ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — It’s still up in the air whether American will ever elect a president from Minnesota. But a king and queen of hobos? We’ve got that.
All hail Uncle Freddie and Minneapolis Jewel. The two rail riders from the Twin Cities were crowned king and queen of the hobos last month at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa.
They join the ranks of American hobo royalty that stretches back 111 years, including past wearers of the coffee can crown such as Scoop Shovel Scotty, Beef Steak Charlie, Box Car Myrtle and Cinderbox Cindy.
Uncle Freddie, also known as Federico Liberatore, is an 81-year-old Maple Grove resident.
He said he started to ride the rails when he was 14 and hopped a freight train when he decided to run away from home in Rochester, Pa.
He ended up in West Virginia.
“My dad had to come get me,” Liberatore told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/nRRfSt).
After a stint in the service, Liberatore said he worked at a bakery for about six months before he decided he had stayed in one place long enough.
“I decided to hit the road,” he said. “I wanted to see some of the country and see what was on the other side of the hill.”
He said he rode back and forth across the country for years at a time doing odd jobs.
“I just did about everything,” he said. “Broke horses. Dug irrigation ditches. Pearl dived. That means washing dishes.”
He rode the rails to both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. “I’ve bathed in all the oceans in the U.S.,” he said. “I’ve seen how rich people live.
I’ve seen how poor people live. I’ve seen it all.”
He can remember close calls, like the time a police officer in Sparks, Nev., gave him the option of jumping on a fast-moving train or going to jail. And he remembers the places he did end up in the jug: Biloxi, Miss.; Buzzards Bay, Mass.; Savannah, Ga.
“Naturally, it’s dangerous. It’s illegal,” he said. But “I sleep when I want to sleep. I eat when I want to eat. I work when I want to work. I don’t have to worry about the IRS.”
Over the years, Liberatore said he’s met the rich and the famous, yuppie hobos, Hollywood hobos and hobby hobos attracted to the romance of life on the rails.
“Young kids now, they got the rings in their eyes and their lips. Flintstones, they call them,” Liberatore said.
Liberatore said he ended up settling down in Minnesota after attending a hobo festival in Brainerd 18 years ago and falling in love with a woman here.
He said he last rode the rails six years ago.
“I’m what I call a rubber tramp now,” he said.
He’s “one of the last of the bridgers,” said Linda Hughes, president of the Hobo Foundation and curator of the Hobo Museum in Britt. “Bridger” is a hobo term for a rail rider who bridged the eras between steam and diesel locomotives.
Minneapolis Jewel, also known as Julianna Porrazzo-Ray, 62, of Minneapolis, is serving her fourth term as hobo queen. She also was queen in 1986, 1991 and 1997.
She said she rode her first freight train 32 years ago after she read an article about the hobo convention in Britt and decided to try to get there by hopping a rail car in St. Paul with a friend. They ended up in Wisconsin.
“We hitchhiked back to Minneapolis and called it a day,” she said.
She got to the convention the next year.
“It was like all these old men with beards and me, a young woman, walking in,” she said. “I was real quiet and stayed in the background.”
She’s gone back every year since then, she said.
Porrazzo-Ray said that when she grew up in the 1950s, girls were excluded from adventurous pursuits.
“That’s a bunch of malarkey. Why can’t I hop a freight train? That sounds like fun,” she said. “There’s adventure. There’s thrill. There’s something about a train.”
But she also admits: “It’s dirty. It’s dangerous.”
She’s worked in a pie factory, as a bartender, as a bicycle delivery person, and on a Great Lakes iron ore freighter.
She said she’s hopped trains to California and Seattle, but she last rode one 12 years ago.
Porrazzo-Ray now works providing adult foster care at her Northeast Minneapolis home, but she also regularly helps out hobos and tramps who arrive at her door, which is near a set of Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.
“I think hobos are so unique to America, we can’t let it die out,” Porrazzo-Ray said. “After 9/11, the trains make it really hard for a hobo to ride the rails.”
But Liberatore said, “As long as there’s trains, there’s going to be hobos.”
About 75 hobos showed up for the Aug. 11-14 convention in Britt this year, down from past years because some couldn’t afford to come, Hughes said. The economy affects hobos, too.
“A hobo is one who travels and works,” Hughes said. “A tramp will travel. And a bum does neither.”
Hughes said Britt started inviting hobos to town in 1900 when town leaders thought a convention would put the northern Iowa town on the map. They were right.
Tourists and journalists from around the world have come to the convention, providing an annual boost to the local economy, Hughes said.
The hobos set up a hobo jungle in a town park, light a campfire that burns throughout the convention, take part in a parade, play music, tell stories and recite poetry.
They also check their email.
“The greatest thing that happened to the hobo was the Internet,” Hughes said. “They can all go to the public library and get on the Internet, and they all have email.”
Hobos who run for king have to pass a screening committee to make sure they actually have ridden the rails. The candidates give a short speech and are elected by audience applause.
Kings and queens get a free burial in a special section of a cemetery in Britt when they catch the westbound. That’s hobo-speak for dying.
“Your last ride is always going west into the sunset,” Hughes said.
Both Liberatore and Porrazzo-Ray said that’s where they’ll end up.
“I’ll be buried at the hobo cemetery when the time comes,” Porrazzo-Ray said.
By RICHARD CHIN
St. Paul Pioneer Press