Reformed hobo Earnest Best found he had a lot in common with 92-year-old harmonica player Lonnie Glosson when they met at a gathering of the White County Historical Society in Searcy, Arkansas, January 24, 2000. Glosson, who was famous as "The Talking Harmonica Man" in the heyday of radio, was the special guest of the historians, who were researching his life for their annual White County Heritage history.
Like Glosson, Best wandered across the country, hopping trains, during the Depression years. Earnest became a successful businessman, then retired to write several books, including one describing his odyssey on the rails, “The Hobo's Trail.” He now lives at nearby Des Arc, Arkansas, and is a member of the Historical Society.
Best and Glosson discussed "railroad bulls" (watchmen) that they both knew when they were hopping trains, and Glosson told of one in particular he remembered.
"I was on the Chicago Limited, on the blinds," Lonnie said, "I had been warned not to ride the blinds through Effingham, Illinois - that the railroad bulls would get me and I would have to serve 60 days in jail. I ignored the warning, and shore-nuff they caught me. Me and another guy I didn't know. They called for the paddy wagon to come get us. The train with about 20 cars started to pull out. I was standing close to the train. It was going about 15 miles an hour when the last car passed me, and I reached out and grabbed it. The bulls hollered and fired a shot but I don't think they tried to hit me.
"The back car was an observation car - like a little back porch with chairs on it. I sat down in one of the chairs. In about five minutes the ol' conductor came out on the back and said, 'Who are you?' I told him I was hoboing my way to Chicago. 'You can ride to the next stop,' he said, 'but you must get off.' About 75 miles up the road the train pulled into a little town and stopped and I got off and went up and got on the first blind behind the engine. There was a big black cat started across the track in front of the engine. I jumped off the train and chased that cat about a city block to keep him from crossing in front of that train. Just as I got him turned the other way, the train gave two big toots and highballed out of town. I was kept off the train and missed that ride into Chicago. I caught the next train out about midnight."
He regaled an overflow crowd, telling how he "rode the blinds" on the railroads and playing a rollicking assortment of music on his "French harp."
Historical Society president Eddie Best (who said he and Earnest are distant cousins, dating back to a German immigrant in the 1700s) introduced Glosson as "one of the treasures of White County," and told how a "strong-willed, remarkable mother" taught Glosson how to play the harmonica. Using four different harmonicas, including one he described as "the world's smallest," Glosson recreated foxchases, steamboats and steam-powered trains, and closed the appearance by getting his harmonica to talk - saying a bedtime prayer and the phrase that made Glosson famous as "the talking harmonica man" of the Depression era - "I want my momma!"
For the remainder of that year, Lonnie Glosson and Earnest Best could be seen on the front row at each monthly meeting of the Historical Society. Lonnie called Earnest “Hobo.” On November 27, 2000, Lonnie and Earnest appeared together on a Society program featuring shortline railroad executive Don Ghent. Earnest told a couple of stories from his hobo days and Lonnie blew a couple of old railroad tunes on his harp. That might have been his last public performance. A month later, Lonnie was hospitalized with a congestive heart failure. He was released and went home a week later but never really recovered. Lonnie died March 2, 2001, two weeks after his 93rd birthday.
A comprehensive article on his musical career - from a Judsonia cotton patch to some of the largest radio stations in America - was published in the 2001 edition of White County Heritage three months before Lonnie's death. It is available free with a membership in the White County Historical Society. (Send $12 to WCHS, P.O. Box 537, Searcy, AR 72145.) Earnest's books are available at P.O. Box 283, Des Arc, AR 72040 or [email protected] on the Internet.
Lonnie and his pal Hobo were like many men in America of the 1920s and '30s. They learned how to hop trains - which became a magic carpet to faraway lands and opportunity.