Irma Craig

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Some years ago there was a very popular television show entitled, “I Remember Mama.” Shirley Andrews could have written an episode for that show because she remembers many of the stories her mama used to tell her-and what fascinating tales they are because, you see, her mama was an orphan-train rider. Before we relate this saga of Irma Craig (Shirley’s mother), let me tell you a bit about Shirley Andrews.

Born on a Cole Junction Bottoms farm, Andrew’s early memories are of the floods that came practically every year causing them to move to dryer ground and then when the waters receded, having to dry out everything. “My strongest memory at that time of my life was a smell-the smell of Lysol,” Andrews recalls, “My mother must have used gallons of that disinfectant to rid the house of the odor left by the water and mud.” Another memory of that time is of leaving the farm in a small boat with the family dog swimming along behind.

In 1939, when Andrews was only 15 months old, her 42-year old father Robert Schnieders died leaving her mother to raise their eight children, the oldest of whom was barely 15. Their farm house had no running water, no electricity, and by financial standards, they were poor. “But,” said Andrews, “As Dwight Eisenhower used to say-we were poor but we didn’t know it-because there was plenty of love in our family to go around even to the youngest of the brood.” Being so young when she lost her father and having no real
memories of him, she doesn’t recall ever missing having him around, but she does recall that her family life was a very happy one with the older children helping the younger ones and her mother’s positive attitude giving a sunny atmosphere over all. Andrews attended St. Peter’s School-all 12 grades–nd went to work for the Missouri Division of Welfare and later for what was then the Missouri Power and Light Company (now Ameren UE) where she stayed for 19 years before retiring. She met her husband, Don, while still in school. She was one grade behind him and they now have four grown daughters and seven grandchildren. One of her hobbies is bird watching.

When Andrews speaks of her mother she becomes a little wistful and at times her eyes become moist, but she is always eager to tell and retell the story of this grand lady whose faith saw her through many hard times and whose abiding love and inner strength have been a pattern for her off-spring to follow. Here is the story Andrews tells as she “Remembers Mama.”

On June 25, 1898 a little girl was born to Walter and Lyda Steinberg Craig in Manhattan, NY. When she was but a couple of months old, this little one who had been given the name of Irma, was taken by her mother to the New York Foundling Hospital which was, and still is, operated by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and left there.  There is no record of why Irma’s mother felt the need to give away her baby, but when speaking of it in later years, Irma always gave her the benefit of the doubt by saying there were probably desperate circumstances that left her no other choice.

The records do indicate that Irma stayed there until she was three years old. At that time a group of foundlings aged about 15 months to five years were put on a train and, with several nuns and other adults, were transported from New York to the Midwest where they were told they would find new mothers and fathers. There were at least 32 children in this particular batch because Irma remembers she had a number 32 pinned to her coat. Another label sewn inside her clothing listed her name, date of birth, and the name of the person who was to receive her. As the train pulled into Osage City station, Irma saw a lady holding a card with the number 32 written on it. “That’s my new momma,” she exclaimed to one of the nuns as she eagerly rushed to meet Mrs. Katherine Boehm.

Let me back up a bit to explain that the administrators of the Foundling Home worked through local parish priests in the Midwest and South to find suitable homes for the 10,000 homeless little ones in their care. People could tell the priests what they needed and why. Sometimes a precious child had died and they needed a replacement,
sometimes it was an elderly couple who needed someone to look after them, sometimes a farm family needed an extra pair of hands to help with the chores- and these would-be foster parents were able to specify exactly what they wanted-a blue-eyed blond female, or a red-headed sturdy male, etc. It seems a bit callous but, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers and it was certainly an improvement from living on the streets of New York. Even though some of the children were abused and neglected, many did find families to love them.

Irma was one of the lucky ones and was welcomed into the home of George and Katherine Boehm of Schubert, MO where she came to love them very much. The living, Irma recalls, was very frugal for the home was just a simple two-room frame structure on a hill farm where there were also two foster boys. Momma Katherine and Irma slept in the room that also served as the kitchen. Poppa George and one of the boys slept in the other room, while the second boy slept in an unfinished attic room on a bed he made himself. Irma’s recollections of this home were that there were no pictures on the walls and no books to look at except for a German newspaper, Der Volksfreudnd.  She had very few toys and her playmates were the cats, dogs, chickens, ducks and geese around the farm. Irma’s
foster brothers were 10 and 12 years old and attended school bringing home school books which Irma “borrowed” when they were not around. By this method she taught herself to read before entering the first grade and she remained an avid reader all her life.

