A Union Pacific train is parked in the Union Pacific Kirby Yard in Kirby, Texas. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The “Hobo Capital of Texas” has lost its Hobo Fest.

Kirby, a home rule city in eastern Bexar County, long ago was a farming community with a population of 18. Southern Pacific Railroad came through in 1877 and built a rail yard, for a rail tie stockpile that became known as “Kirby ties.” “Kirby is a town the railroad built,” declares a Union Pacific Railroad webpage honoring the town’s rail history.

Along with transcontinental train routes and the Great Depression of the 1930s came hobos, wanderers in search of seasonal migrant work who rode the rails as free transport. At the time, the Kirby rail yard is said to have attracted many hobo visitors while trains stopped to refuel, thus earning the town its nickname. 

The festival’s demise was the result of a divide in Kirby over its “hobo” moniker, with some saying it put the city in a bad light and others arguing that it’s just a harmless, tongue-in-cheek name. 

As Kirby’s population reached 8,000 residents in the late 2000s, then-Mayor Johnny Duffek in 2008 helped start Hobo Fest in honor of the city’s past. The festival would be a fundraiser for the city, and Duffek sought to distinguish Kirby’s celebration from others in Texas towns, such as the Great Texas Mosquito Festival in Clute and the Cockroach Festival in Hitchcock.

“We wanted to have some kind of theme to base it on, and thought about the tracks and the hobos who used to come through Kirby and all that,” Duffek said by phone from his post-retirement home in Venice Beach, Florida.

The first festival kicked off with a carnival, a classic Texas chili cook-off, an auction, a Saturday parade, a talent contest, a music stage, and a Hobo King and Queen drawn from guests of the Kirby Senior Center. The festival annually raised thousands for City parks and the volunteer firefighters, Duffek recalled, earning $5,000 to $10,000 from the carnival portion alone.

Friendship Park in Kirby, Texas.

In its first year, Hobo Fest was scheduled one month after the annual Kirby Volunteer Fireman’s Picnic, which at the time had been struggling to attract participation from vendors and visitors, Duffek said. To share strained and dwindling resources and support, the two festivals combined in Hobo Fest’s second year.

Longtime Fire Chief and Hobo Fest co-organizer Kevin Riedel retired at the end of 2016, earning the distinction of having the town’s fire station named after him in 2018. But when new Fire Chief Carlos “Charlie” Alfaro took over, “the whole mindset changed,” said Earnest Spradling, a former Kirby police detective and programmer for Hobo Fest.

As a lifelong fireman, “I personally didn’t like the moniker ‘Hobo Fest,’” Alfaro said. Though the fire department still organized the festival and did all the work, he said, the hobo identity “kind of took away from our presence, our vision.”

By May 2019, the words “Hobo Fest” had disappeared entirely from the festival poster, replaced by “67th Annual Fireman’s Picnic.”

Alfaro wasn’t the only one concerned about the term.

“There was some mention from different people that ‘hobo’ had a negative connotation,” said City Manager Monique Vernon. “I heard that more than once from different people.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kim Aldrich weighed in during an April 26 Council discussion on the topic. “I have nothing against the word ‘hobo,’” she said, “but … I’m very proud to hear it go back to the Kirby Volunteer Fire Department Picnic, and I think that’s honoring our fire department.”

The City of Kirby water tower stands tall over homes.

Others on the Council disagreed, including Councilman and festival co-founder Mike Grant. “It was just a name,” Grant said in the same meeting. “It’s not derogatory to this city. It’s not meant to be derogatory. It’s meant to be just tongue in cheek.”

Grant and Councilman Jerry Lehman said they researched the term and discovered not only other hobo festivals around the country but a National Hobo Association in northern Minnesota with membership in the thousands.

Grant explained to his colleagues what he’d learned of the modern hobo lifestyle, that hoboing has become something of a hobby for more affluent riders, as well as remaining a stalwart mode of transportation for determinedly independent-minded people.

“A hobo is a person, mainly male, that decides he wants to be off the grid. He doesn’t want to answer to anybody. He still pays his taxes.” Many are Vietnam veterans, he said. “And they just choose to live out there. They have money. They have bank accounts, they have everything. They just choose to be there and they enjoy riding the trains,” Grant said in the meeting.

Lehman also shared what he’d learned from the National Hobo Association. “They travel all over the United States. … I mean, that’s just the way that these people wanted to live.”

Duffek said he doesn’t understand the criticism. “The majority of people liked it. It was all for a good cause. It was all good fun, too.”

Spradling’s Kirby Volunteer Fire Department Facebook page laments the loss of the Hobo Fest theme, with a post that received 52 comments from community members including Pierce, who wrote that she’s “heartbroken” and revealed that the Fireman’s Picnic also will be discontinued.  

Fire Chief Alfaro attributed the loss of both festivals to a general decline in volunteer spirit, with other nearby communities’ firefighters also losing their annual picnics.

A former Council member, Spradling said he’s considering running again for a Council seat, in part to try to restore Hobo Fest. While acknowledging that the festival is “a lot of work for a little bit of money,” Spradling said, “I’m gonna fight for it.”

If Spradling and others need inspiration to revive Hobo Fest, they might turn to the words of National Hobo Association co-founder Edwin C. “Buzz” Potter, considered a “Hobo Poet Laureate” for his odes to the rail-riding lifestyle. In Places Far, Potter writes of a dormant, aging “‘bo” finally jumping back on the rails:

This time no dream, the ride is real
Again he flies on wings of steel
His youth returns with heady zeal
And he sees those places far

The freedom felt as on he flies
Between the plains and azure skies
Tells him there’s no compromise
He’s not strayed very far

He’s still a rambler on the go
And he shares the curse of every ’bo
Each time he hears the whistle blow,
He longs for places far

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...