The little boy stepped off the orphan train in Rockford 105 years ago. He had no luggage, just the clothes he wore. He spoke only German. Someone had pinned a card on his jacket. It said he was 6 years old and his name was Charles Frederick.
Before the day was over, the boy would be loaded into a covered wagon with other children who’d been shipped west from crowded New York City orphanages. Frederick and his companions were headed for Durand, where they would be parceled out to farm families.
The children were part of a social experiment called “placing-out.” Between 1853 and 1929, trainloads of destitute and homeless children – as many as 200,000 in all – weretransported from New York City, Boston and other cities on the Eastern seacoast to cities and towns along the burgeoning rail lines in America’s Middle West and West. Eventually large Midwest cities, such as Chicago, also established orphan trains. In exchange for “good homes,” the children, many of whom had been living on the streets and eating from garbage cans, were offered to farmers, housewives and businessmen as indentured workers.
Some children were lucky. They went to families that adopted them and treated them with love. For others, like Charles Frederick, the results were mixed.
“This Irish family took in my Dad,” Franklyn Frederick, 77, of Beloit, Wis., says. “He was just someone to work on the farm.”
Although the “placing-out” program operated in the U.S. for about 75 years, until recently it was a little-known part of the history of American childhood. It wasn’t until 1978, when Orphan Train, a fictional account of the first orphan train riders was published, that curiosity about the system began. Now there’s a national organization to help descendants of train riders find their roots. Nonfiction books have been written. And organizations across the country, like the Illinois Genealogical Society, are gathering records about orphan train riders.
Part of the fascination is because the children’s stories are poignant. But, more than that, the program is a reminder of how unsuccessful the nation has been in finding solutions to the problems of childhood poverty. The
orphan train program was dissolved in 1929, not only because of criticism of ‘placing out,’ but because of reforms of the child welfare system. There were high hopes that steps being taken to professionalize the child welfare
system would mean better lives for children.
“When we read descriptions of New York City or Boston in the 19th century, we realize those days are not very far off from today,” says writer and researcher Marilyn Holt, author of the book, The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. “We have the problems with foster care. A lot of the same criticisms we find with the orphan train are valid today.”
The model for America’s “placing out” program was created by reformer Charles Loring Brace, operator of New York City’s Children’s Aid Society. He saw the program as a positive step in dealing with the growing number of children needing help; Not only were there children with no parents, but there were children born single-parent or two-parent homes whose circumstances left them unable to care for their offspring.
Illinois was a popular destination. At least 10,000 children were placed here, says Janet Coble, Jacksonville, chairwoman of the state genealogical society’s orphan train records committee area towns where trains stopped included Rockford, Freeport, Rochelle, Oregon, Polo and DeKalb..
“The babies would ride in train coaches; the older kids were just stuck in box cars. They (orphanage operators) couldn’t afford to put them all in coaches,” says- Doris Glade Vogel, a Holcomb genealogist who has spent 10
years gathering information about the orphan trains.
Citizens in towns along the rail lines learned that the orphan train was headed their way when an orphanage agent posted handbills or put notices in the local paper. In the case of children from Catholic orphanages, like Frederick and his companions, priests in parishes along the way were notified in advance and asked to line up homes.
When the train arrived, townspeople wanting a child would come to examine them and make a choice.
“People would poke at their arms, look at their muscles … ,” Vogel says. ‘They would pick out kids they wanted. If any were left over, they would go on to the next stop.”
One boy’s story
Franklyn Frederick says his dad arrived on an orphan train in Rockford on Sept. 6, 1888. Frederick says his father told him that he and the other children bound for Durand were picked up in a covered wagon by John Nelson, a Durand farmer. The roads were so rugged they had to stop overnight at a stage way-station on Trask Bridge Road.
‘The next day they arrived in Durand, where the different farmers picked them up,'” Frederick says. His father went to the Lennons, a family that had come from Ireland in the 1850s and farmed 160 acres north of Durand. The boy worked hard and had the chance to attend a one-room school off and on for four years. However, the Lennons were not a warm family and his father never felt loved, Frederick says.
When he was 17, Charles Frederick ran away. “One evening, he threw his clothes out the window,” his son says. “He said he was going to the outhouse, but he never came back.”
Charles Frederick worked for farmers around Shirland and Harrison and later came to Rockford, where he married in 1911. In 1913, he, moved to a house in Loves Park, where he lived for 47 years. His first job was at Hess &
Hopkins, a tannery; later he worked for Patterson Lumber Co. for 21 years. Still later, he was a plant guard. He and his wife moved to California in 1960. He was 80 when he died in 1962.
While some aspects of the orphan train program were “appalling,” it also offered a new start in a happier environment for many youngsters, author Holt says.
“Many children fell through the cracks; they were mistreated, malnourished, and overworked,” she says. “On the other hand, for at least half, it was a good experience. They had opportunities they would not have had if they stayed where they were. They may not even have survived childhood.
Article from The Register Star by Julie Snively
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