I hate sharing my writing because I don't feel confident about it, but my sister asked me to share them since I am always complaining about them. So, here is one of them. This is a creative non-fiction piece about my great-grandfather who came to Missouri on the Orphan Train. The Orphan Train was a part of America's history that most people have sadly never heard about.
One day, in the year 1923, an 11-year-old boy was asked, “Would you like to take a ride on a train?” Seeking some adventure, the boy along with two of his brothers, boarded the train and went along for the ride. What the boys didn’t know was that they wouldn’t be returning home. During the train ride, the boys were cleaned up and dressed in new clothes. A little slip of paper was pinned to their clothing. This slip of paper listed their name, age, height, and weight.
In 1853, the Orphan Train Movement began in New York to help place orphaned and neglected children in homes. The train carried hundreds of thousands of children, ranging from newborn to late teens, from New York and helped to relocate them in homes across the Midwest. The trains used to transport these children were not in the greatest condition. They were just a little nicer than the typical cattle car.1
Long nights of hearing the lonely train going down the tracks went by and the boys were very far away from home. The train made numerous stops and the children were lined up in train stations, churches, and other community centers as unknown adults came in, evaluated them, and read the slips of paper about them.
Children were often placed on “stage-like” areas. Those who were interested in the children would learn about these children not only by the little slips of paper attached to their clothing, but also by conducting short interviews with the children who were old enough to speak. These people would also often feel the children’s muscles and examine their teeth as well during the evaluation process. Some children would even sing, dance, or exhibit other talents in hopes of impressing those who had come out to see them.2
Many of the young children were quickly taken by these unknown people, but the 11-year-old boy was often left to complete his journey on the train. It wasn’t until the train reached Maryville, Missouri, that the boy was separated from his brothers and placed in a new home. That 11-year-old boy was my great-grandfather.
Most siblings were separated as a result of the Orphan Train process because families who were interested in adopting were only allowed to choose one child.3
My great-grandfather and a number of his siblings were placed on the Orphan Train because their parents couldn’t properly take care of them. Money was scarce and the parents were constantly working, leaving the children at home to take care of themselves. The family was constantly moving from place to place in seek of shelter, and the family’s food came from whatever they could hunt or find. Oftentimes their meals consisted of cowslips, wild asparagus, turtles, frogs, and porcupines. Every once in a while the bread deliveryman would come by and give them any leftovers he had from his route that day.
During the 1850s, New York was filled with families who had immigrated to the United States seeking a better life. Unfortunately, the amount of people immigrating to New York was overwhelming. Many had great difficulty finding homes for their families, and jobs were scarce. As a result of this, many children were left to fend for themselves on the streets of New York.
The idea of the Orphan Train came from a young minister named Charles Brace. Brace helped establish the Children’s Aid Society in 1853. This society helped set up everything necessary to run the Orphan Train. Brace believed these orphaned and neglected children deserved better lives, and he thought the Orphan Train was the perfect solution. He knew that life in the Midwest was picking up and that these Midwestern families would need workers to help with expanding their farms and homes.4
In Maryville, my great-grandfather was first placed in a temporary home until a permanent home was found. He lived with this family for two months. After those two months, my great-grandfather was placed in a permanent home ten miles northeast of Maryville. This home belonged to farmers who had no children of their own. Their primary reason for taking in my great-grandfather was to have another set of hands on their farm, not because they desired a son.
During the time of the Orphan Train, many families adopted these children because they couldn’t have any of their own, and this was a way they could. Many others, however, were seeking workers for their farms, and these children were chosen more as farmhands than as sons and daughters.5
My great-grandfather was lucky enough to attend a few years of school with one of his brothers who was also on the train and taken in by a family in Maryville. He was only able to attend school with his brother until the eighth grade. This was a result of a decision my great-grandfather had to make because of the options he was given by his adoptive parents. My great-grandfather was presented with the options of completing high school or quitting it to work on the family farm. If he chose to complete high school, he would be completely on his own when he graduated. If he chose to quit school to work on the farm, he would always have a place to stay. My great-grandfather chose the latter even though he had just passed his eighth grade exams. He knew that even though he was more of a farmhand than a son to his new parents, this was going to be the better, more stable route for him later on in life.
