NORTH ADAMS, Mich. - Bob Dudley doesn't look like royalty.
Known as “Grandpa” by his subjects, the Hillsdale County man has dirt under his fingernails and a burlap vest lined with material from a bandanna.
But among the hobos of the world, Mr. Dudley is king - king of the road.
Mr. Dudley was crowned King of the Hobos at the recent National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa.
“Hobos were a part of American history,” said Mr. Dudley, 72, who takes his title seriously. “We want to commemorate the hobo and to let people know what a hobo really is.”
The hobo lifestyle developed in the years after the Civil War. Soldiers couldn't find jobs, so they left their families and hit the road looking for work. That work was often found in the fields, said Mr. Dudley, a retired machinist.
Although hobos are thought of as riders of the rails, they came into being years before the first tracks were laid. “Hobo” is derived from “hoe boy,” describing the men who worked on farms with the digging tool, Mr. Dudley said.
Hard work distinguishes a hobo from other transients, he said. “Hobos are not homeless, like people believe. In fact, I'd say about 95 percent have homes,” Mr. Dudley said. “They just love the road. They just have to see what's beyond the next hill.”
Mr. Dudley considers himself a typical hobo because he's worked at a variety of jobs, loves to travel by unconventional means, and is proud of the hobos' hard-working past.
He was born in East St. Louis, Ill., the son of a pastor. Because of his father's job, Mr. Dudley often moved around. And at a young age, he got to know hobos.
Although he didn't travel with them at the time, he often camped out at the “hobo jungle,'' where stories abound of life on the road. A hobo jungle is the small community where hobos find a warm fire, a cup of coffee, and a bowl of Mulligan stew. The stew, a mixture of whatever is available, is constantly replenished.
Traditions like these are celebrated at the annual convention in Britt, city Clerk Jeannie Purvis said. The festival began in 1900 as a lightweight way to have some fun during a difficult economic time. It blossomed in Britt - a town of 2,133 people in northern Iowa - because the townspeople always welcomed the transient workers.
“We seemed to be the hub for those who came in,” Ms. Purvis said. “We're trying to preserve the history and heritage of the hobos.”
Part of that is choosing a new monarch each year.
The process is simple, Mr. Dudley said. Candidates who are approved by the convention committee give a speech to about 3,000 people who attend the coronation part of the festival, then wait for applause. The person with the most applause wins.
Last year, the applause named Mr. Dudley's wife, Mary Ann, queen. Known in hobo circles as “M.A.D. Mary,'' Mrs. Dudley wasn't always a hobo, her husband said. But just one trip to Britt changed that.
“It took her 30 minutes to get hooked,” the king said.
Now retired, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley spend their time delivering motor homes and buses from an Indiana manufacturer to customers around the country. Last year the couple logged 100,000 miles traveling through all 48 continental states.
Though their traveling coincides with the lifestyle of a hobo, they are most proud of their unauthorized trip on the open end of a railroad car. This summer, the Dudleys hopped aboard a freight train in Clinton, Iowa, and traveled to Chicago.
“The hobo lifestyle seems to be a romantic lifestyle. However, it's a very dangerous lifestyle,” Mr. Dudley said.
Criminals, police, and the dangers of trains are constant hazards, he said.
Although proud of his hobo lifestyle, Mr. Dudley spends most days on his 53-acre plot in northern Hillsdale County. There among the overgrown brush and towering trees, the King of the Hobos has built his palace.
“I'm a hobo at heart,” he said. “I'm going to be one as long as I can.”
Mr. Dudley plans to be a hobo until he “catches the westbound” - in hobo parlance, until he dies.