The 14-year old boy told his long widowed mother he
wanted a little sister with “blue eyes and brown hair.”
One month later Frank Kemper had his baby sister. Mary
Jane Baade, age 2 years, 2 months, came to Grand
Island on the orphan train to meet her new family.
Of the nine traveling west that summer of 1912, Mary
Jane was the “littlest one of the whole bunch,” she says.
She remembers bits of the journey. It was the first time
she had ever been outside.
Placed in a New York orphanage when she was two
weeks old she lived inside the walls of the Catholic
institution for the first 26 months of her life. The nuns
there stitched the children’s clothing from old bed-sheets.
Mary Jane left the orphanage to travel thousands of miles to a new home. After the 2 1/2-day train journey, Mary Jane was anxious. The other children pushed her to the
back as they scrambled outside at their final stop.
Agents who traveled west to arrange placements had selected the Kemper home for Mary
Jane. Many of the orphan train children had to line up for inspection when they got off the
trains. Farmers would check their teeth and overall health before choosing them.
“I was spoken for before I got to Nebraska. They didn’t line me up,” she says.
“When I got off the train, my brother was looking for me,” she says. “There she is!,” she
heard Frank yell. And from that day forward she was, at last, part of a family.
Frank carried his little sister everywhere. “They were such wonderful times,” she says.
Indeed she was lucky. Mary Jane had been chosen.
Of the nine children sent to St. Libory, two asked to return to New York. One family “worked the sam hill out of their adopted boy,” Mary Jane says.
Fortunately, the orphanage kept close tabs on the children it placed in homes. At that time, widows were allowed to adopt children. Once a year, each July, “they would visit, to check on us,” she says.
“The sisters and Grandpa, who was really a priest, would always come to my house first. I’d sit on his lap, and he’d ask me where all the other children are living-as if he didn’t know! He would always give me a dollar bill before leaving. That was big money.”
Frank and his mother, Adelaide, took the little girl home to St. Libory. The official town
population was then 110 people. “But when I arrived, they changed it to 110 and a half,” she says, smiling.
Scared in her new surroundings, Jane didn’t say a word for two weeks. Soon her mother
grew worried. Perhaps the little girl could not hear or speak. She resolved to take Mary Jane to the doctor the following week. That Sunday, Adelaide asked her son, “Do you have a clean handkerchief for church?”
“TAHASAKEE!” yelled little Mary Jane.
“What did you say?” asked her mother.
“TAHASAKEE!” she replied.
Her mother, relieved, corrected her, “Handkerchief, Mary.” “And from that day on, I never,
shut my mouth,” Mary Jane says. In childhood, “I counted myself very happy.”
“I had 14 curls, and Mother wouldn’t let me cut my hair until I was 14,” she says fondly.
Her mother and brother told her they always wanted a little girl to love. “My mother always
made me promise not to search for my birth mother while she was still alive. I never did,”
says Mary Jane.
At 19, Mary Jane needed identification to get married. She sent to the orphanage for her
papers. She received her original baptism certificate, which bypassed the orphanage.
“It was a big sour mistake – it should have come directly from the orphanage,” she says.
For the first time in her life, Mary Jane knew the town she was born, Waterbury,
Connecticut, and the name of her mother, Mabel Collins.
When she told the others who had come from the orphanage, they were angry and jealous,
asking, “Why can’t we find out where we’re from?” Mary couldn’t answer that.
Six years later, Mary Jane was married with two young sons. As she was listening to the
radio, a winner was announced in a “Why do you like Tide?” contest. The woman’s name
was Etta Collins from Waterbury, Connecticut. Mary Jane jotted down Collins’ address. On
a whim, she contacted her. “Are you one of my relatives?” Mary Jane wrote.
“No, but I know your relatives and the doctor who delivered you,” Collins wrote back. Their
correspondence might have ended there, but fate intervened.
Two years after that, Mary Jane was renting out the family basement to a GI’s pregnant
wife and child. One day, the renter, nicknamed “Slugger” for her large frame, approached
Mary with the chance of a lifetime. “I need a companion to travel back East. My husband
will pay for your ticket if you’ll come with me,” she said.
Mary Jane hesitated. “I had always wanted to go back to New York,” she says. But she
wasn’t sure she could handle the emotional trip. Her husband settled the matter. “You’re
going,” he said.
When she arrived in New York, she was thinking, “What am I doing in this ungodly big
town all alone? I am so sorry I’ve come.”
Mary Jane’s radio friend, Etta Collins, insisted she stay at her home. Etta and her husband
arranged for Mary Jane to meet the doctor who delivered her 37 years before. “I can only
hurt myself now,” she thought.
When she arrived for her 10 o’clock appointment, the doctor, “a big, fat man with bushy
beautiful gray hair,” greeted her. “What brought you here? After all these years, why would
you stir up all this trouble?”
“I didn’t come here to hurt any one,” Mary Jane replied.
“‘The doctor kept digging me about coming,” she says. Finally she could take no more
abuse. “Did you ever have a mother?” she asked the doctor. He smiled. She knew she had
gotten through to him.
“The doctor gave me all the dope. He as much as told me Mabel Collins was my mother,”
Later that day, the doctor called to give Mary Jane the address of her half brother, Joseph.
The Collinses drove her to his home, a huge mansion with a Cadillac parked out front. “All
this beauty and they put me in an orphanage?” she remembers thinking.
Mary Jane gathered her courage. She walked to the door, picked up the door knocker, and
let it fall loudly.
A woman in her fifties answered. “She looked at me. I looked at her,” she says. Finally, the
younger woman spoke. “Is Joseph home?” she asked. “No he’s not. I’m here taking care of
my grandchild. I’m Joseph’s mother. May I help you?” the older woman asked.
Mary Jane knew then she was looking into the eyes of her mother. She froze. What could
she say to the woman who had given her away nearly four decades earlier? Mary Jane
turned to leave, but thought better of it.
“Yes, maybe you can help me,” she said. The two women went inside to talk. Mary Jane
got right to the point, “Does Joseph know he has a half sister’?” she asked.
“Oh no, Joseph never had a half sister,” the woman replied. Mary Jane paused. “Yes he
did, and I am that half sister,” she said. The older woman began crying slowly and softly.
Mary Jane began crying, too. But neither said anything.
Mary Jane kept thinking,”Why doesn’t she tell me she’s my mother?” It was a question
Mary Jane would ask herself for 30 years. Mabel Collins never admitted Mary Jane was her
daughter; she wouldn’t admit she’d had an illegitimate child.
Before returning home to her family, Mary Jane called her mother. “I know who you are.
Here is my address. Maybe someday you’ll wish you had it.”
She boarded the same train she had ridden as an orphan and “cried all the way home to
Grand Island.” When she got home, a letter from her mother was waiting. The two
corresponded for 30 years until Mabel’s death in 1978.
Today, at age 85, Mary Jane still gets emotional talking about the woman “who looked just
like me, and “never admitted she was my mother.”
Mary Jane has saved each of her 70 letters, now yellowed with age. The letters all begin
“My dear Mary” and are full of newsy, everyday happenings. They are her only connection
to the woman who refused to claim her. A few letters contain various claims and excuses
why Mabel is not Mary Jane’s mother; a few hint at the truth of their relationship. But never
did Mabel write the words Mary Jane longed to see, “Mary Jane, I am your mother.”
Written by Nancy Owen
Published in the North Platte Telegraph 1997