he sits down to "three squares."

As an unexpected visitor I ate dinner with the men at Camp Roosevelt in Bear Mountain Park. We had roast beef and potatoes, string beans, cold slaw, canned pineapple, bread, butter, coffee and milk—with seconds for anyone who said the word. At Camp Haledon in New Jersey, again an unexpected visitor, I ate for supper a thick slice of bologna, creamed potatoes, beet and onion salad, stewed apricots, bread and butter and iced cocoa. Food-costs for camps in the eastern states run from twenty-one to thirty-five cents a day, not counting supplies received intermittently from the Surplus Relief Corporation.

Outside of working and meal hours and "lights out" there are no rules about time. A certain amount of recreation is stimulated by a leader but the men take it or let it alone. The younger ones take it. The older ones just sit or lie on their beds. Some of them read. A few putter around at projects of their own. A man at Camp Greenhaven, New York, who once had a glamorous adventure in Central America has decorated the tops of stone walls with bits of stone and cement to represent Mayan ruins as he remembers them. At Camp Roosevelt a man who has sailed the seven seas works endlessly perfecting, with such scraps of material as he can pick up, a model of a ship that once brought him luck.

Many of the camps have attempted formal educational activities without too much success. These men have broken completely with school and its ways, but they like educational movies and they like the discussion of current events with a good leader. Simple vocational courses are most popular if they can be tied to the practical doing of something or other.

At one camp a course in radio resulted in strangely contrived receivers all over the place. At another, after a course in motor mechanics, all sorts of abandoned wrecks of cars were dragged into camp and out of them was triumphantly constructed a weird looking vehicle which by some miracle actually runs.

But these are not the things that determine the holding power of a camp and its influence on the men. Work is the real medicine of the camp and on the quality of its work projects hang its results. Busy-work is no good. Leaf-raking does not fool these men. Work without the incentive of a final achievement which they can visualize in advance does not hold them. Given useful, constructive work, calling for personal ingenuity, with definite measures of progress and a modicum of outside appreciation they will toil tirelessly and enthusiastically.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003