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  • Writer's pictureBrock Lane

IBEW Tramps: Wanderlust, Wires, Currents & Crossroads

Traveling Electrical Workers

In the pages of history, certain groups and their stories possess an air of intrigue, capturing the curiosity of those who stumble upon their tales.


IBEW Vintage Belt Buckle of the TRAMPs trampline workers & IBEW Fist logo

This vintage belt buckle is not signed or dated, and it has a peculiar illustration reminiscent of a 20th century railroad hobo. It's inlaid with crushed stones and resin, and the figure's abdomen has a small clenched fist surrounded by lightning bolts.


Unbeknownst to many, this is the obscure logo of an American labor union called the IBEW Tramps. It's a subset of the better-known International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which consists of linemen, electricians, contractors and other professionals responsible for electrifying our homes and streets.


The Tramps are distinct group of traveling electrical workers, following work wherever it lead them. From their unassuming origins to their lasting impact, the story of the IBEW Tramps offers a captivating glimpse into an unconventional way of life.



A Peek into the Past

Imagine a time when the open road beckoned as an invitation to wander, to discover the vast landscapes of the nation, and to embrace a life that celebrated freedom and camaraderie.


US Department of Agriculture Rural Electrification Project

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) is one of the oldest and most influential labor unions in the United States and Canada--founded in 1891 to address the challenges and improve the working conditions in the rapidly growing electrical industry. But cross-country electrification projects of the early 1900s required workers to travel long distances through the most rural and remote regions of the United States.


Trampline workers (tramps for short), were united by their shared profession and the necessity of an honest living. The Dust Bowl, Great Depression, and World War I were trying times for working class men, and good wages were often hard to find.


So, the tramps carved a unique niche for themselves amongst the various skilled craftsmen of the 20th century, and found adventure - whether they sough it or not.


Lee, Russell, photographer. Lineman on telephone pole at the Casa Grande Valley Farms, Pinal County, Arizona. Pinal County United States Arizona, 1940. Apr. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017742163/.
Lineman on telephone pole at the Casa Grande Valley Farms, Pinal County, Arizona.

Life on the Move

United States Office Of War Information, Palmer, Alfred T, photographer. Fort Knox. Electric power line construction. The electrical industry of America relies largely on the "broadback" or lineman, to bring its power to the places where it is needed. This man is working on the construction of a transmission line to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where American soldiers are training for the battles of democracy. United States Kentucky Hardin County Fort Knox, 1942. June. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017693554/
Construction of a transmission line to Fort Knox, Kentucky, 1942

Similar to the iconic American hobos during the Great Depression, the Tramp's journeys were marked by a nomadic way of life, offering them the chance to experience the ever-changing tapestry of the United States. Armed with their tools and a sense of unity, they followed the work and embraced the unknown wherever it took them.

At the core of the IBEW Tramps was a strong sense of camaraderie. United by their trade and their shared encounters on the road, coworkers became brothers and friends on the road. The tramps routinely scaled tall poles and worked with high voltage power lines, so a sense of brotherhood was imperative for safety.





Lee, Russell, photographer. Back of telephone lineman'ss repair truck at the Casa Grande Valley Farms, Pinal County, Arizona. Pinal County United States Arizona, 1940. Apr. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017742162/.
Back of telephone lineman's repair truck at the Casa Grande Valley Farms, Pinal County, Arizona.


Navigating Challenges

United States Office Of War Information, Palmer, Alfred T, photographer. Fort Knox. Electric power line construction.
United States Office Of War Information, Palmer, Alfred T, photographer. Fort Knox. Electric power line construction.

Life on the road was hard.


The tramps spent much time away from their families and homes, and the transient nature of their lifestyle meant navigating uncertainty and the trials of life on the move. However, their resilience and ingenuity enabled them to tackle these challenges head-on and develop a unique subculture that embraced adventure, independence, and community.




Rothstein, Arthur, photographer. Hayti, Missouri. U.S. Rural Electrification Administration REA cooperative lineman. United States Pemiscot County Hayti Missouri, 1942. July.
REA cooperative lineman. United States Pemiscot County Hayti Missouri, July 1942

Some trampline workers, like Bubba Avery, wrote poems about their experiences, and others wrote songs and music, or penned letters to loved ones as the worked their way across rural America...

And some, apparently made belt buckles...


The legacy of the IBEW Tramps lives on. This belt buckle reveals a tale of resilience and legacy of the traveling electrical workers. The clenched fist on the nomadic figure is a common IBEW symbol, representing the brotherhood, solidarity, and enduring spirit of the electrical workers.





The story of the IBEW Tramps offers a captivating window into American history. It serves as a reminder of the human desire for exploration, connection, and the pursuit of an authentic existence.

IBEW Electrical Worker Vintage Belt Buckle

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About the Author:

Brock Lane has an MS in Applied economics and operates multiple shops on Etsy, eBay, and Shopify. He maintains an inventory of over 10,000 rare and unique belt buckles, leather belts, and other goods. He leverages his sales history and professional background to write about trends in online retail marketplaces. Brock is an eBay affiliate and earns commission from linked products & shops.


Shop for vintage belt buckles on Brock's Etsy Shop


Other articles you might enjoy:

Tiffany Belt Buckles - The Complete Story: Link

Index of Belt Buckle Manufacturers and Artists: Link

Belt Buckle History-by-decade Articles: Link


 

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