Making the decision to quit school and continue on the farm ended up working out well for my great-grandfather. This was not only his home as a child, but also as an adult. He raised his own family on this farm and resided there until he passed away.
When I was a young child I remember trips to the farm. These trips usually only occurred during Thanksgiving and Christmas. When they did happen, all of the family was there: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. You name them, they were there. The day would start off with four dinner tables lined up in a row down the long, narrow living room. Every spot was taken and the table was filled with food, plates, and silverware. We all said grace and then loaded up our plates. My great-grandfather always sat at the head of the long row of tables, usually far away from me and the rest of the children. It was obvious he was the patriarch of this family and proud of it. Later, he would go out to the garage and make home-made ice cream. All of us children would go and watch in amazement as he cranked the machine. The entire time he cranked it, he would look at us and smile. Sometimes he would grab a spoon and let us sneak a taste before he shared it with the entire family. “Who wants a taste?” he would ask us.
A number of children who were sent on the Orphan Train struggled with their new lives and found difficulty in leading normal lives. Many others, however, were able to lead very normal lives by raising a family and living the typical “American” dream. Some even became very well-known and successful. Andrew Burke, one of North Dakota’s past governors, and John Brady, a past governor of Alaska, were riders on the Orphan Train.6
Growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. Most of our summer vacations consisted of a camping trip at a lake that was only 45 minutes away from home. I, however, was able to travel around the United States with my grandparents every once in awhile. My grandfather threw horseshoes, and so he participated in tournaments all over the states. I was able to see Stone Mountain Park, Georgia; the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, Mississippi; Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming; and Mount Rushmore: all sights I wouldn’t have gotten to witness without my grandparents. These trips didn’t just include my grandparents and me, however. My great-grandparents also went. All five of us loaded up into my grandparents’ van and headed across the country. I don’t know who enjoyed these trips more: me because of the sights I got to see, my grandfather because he got to do something he loved, or my great-grandfather because he got to spend time with his son and share these experiences with him.
I will always remember how happy my great-grandfather was during these vacations. I will also always remember the difficulty he had on our trip to Biloxi. The campground we were staying in was very close to some train tracks and every night a train would pass through there. It took all of my great-grandfather’s strength to deal with the sound that tormented him so. It was difficult for me to see this strong man fight back tears when he heard the train pass through every night.
Records about the Orphan Train are difficult to find. This is because many who were taken from their homes and placed on the Orphan Train either don’t remember much about the experience or didn’t discuss their lives before the train with their family. Others chose not to share their experience with those close to them because it was something they didn’t want to remember.7
Before my great-grandfather passed away, he was able to reconnect with a few of his siblings. A sister of his who had remained in New York had moved to Missouri with her son and actually came to a few family gatherings. His brother, whom he had attended school with for a few years in Maryville, was found to be living in Arkansas. My great-grandfather made a trip down there to see him and meet his family. He tried to reconnect with more of his siblings, but an illness took over him and he passed away.
My grandfather has since then continued the search for information on my great-grandfather’s family. He has continued this work of my great-grandfather’s not only because it is a part of our country’s history and our family’s history, but also because he knew this was something that was dear to his father. He knew that this was a way he could thank his father, my great-grandfather, for all that he provided for him. My great-grandfather might not have had the best childhood, but he made sure that his children did.
1-3 "Orphan Train." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 4 Apr. 2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.
4 "American Experience . The Orphan Trains | PBS." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.
5 "The Orphan Trains | The Children's Aid Society." The Children's Aid Society | New York Charity for Children. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.
6 "Orphan Trains of the USA." Famous Adoptees, Adopted People, Celebrities, Actors, Page 1 -. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.
7 "Illinois State Genealogical Society - Orphan Trains." RootsWeb.com Home Page. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.