Hobo Nickels

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The Buffalo nickel has not been minted for forty-five years, but the popular coin, bison on one side, Indian on the other, is well remembered today. What is less well known, however, is that the nickel served as a medium for a generation of hobo artists who reworked the images to produce a token that might be traded for a meal or a shirt somewhere down the road.

The most proficient of all the nickel carvers was “Bo“—George Washington Hughes. He was born in Mississippi sometime around the turn of the century, the youngest of eleven or twelve children of a freed slave. At fifteen, sick of a sharecropper’s existence, he hopped a freight and, in a hobo jungle, fell under the protection of a man named Bert. Bert evidently took his “jocker’s” role seriously: he taught Bo to read and write, instructed him in history and geography—and showed him the art of carving Buffalo nickels.

During a lifetime of riding the rods from job to job, Bo turned out thousands of them, transforming Indian and buffalo into likenesses of clowns and soldiers, elephants and women. His output slacked off during the 1930s but picked up again during the forties when he found that soldiers liked to buy his carvings as souvenirs.

Still at it as recently as two years ago, Bo was last seen in December of 1981, when he left a hobo camp in Florida to seek odd jobs in a nearby town and never returned. Bo left behind him the small vise he had carried for years, a half-carved nickel still clamped in it.