by Dave Tabler
Coin collectors today consider the hobo nickel a numismatic treasure, a tribute to long- forgotten folk artists who often literally carved for their supper. The Buffalo nickel debuted in 1913, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression struck that hobo nickel carving reached its peak. During this period, buffalo nickels were the most common nickels in circulation.
The sudden scarcity of jobs in the early 1930s forced a huge number of men to hit the road. Certainly some coins were carved to fill the idle hours. More importantly, a ‘knight of the road,’ with no regular source of income, could take one of these plentiful coins and turn it into a folk art piece, which could in turn be sold or traded for small favors such as a meal or shelter for a night.
The nickel was an ideal coin from which to fashion such a token. The large profile of the Indian on one side and the classic image of the very wide American bison that complemented it on the reverse side provided an adequately sized canvas for the wandering hobo artist to use. It was portable, and the nickel (a copper-nickel alloy) is the hardest U.S. coin in circulation, ideal for carving.
In a community of generally anonymous drifters, two carvers rose to prominence among hobo nickel creators. Bertram ‘Bert’ Wiegand was born in 1880 and carved from 1913 to 1949. He signed his coins by removing L I and Y from L I B E R T Y, leaving only B E R T. He tutored the man coin collectors consider the giant of hobo nickel carving: George Washington ‘Bo’ Hughes (born between 1895 and 1900 in Theo, Mississippi). Bert met the young teenager in a jungle, or hobo camp, along the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio railroad line, and Bo’s first nickels appeared two years later, in 1915. Bo carved till about 1980, when he was last seen by his friend of 40 years, Williard Chisolm, in a Florida camp.
Life as a hobo took its toll: the rigorous manual labor Bo undertook to survive during the money-tight, poverty-ridden 30s rendered his hands stiff and permanently damaged. Frequent beatings by ruthless detectives prowling railroads (where many hobos resided) in search of freeloaders and thieves compounded his dexterity impairment.
Nevertheless, devoted to his craft, Bo worked through the pain and frustrating impediments throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, but in 1957, while he was working on a nickel, his chisel suddenly slipped and struck his hand. The injury forced the once-great hobo nickel engraver to resort to a haphazard punching method. Bo continued his work, but with less frequency and diminished quality, and as America moved into the post-war era genuine hobo nickels became a thing of the past.
The U.S. Mint ceased striking Buffalo nickels in 1938.