‘Have time, will travel’

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 19, 2013

KANNAPOLIS — This story will be told backward, sort of, but if you stay to the end, you’ll hear about a hobo.

Marie and Edward “Pete” Clark live in Kannapolis near the West A Street Church of God. They have been cleaning up some things around the house — “at our age, we are trying to get rid of stuff,” Marie says — and they came across a scrapbook left to them by the late Bertie Strother of Concord.

“I just didn’t feel right, throwing it away,” Marie said, “because you don’t see hobos any more.”

There’s another hobo tease, but you probably should first know more about Bertie Burris Strother.

She grew up in Stanly County, graduated with honors from Ridgecrest High School and Wingate Junior College, married twice and worked 36 years before retiring a first time from Cannon Mills.

As a young bride, Bertie moved to Concord with her first husband, Bill Diggs. She wanted to use her business training from Wingate to land an office position with Cannon Mills, but the only job available was as a sheet hemmer in Plant 1. She stayed in that department for more than three decades.

As years passed, Bertie also spent considerable time at her second husband Mark Strother’s restaurant in Albemarle — Mark’s Cafeteria. After Mark died in 1988 and the restaurant closed, Bertie decided to go back to work at age 70.

She scored a perfect “100” on the five-hour exam to become a security officer and went to work for Wackenhut Security Co., which contracted for Cannon Mills, later Fieldcrest Cannon, then Pillowtex.

Bertie worked at five different local plants and on all the shifts before becoming a fixture in a little hut by Plant No. 1’s Gate 19.

“I like this kind of work,” she told the Post in 2000. “I always wanted to be a police officer. And I’ve always had good people to work with, and good people make you want to do good work.”

Bertie ran the gate by the book. She became quite popular with employees coming in and out of Plant No. 1. She received little gifts of appreciation on a regular basis — things such as cheesecake, candles, stationery or a bacon sandwich.

Once, there was even an official “Bertie’s Day,” and her hut was filled with presents.

Bertie kept working, even after she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and could no longer speak. She still communicated with gestures or by writing things out.

Bertie finally retired from American Security Jan. 19, 2007, and she died less than two months later at 88.

The Clarks were friends of Bertie’s and, in her later years, “We’d go down and look after her,” Marie says.

Pete Clark would drive Bertie’s car and take her to Albemarle for a monthly bank transaction — a holdover routine from the days when the Strothers had their restaurant in Albemarle.

After every trip, Bertie would thank Pete by sending him a card and enclosing a gold dollar coin.

When Bertie died, she left the Clarks a few things, including a scrapbook filled with mostly newspaper clippings about Marvin Brooks Wilson, who spent a good part of 15 years traveling across the United States as a hobo.

Wilson ended up settling down in Stanly County in the late 1930s when he got a steady job on a surveying crew for Alcoa. He later would earn his own surveyor’s license.

Most everybody in Albemarle came to know who Wilson was, including a young Marie Clark, who grew up there. But Wilson became special friends with Bertie Strother because he made Mark’s Cafeteria his regular place to dine and tell stories about his hobo wanderings.

When he wrote a book in 1982 about his experiences — “To Tame the Iron Horse: a Hobo’s Journal” — part of his dedication was to Bertie and Mark Strother.

Among the things Pete and Marie Clark received from Bertie was a signed copy of Wilson’s book, with an inscription to the Strothers.

“Bertie was the main factor in the publishing of this book,” the inscription said. “If she hadn’t kept getting in behind and pushing me, I would never (had) tried to get it published.”

Wilson quit school in Reidsville when he was 13, thinking he had to help support the family of eight children, in which he was second oldest sibling.

Various jobs played out, his mother died in the fall of 1921 when he was 16, his father was working a job 100 miles away, and the younger children in the family found homes with different people.

So Wilson was pretty much on his own. His life on the road started soon after working on his uncle’s cotton farm didn’t pan out. He first hitched rides by automobile, then traveled through the countryside on “rattlers,” or freight trains.

While initially going from job to job in the South and often relying on the generosity of strangers for food and drink, his travels eventually took him to most of the 48 contiguous states.

Wilson called himself a “knight of the cinder trail.” He stayed at YMCAs, missions, cheap rooming houses or slept outside when he didn’t have money. He wasn’t above begging for food, but he always offered to do work in payment for it.

Wilson said that was the difference between a hobo and a bum — a bum only asked for food, but a hobo would work for it.

In his traveling days while hopping freight trains, Wilson had his scrapes with the law. A railroad detective shot at him one night as he jumped from a moving freight.

He hurt himself another time trying to board a fast-moving train.

Wilson rode his last freight train as a “professional hobo” into Baltimore in 1936, worked a dirty job in the shipyard, then hitch-hiked back to North Carolina. He found odd jobs with family in Reidsville and Badin, before the surveying crew’s job came open for Alcoa.

By April 1937, he was full-time with Alcoa, saving as much money as he could until being laid off in May 1938. There were a few more wanderings by car and bus into the Northeast and as far west as St. Louis before he returned to Albemarle and Stanly County for good in January 1939.

He went to work full-time for Alcoa, bought a car and was married to a girl named Sally by the fall of 1944.

“I have no intention of hoboing anymore, if there is any way out of it,” he said at the end of his journal. “I have had some very harrowing experiences in my travels, and while I should not like to go over some of my travels again, there are some experiences I would not take anything for.”

Sally died in 1956, but Wilson kept traveling — paying his way this time. He would visit the states he never had gone into as a hobo and added Alaska in 1959 and Hawaii in 1961. In 1967, he visited 10 European countries through a guided tour out of Charlotte.

Traveling by plane, he often visited a niece in California once a year.

But throughout his life, Wilson embraced his hobo days. He often dressed as a hobo for parades and other events in Albemarle. He had a personalized license plate that said “Hobo 1,” and his business cards after his career as a surveyor said, “Brooks Wilson, Retired Hobo.”

The fancier cards pictured Wilson with a beard, derby hat and knapsack across his shoulder and included the message, “Have Time, Will Travel.”

The Stanly News and Press often printed updates on Wilson and referred to him as “our No. 1 Hobo.”

Wilson died in May 1988, and the church at his funeral was filled with hundreds of friends.

This is something you don’t see every day, but Bertie Strother’s scrapbook on Wilson also included a snapshot of Stanly County’s No. 1 Hobo lying in his open coffin.

He was finally off the road, resting.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.