I had a lot of good times with Hobo Joe while traveling across the country as a kid, so when I found out there’s a giant version of him in Buckeye, AZ, I knew a reunion was in order.
Once characterized as a “World Traveler, Philosopher and Connoisseur of Good Food,” Hobo Joe was the mascot for a chain of regional coffee shops that formerly bore his name. All the eateries are gone now, so these days Joe is once again a real hobo.
Hobo Joe’s restaurants, were a popular diner chain that were opened in the 1960s. Each featured a statue of Hobo Joe. Most of the statues were only 5 feet tall, though for three locations, larger versions towering about 25 feet were commissioned. Overall, it was a fun, family dining experience. At least on the surface.
Underneath, Hobo Joe’s was, in part, a scheme to filch money from a sizable bank loan. According to Michael Wendland’s The Arizona Project, which details the exhaustive investigations following the infamous 1976 car-bomb murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, the chain’s owners brought an investment firm into the Hobo Joe’s business, making the firm a partner in the company in exchange for its guaranteeing a $3 million bank loan.
The loan was supposed to be paid off using restaurant profits, but at least one of the partners embezzled the money instead, leaving the investment firm stuck with the debt while the swindler built himself a pricey Phoenix home, as well as a posh duplex in Mesa intended for mafia sex parties.
Due presumably to the ensuing financial trouble, at least one of the aforementioned giant Joes was never paid for, and therefore never installed, before the chain went out of business. So, Marvin Ransdell, fiberglass expert and the man chosen to fabricate the larger statues, kept Joe for himself and installed the big man atop his swimming-pool business. Unfortunately, Ransdell later had financial trouble himself and lost his property. He then asked his friends Ramon and Helen Gillum to store his equipment temporarily next to their Buckeye, AZ slaughterhouse. Ransdell didn’t have the money to save Joe, but Ramon liked the statue so much, he insisted on paying for the transportation costs himself.
Joe, split into three pieces, sat on the Gillums’ property for several years. And although Ransdell eventually got his business back up, he succumbed to lung cancer before he was able to retrieve Joe. Before he died, according to Helen Gillum, Ransdell said to his wife, “Give Ray Hobo Joe.” As s a tribute to Ransdell, Ramon reassembled the giant vagabond on his property and installed a plaque that honors his memory. Hobo Joe’s was one of my favorite spots to stop along Route 66 when we would go back east to visit family during the summer months. It was awesome seeing the 25ft version of him along my 5-day road trip through Arizona. Long Live HBJ!