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Gone, But Not Forgotten!

"This is the introduction I read on the cassette tape that accompanies my first slide series." - Bill Fivaz

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   The Buffalo nickel, the only U.S. coin commonly referred to by its reverse design, was truly an all-American coin. Although simple in design, engraver James E. Fraser depicted the rugged profile of the American Indian on the obverse and a powerful buffalo or bison on the reverse, both of which played an important part in forming the western culture of this great country.

   This coin gave birth to another interesting culture, that of carving or redesigning the aforementioned effigies into unusual, unique subjects, mostly the result of the "artist" having time on his hands and little money in his pockets. These unique works of art are referred to by collectors as "Hobo Nickels."

   There is usually a public misconception of what a hobo actually was. A true hobo was not a bum, a tramp, or a yegg. Instead, he was generally an intelligent, versatile, energetic individual who was willing to exchange various amounts of work for a meal, shelter, or a handout. He was well traveled, and more often than not had no permanent residence, thus giving way to the term "Knight of the Road." Hoboes also had a very strict code of ethics; they tried to stay within the law and usually avoided those who did not.

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   These fascinating carved nickels, each one unique, first made their appearance in the mid-teens of this century, shortly after the Buffalo nickel was issued in 1913. Although nickel (actually the composition is copper-nickel) is the hardest of our coinage metals to alter or carve, the "new" large bust of the Indian on the obverse and the full-figure effigy of the bison "Black Diamond" on the reverse offered many possibilities for an artist's imagination.

   Several methods were used in carving these miniature works of art. Most of the more talented artists fashioned tools from small files or chisels, but some of the carvers actually used pocket knives to create the various subjects. The time involved to finish a coin was long at first, probably up to 100 hours, but as the carvers became more proficient and fashioned better tools with which to work, the carving time was reduced to, in many cases, only one or two hours. It should be mentioned that because of the recent popularity in this area of collecting, contemporary pieces are currently being offered for sale, quite a few of which are copies of the original ones. These newer ones can usually be identified by the method used generally a power tool of some sort that produces a piece quite unlike the delicately carved older specimens. The majority of the nickels illustrated in this article were carved by one person, George Washington "Bo" Hughes.

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   Michelangelo had his Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci had his Mona Lisa, Winslow Homer had his seascapes, and Bo had his nickels!

   Nearly seventy-five years ago, a few years before the world's first great war, a young black lad, barely in his teens, decided to leave his eleven older brothers and sisters in Mississippi and strike out on his own. His early wanderings brought him to a real "Hobo Village" or "Jungle," where he was befriended by one of the resident knights of the road, a hobo known as Bert.

   Bert was a remarkable craftsman who taught young Bo how to carve Buffalo nickels into various subjects. These were generally sold to raise money for food, clothing, shelter, and necessities. Bo worked hard at his craft and was soon creating detailed and creative subjects' on the nickels of the day.

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   By the time the Depression was in full swing, Bo had reached his potential in his carving techniques, but money was very tight and he carved few pieces. By the late '30s, when Bo started carving again, his hands were stiff and injured from the manual labor he had to undertake in order to survive, as well as from various beatings by unsympathetic railroad detectives. But Bo kept working at his unique art and in 1949 and 1950 produced some of his best works.

   In 1957, while working on a nickel with a mule carved from the bison (similar to the one shown here), his chisel slipped and severely injured his hand. From that time on, Bo's works were not up to the quality of his earlier ones. As a matter of fact, he was eventually forced to go to a punching method, using, among other things, letter punches for portions of the design.

   Bo is believed to have passed away early in 1982. He was last seen in that year, heading from a hobo jungle to a small town in the deep South to find work. He was never seen or heard from again, and all efforts to find out what happened to him proved futile. During his last years, failing eyesight, lack of a steady hand, and old age precluded him from producing any of his famous nickels.

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   An important addition to my collection of these nickels occurred shortly after Bo's disappearance. A friend of his, while gathering up his belongings from the hobo jungle after it was obvious that, he was not going to return, came across the tools Bo used in making the nickels in his later years.

   These tools were passed on to me by Del Romines, a good friend and fellow numismatist from Kentucky who authored a book on Bo's works (as well as other Hobo Nickel artists). Del had spoken with Bo before his death as well as with several of his contemporaries, and it was through this interest in Bo and his coins that the tools found their way through Del to me. Acknowledgement is given to Del for the information presented in this article, a much more detailed account of which is presented in his book.

   Illustrated in these slides are many of Bo's finest works ... they are all unique and each, to be sure, represented a fond memory for this amazing and talented artist. Bo's nickels are classics - seldom found, and when located, very much prized.

The "slides" shown here are mockups created by your Webmaster using some of Bill's "Bo" carvings... not the actual slides.
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Webpage last updated:   Friday, August 20, 2004