Fred (Engert) Swedenburg

  • SumoMe

He does not remember anything about his life until he stepped off the train in Nebraska at age 6 and was taken into a family to be their new son. “Mother
Nature has a way of blanking out the bad things of your childhood,” Freddie Swedenburg, orphan train rider, told sixth graders at Milford Elementary
school March 30.

Swedenburg is one of more than a quarter million children who were shipped from the east coast to be “adopted” by farm families in the Midwest. He was
six years old when he boarded the train with his then 3-year-old brother, Howard Hurd. At the time, they shared the last name of Engert.

At age 74, Swedenburg is one of about 500 orphans remaining to tell the story as is his brother. They are two of about 43 Nebraska orphan train riders left.

Swedenburg was never officially adopted by his Nebraska parents in Clarks,
but he was always treated as their son, including receiving an inheritance.

He chose to take their last name and never had trouble using it until he was in the military overseas and needed a birth certificate to get home. It was only then that his Nebraska father went to the courthouse to legally change Freddie’s name from Engert to Swedenburg.

Unfortunately, the love Swedenburg received was not indicative of many orphan train riders’ experiences. They ranged in age from babies to 18 years old. Many were picked for their ability to work on a farm and were treated more like the animals than children. Some were forced to sleep in the barn and beaten if their work was unsatisfactory, Swedenburg said he has talked to some orphans who ran away from their new homes and set
out on their own at the tender age of 12 or 13.

Although representatives from the Children’s Aid Society, which took care of the children and found them homes, periodically checked on children, the system was not foolproof. Swedenburg said some families would not let the children talk to the representative and other families threatened children if they did not promise to report that “everything was okay.”

The orphan trains ran from 1853-1929 and distributed orphan and neglected children all over the rural areas of the country. Swedenburg said some of the children were taken off the streets. Some were true orphans and others were taken from homes where they wore being abused or neglected. “I was taken from my parents for scandalous neglect,” Swedenburg said.

Many brothers and Sisters were separated and never saw each other again. One child might have been “Picked” by a family in one state only to have a sibling find another family in another state. One woman, Swedenburg said, recently found her twin brothers she had not seen in 60 years. Fortunately for Swedenburg, his brother lived with a family just 20 miles away. “We visited and got to play together just like you do with your cousins,” Swedenburg said, explaining he saw his brother several times a year.

When asked if he ever wanted to meet his real parents, who lived in New York, Swedenburg said no, but that he did meet his father once. “I never held anything against them,” Swedenburg said when asked if he forgave his
biological parents.

When asked by one boy if he had a choice would he ride the train again to come to Nebraska. Swedenburg slowly shook his head and said no. Swedenburg asked the boy how he would feel to be taken from his family and put in a new home and the boy’s face fell as he looked at the floor.