Hoboes in the Wonder City

Printed by Free-Lance Press around 1919, The Wonder City, Bug-House Square, and Other Poems offers today’s readers a slice of radical life in early twentieth-century Chicago. The titular poems of the 16-page pamphlet, both by August Schiermeyer, take as subjects the uniquely urban environment of skyscrapers, soapbox speeches, taxi cabs, and bustling crowds. “Thus You Shall Win,” a simple woodcut by Schiermeyer depicting a worker with crossed arms—likely a reference to the folded-arms strikes of the era—stands firm on the final printed page.

Satirical, atheistic, and humorous in tone, Wonder City is a rare example of “hobohemian” ephemera. The Newberry holds the only known surviving copy of the pamphlet, which the library purchased from a private bookseller in November 2014. The pamphlet is also the only known cataloged work printed by Free-Lance Press.

August Schiermeyer is equally obscure. Who was this unconventional artist? According to Darrell Blobaum, great-nephew of Schiermeyer and a labor history enthusiast, Schiermeyer was a poet and graphic artist as well as a sodbuster, inventor, socialist, wobbly, soapbox orator, and editor.

Born in 1868 in Prussia to devout Lutherans, Schiermeyer had left his family’s newfound Nebraskan home by age 16. He soon entered the world of organized labor in Lincoln and Omaha, along the way involving himself in newspaper publishing, the Omaha Esperanto Club, and campaigns for state senator, representative, railway commissioner, and regent of the State University on the Socialist ticket.

By 1913, Schiermeyer had relocated to Chicago, the so-called “Hobo Capital of America,” where he maintained connections to the Hobo News, the “Hobo College,” and the International Brotherhood Welfare Association (IBWA). He almost certainly frequented free-speech hotspots like Bughouse Square and the Dill Pickle Club on the city’s Near North Side. According to Blobaum’s research, Schiermeyer then spent several years in Cincinnati, where he served briefly as president of the IBWA before eventually returning to Chicago.

Amid all of his hustling, scheming, and dreaming, did Schiermeyer find time to write other poems after “The Wonder City” and “Bug-House Square”? Blobaum can only speculate. For now, this tiny pamphlet of poetry is enough to suggest Schiermeyer’s poetic powers. The opening stanza of “Bug-House Square” demonstrates well his sense for meter and word play:

There is a place on North Clark street

Far-famed as “Bug-House Square.”

There many “Oof-birds” daily meet,

Their grievances to air.

On Saturday, July 25, “oof-birds” will meet again at the Bughouse Square Debates, the Newberry’s annual tribute to Chicago’s most important free speech space. In addition to the main debate and the soapbox competition, the event will feature Mr. Blobaum giving a reading of the “Bug-House Square” poem. Come to heckle, question, listen, and generally exercise your First Amendment rights as the orators and the crowd bring the spirit of the park’s past to life!

This essay was written by Stephanie Fong in the Department of Continuing Education at the Newberry. She also serves on the Washington Square Park Advisory Council.