Date in History: 1931 – 1940
On December 15th, 1931, an unusual hotel opened its doors in Fort Atkinson to accommodate the increasing tourist traffic coming to town. These “box-car tourists,” as they were called, were not your usual visitors with money to spend. No, these travelers were penniless, unemployed men set adrift by the great depression, riding the rails in search of work. Like thousands of other towns throughout the United States, Fort Atkinson struggled with how to deal with these transient men. Police officer Harry Mueller was a daily visitor to the camps they set up along the railroad tracks in town, encouraging them to move along. Anyone who wanted to stay in town overnight was told they had to claim a cot at the city jail.
By the end of 1931, however, the demand on the city jail and the complaints of housewives and storekeepers about panhandlers led the local authorities to adopt a new approach. A city maintenance building located behind the municipal building near the railroad tracks along West Sherman Ave. was opened to provide food and shelter for these hardluck men. Known initially as the “Hoover Hotel,” its official name was the Stop and Go Hotel, though everyone in Fort simply called it the “Hobo Hotel.”
The rules at the Hotel were simple and strict. As the Stop & Go name implied, the men were only welcome for a short while. Guests were allowed to stay for only one day and night. They did not have to pay for their food or shelter though they were expected to help earn their keep by preparing food and washing dishes. After spending the night and eating breakfast, the lodger could not return for another 30 days. Interestingly, all the guests were fingerprinted and their histories taken for future reference. Those histories, which we assume are long gone,– would have been a valuable resource for studying the effects of the economic depression on American life in the 1930s. And, in fact, the accounts would have been substantial as an average of 2,000 men lodged at the Stop & Go each year from 1932 to 1940 with an average of 4,500 meals being served yearly. The food for the shelter was contributed by local stores, bakeries and markets.
The Stop & Go Hotel was finally closed in the summer of 1940 for fumigation. It never reopened as the numbers of travelling unemployed had fallen off by then. Many similar shelters had opened throughout the country soon after the depression struck in 1929, but Fort Atkinson’s lodge was the only one in the area that kept going throughout the entire decade of the 1930s.
The following excerpt aired on the radio as an Historic Minute on 7/19/2004.
During the Great Depression, Fort Atkinson struggled with how to deal with the unemployed men who rode the rails in search of work. Policemen would visit the camps set up along the railroad track, encouraging the men to move on and warning them they could only stay overnight at the city jail.
By the end of 1931, the demand on the jail and complaints about panhandling convinced city officials to convert an old building behind the municipal building into a place to provide food and shelter for these hard luck men. Known initially as the Hoover Hotel, its official name was the Stop and Go Hotel, though everyone in Fort simply called it the Hobo Hotel.
Men were allowed to stay for only one night and had to earn their keep by helping prepare the donated food and wash dishes. About 2,000 men stayed at the Stop and Go each year from 1932 to 1940.