Eleven year-old Alice Bullis Ayler, was among the last three children to ride one of the “orphan trains” that ran from 1854 to 1929, transporting children from the East out West where people were needed to help populate and farm the land.
While many of New York City’s 500,000 inhabitants were enjoying the Jazz Age during the late 1920s an estimated 30,000 homeless children were wandering the streets, begging, eating out of garbage cans, and sleeping in alleys.
Ayler, now a resident of Oklahoma City (editor’s note: she has since passed away), recalls that she was orphaned at age nine. Prior to that, she and her mother and siblings had been inhabiting a tent in an upstate New York forest, surviving on “green water and berries.”
The eldest of five, Ayler had a younger sister, three year-old brothers and an 18-month old brother. The younger girl, who suffered serious mental damage from successive bouts of whooping cough and diptheria, was eventually returned to the mother.
“My nickname was Toots, but the twins, who couldn’t pronounce it, called me “Choo Choo!” They were taken to a boys home just around the corner from the Empire State Building along with the baby, while I was sent to the Goodhue Estate on Staten Island. I can still remember when they separated us, the boys crying and pleading, “Don’t go away, Choo Choo.” It cuts like a knife, even after all these years.”
Ayler said the Goodhue Estate was a nice place. “I was glad to have a bed to sleep in. I was fed, had clean clothes to wear and attended public school. I was taught how to do house work and learned manners.”
There was no welfare or state assistance until a long time later, Ayler said. Homeless children who were picked up were sent to the orphan asylum. The number of asylums grew from two in 1825 to 60 in 1866.
Charles Loring Brace, a Presbyterian minister, was the guiding force behind the Children’s Aid Society, one of two major children’s assistance societies in New York (the other being the Catholic-run New York Foundling Home).
Brace organized the orphan trains to transport city waifs to families out West who were willing to take them. “The kids were shipped like cattle on train cars, with up to 300 on each trip. The adult agents who accompanied the children dressed them up and groomed them like livestock for a show. They taught them poems and songs to present to their prospective owners,” Ayler said.
After a year, Ayler was transported to Kansas on an orphan train. The stock market crash which triggered the Great Depression had occurred the year before and the drought that would produce the Dust Bowl was beginning. These were some of the worst years of Ayler’s life; too old to be adopted, she was moved from family to family; “a hired hand without pay.”
“I was told constantly that I had bad blood,” Ayler said. “I was always looking at my veins and wondering what could be bad about it. It looked just like everyone else’s.”
When Ayler was 17, she went to work for J.C. Penney and moved out on her own. She married her high school sweetheart, Donald, when she was 20. They moved to Chicago, where her husband finished school and became an optometrist. They moved to Oklahoma City in 1950.
“I had one son and an adopted daughter, Ann. I go her when she was ten days old. I tried to give her the love I never had, but she had emotional scars from being given away. She was a wonderful girl, though, and I’ve never regretted the time and energy I spent on her. She died at age 39,” said Ayler.
Ann was 18 when Ayler enrolled at the University of Central Oklahoma. “My daughter was so unhappy and I was constantly reading psychology books, talking to doctors, trying to figure out some way to help her. One of Ann’s doctors said, “Alice, why don’t you go to school and get rewarded for all this research you are doing?”
Ayler completed work in 1973 on a BA with a double major, sociology and psychology and then received a master’s degree in education in 1977. She worked for several years as a psychometrist for the Oklahoma City schools.
“There were always kids hanging around my house when I was at Central,” Ayler said. “It was like a halfway house, kids playing pool, having snacks and talking, people with problems are always interesting to me.”
“Dr. W.A. Frederickson was not only my professor, he was my friend. I was always talking to him and Ann and wondering how I could give her a shot of my survivor instinct. Dr. David Chance and Dr. Lewis Irving also were ears to my personal problems. Irving’s laugh helped me out of my sadness many times.”
“I believe in fate,” Ayler said. “Everything happens for a reason. I spent my whole life proving I don’t have bed blood. I have been married to the same man for 54 years, proved that I had brains and I have spent my life helping others. Some people are bitter about the trains but not me. Even though there were some hard times, it probably saved my life.”
Of the 150,000 children who rode the orphan trains between 1850 and 1929, only a few hundred remain. The survivors and their descendants still search for family ties and seek answers to the inevitable question “why?”
At 74, Ayler now devotes most of her time preserving the heritage of her past through her involvement with the Orphan Train Heritage Society based in Springdale, Arkansas. She recently took part in a 60 minute documentary in New York City.
by Marie Bigger
(Note: since this article was written, Alice has passed away)
var _gaq = _gaq || ; _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-39239201-1']); _gaq.push(['_trackPageview']);