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T-Bone Slim: A Brief Biography of Matt Valentine Huhta

by Mark Damron

Valentine Huhta, better known as T-Bone Slim, is, with the exception of Joe Hill and possibly Ralph Chaplin, the IWW's best-known song-writer and poet laureate . . . a fixture in the union and its publications for over 20 years. His impact on the culture of the IWW and in the intellectual life of that union's rank and file was as significant as virtually any Fellow Worker in the 98 year history of the OBU.

Yet should you attempt to find information on Huhta, you will be sadly disappointed . . . A search for prominent Wobs on the internet will provide you with pages dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joe Hill, Bill Haywood, Gene Debs, Helen Keller, Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons . . . the list is huge. But aside from a couple of postings of the lyrics of a few of Huhta's most popular songs, you will find nary a mention of the "Popular Wobbly".

In the fifty years since his death, not one article on T-bone Slim has appeared in scholarly or mainstream publications, and he is rarely mentioned in the many histories of the IWW. In fact, finding any biographical information on Matt Valentine Huhta is difficult . . . The only source readily available is Franklin Rosemont's book, Juice Is Stranger Than Fiction, a collection of selected writings of T-Bone Slim, which has a brief biographical sketch in its introduction.

It is a shame, really that so little is known about such a key figure in the IWW.

What is known is this:

Matt Valentine Huhta was apparently born sometime shortly before the turn of the century in Ashtabula Ohio. We do not know his exact date of birth, and little is known about his parents or family background beyond the fact that they were of Finnish descent and working class. He married as a young man in Ashtabula, and had four children, a son and three daughters. He and his wife, Rose, separated and were divorced while the children were still young. Huhta left Ashtabula at that time (c 1910?), and according to his daughter, they never heard from him again.

Little more is known about Huhta's life after he left Ashtabula . . . we do not even know when or where or under what circumstances he joined the IWW. He first appears in print in the IWW press in the 17th edition of the IWW Songbook (1920) . . . from the beginning he used the moniker "T-Bone Slim", though he also sometimes used his membership card number, "Card No. 198308", as a nom de plume. By the following year (1921) he was a fairly regular contributor to the IWW weekly paper Industrial Solidarity. From that point Huhta's column, sometimes called "T-bone Slim Discusses", sometimes "Boneyard", but most often with no title beyond the individual titles for that week, would run continuously in the IWW press until his death in 1942; first in Industrial Solidarity and later in the Industrial Worker, which took over the previous publication in 1931.

Articles by T-bone Slim were also regularly featured in IWW magazines; Industrial Pioneer in the 20s, and The One Big Union Monthly in the 30's. Huhta also wrote the pocket-size pamphlet, Power of These Two Hands, which was issued by the IWW's General Construction Workers IU 310 in 1922. The following year his humorous and scathing critique of the food industry, Starving Amidst Too Much, was published by the IWW Foodstuff Workers' Industrial Union 460.

To the best of my knowledge, no photographs of T-bone Slim exist. But friends and acquaintances all agree that the cartoon that appeared at the head of his column was a very lifelike and recognizable likeness. Friends say he was, indeed, slim . . . thin, in fact. His death certificate tells us he was 5'10" tall, and weighed only 140 lbs when he died. He was around 50 years old.

T-bone Slim's columns tell us far more about the man than any biographical data we can find. Datelines and content tell us of his wanderings around the country, working the harvest on the plains, logging in the Pacific Northwest, visiting the IWW Working People's College in Duluth, or frequenting the hobo jungles near Chicago. The humor contained in them tells us something about the man.

Those who knew him best confessed that they really did not know him at all . . . Slim was a loner; as one acquaintance noted, he was "a dyed-in-the-wool hobo, traveling about the country doing what hoboes usually did: work when he could and panhandle when broke." T-bone's quiet nature was stressed by almost everyone how knew him; they remember him as shy, respectful and always writing.

During the course of his travels, Huhta/Slim spent time working the docks and the barges around the country. By the mid 1930's it seems he utilized his experience in these trades to settle down in New York City. He became the Captain of the Hudson River barge, "Casey", employed by the New York Trap Rock Corporation. He was a member of the Barge Captain's Local of the International Longshoremen's Association of the AFL, as well as the Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union 510 of the IWW, and was well known and respected at the union halls on the waterfront, where he sometimes played pinochle with the boys and discussed union affairs.

On May 15, 1942, a body was found floating near Pier 9 on the East River at 5:45PM by a patrolman. The body had been in the water for about 4 days, and showed no obvious signs of external injury. The case was ruled a drowning, and police speculated that the person had been drunk, fallen in the water, and drowned.

The body was not claimed, and was buried in a pauper's grave on Hart Island . . . known as Potter's Field. The body was identified, but the records do not tell us who identified it. It was Matt Valentine Huhta . . . T-bone Slim.

Huhta's death is as much a mystery as his life. Despite the police speculation of a drunk falling into the river and drowning, friends and associates all agree that Slim was not a drinker and none had ever seen him drunk. A few speculated that he might have been murdered . . . but no one has a motive, and no sign of violence was found on the body. Suicide? We may never know.