Things looked up a bit for Irma when she started at St. Francis Xavier School in Taos because 10 of the other children who had come on the same train were there and they found a common bond that made them best friends.  Irma loved learning everything and was always eager for school to begin. In this community the orphans were treated as equals, although this was not the case in other areas.

After Irma had been with the Boehm family for some seven years, Momma Katherine died and the two boys became alcoholics causing problems in the home. Poppa George realized how much Irma missed her Momma Katherine and decided she should be living in a home where there was a woman. Three neighboring families expressed a willingness to take her in-one of the was 47 years old Adelheid Gnagi who lived with her brother John Rackers and her 18 year old daughter Mary, (Adelheid and her husband had been separated for several years). Irma had met Mary previously and always Mary had been very kind to her so when asked to choose she opted for this family to give her a new home. Thus she moved to another just over the hill and across the creek from the old one.

In her new home Irma had things a little easier, although she still helped with the many chores. She was delighted to have her own room and many of Mary’s old toys to play with. When she was approaching her teens she was confirmed at St. Francis Xavier but then transferred to public school because it was closer to home. This was a one-room school at Osage City where the teacher, Mr. G.A. Schultz was an excellent teacher and when she
graduated from the 8th grade it was as valedictorian of a class of 13 students.

Somewhere around the age of 16 Irma and one of her friends decided they wanted to be school teachers instead of maids or nannies like most of the other orphans. They were advised to go back to 8th grade for a refresher course where Mr. Schultz also taught them algebra and geometry. After a summer course at Warrensburg Normal School they took the State Teachers Exam and passed. Irma taught for two years at Moreau Bend School before moving to Grand View School on Frog Hollow Road. After teaching there for only one year, she became ill with a chronic respiratory illness and finally was diagnosed with a “spot on her lung.” With her weight down to 98 pounds, she was ordered to take the “rest cure” for a year-no work and gentle walks in the sunshine.

It was during her time at Moreau Bend School that she met Robert Schnieders, and despite her somewhat frail condition they were married and moved into a little house in the Cole Junction Bottoms. Their first house was built on stilts to try to protect from the floods, but it was so poorly insulated that one winter the dipper froze in the drinking bucket despite the fact that the pot-belly stove was kept going all night. The following year they built a better home and during the ensuing 17 years Robert and Irma had eight children of whom Andrews is the youngest.

Robert died in 1939 at the age of 42 and the family continued to struggle on the farm for the next six years. After a very bad flood in 1945 they moved to a 100-year old, 10-room house on Boonville Road which Irma considered to be a perfect place to raise a family with its spacious room and beautiful view of the Missouri River. Irma decided the children were old enough to allow her to seek outside-the-home work so she bought a “how to” book, rented a typewriter and taught herself to type so she could take the State Merit Test. A whole new world opened up for her when she began working at Employment Security-new friends-new interests-which she thoroughly enjoyed until her retirement in 1963 at the age of 65.

Irma spent her retirement years visiting her many offspring, tending her flowers, reading, quilting, attending her card club and church circle, and at the request of her children, writing down her memories. On August 6, 1989 she died after reaching the grand old age of 91. At the end of her mother’s story, Andrews has added an epilogue which reads in part, “…she is remembered as a woman of deep Christian faith who faced problems and crises with the conviction that God would never give her more than she could handle. She had a positive outlook, resiliency, the ability to take things in stride…gentle and refined, she calmly took on tasks that were extraordinary at that time…learning to drive a car in 1916, becoming a school teacher, as a widow refusing welfare, fighting flood, driving
a team of mules…etc.” From a very shaky start in life, Irma persevered and left a legacy for all her offspring to be proud of-all eight children, 52 grandchildren, and at the time of her death, 40 great-grandchildren. She was the cornerstone of a great family, and even to the end she could remember every one of their names and could tell where each was living, to whom they were married, and what they were doing.

Influenced by her mother’s life, Andrews became active in orphan projects and presently serves on the Board of Directors of the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, and she and husband, Don, hosted the Missouri Orphan Train Reunion.

Shirley is rightly proud of what her mother accomplished, so proud in fact that she has put together an excellent presentation which she willingly gives to various groups in this area, in which she tells of the life and times of this orphan-train rider, Irma Craig Schnieders, and she will continue to “Remember Mamma” and tell of her outstanding achievements for many years to come.

Wirtten by Phyllis Von Der Bruegge