Arthur Field Smith

Video made by past curator, Shaley George, 2021.
Video made by past curator, Shaley George, 2021.

The following account was written by Arthur Field Smith, and can be found in Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories, Vol. 2.

My Orphan Train Story

When I look back in memory to the early years of my life, I am not quite sure that what I recall is real or just the fantasy of a small bewildered child. In 1989, at a glorious Thanksgiving Reunion for Orphan Train Riders, I encountered Ethel Lambert who confirmed my memory of an early presence at Goodhue on Staten Island, NY. I hadn’t remembered the name Goodhue, but I did recall the high steps leading up to the BIG house. There was also a circular drive covered with white stones leading to another building which I thought to be a school. There was a large tree along that drive, at which, I recall, throwing some of those white stones. The tree had long since been reduced to a stump, the drive was paved, and a school destroyed by fire had been rebuilt. As Ethel confirmed this slender thread of memory, tears of joy came in a sudden torrent as I tightly held this wonderfully understanding lady. How can I explain just how important such little things are to an orphan who needs so badly to find some roots? There are a few other seems I seem to recall, but still have no way to confirm them.

I later learned that at this point I was under the care of The Children’s Aid Society of New York City, who were about to include me in their grand scheme to find homes for homeless children. First, we were fitted out in the finest clothes we had ever seen. I found myself with a little, dark grey suit with short pants and a big bow tie, and a pair of new shoes and stockings. There were about a dozen other boys and girls in the group and we must have been put on the train after dark, as I don’t remember what the train looked like until later. We had no idea where we were going, just that we were off to find a Mamma and Daddy. I was a little scared about this because I really didn’t know what a Mamma and Daddy was. We were just told that it’s good to have them. Time and distance meant little to us, but during daylight there were lots of strange things to see and we vied for seats near the windows. The clackity, clack of the wheels would sometimes lull us to sleep only to be awakened by the whistle of the train which, we later learned, was blown to tell people to stay out of our way, we are coming through!

According to newspaper accounts of the day, we were accompanied on our trip by Miss Clara Comstock, Miss Anne Laura Hill and Miss Mary Reynolds. In addition to caring for us, they also tried to prepare us to make the very best impression on those who might want to take us into their homes. Eventually our train ride came to an end on the 16th of December, 1922 at the small town of Clarinda in Southwest Iowa. Obviously our coming was something of an event in this town, which due to a two week delay, had been discussed rather thoroughly several times in the local newspaper – The Clarinda Herald. Therefore, when we were finally presented on the steps of the Methodist Church building, there was a large gathering including the curious and those actually interested in taking a child. I was just a few days over five years old, and someone present later said I had climbed up on a man’s lap and asked, “Are you going to be my daddy?” A line in a newspaper account read, “and one little boy went to a home just North of Clarinda.” That little boy was me.

Prior to this time, my name had been Arthur Field. I always wondered how I came by that name, but just supposed it had been given to me by my real parents. One of those memory things that I can’t confirm, is that someone told me that both of my parents had drowned while swimming.

On this particular day my new parents [James & Lillian Smith] helped me decide to keep the name Field for a middle name, adding Smith as the last name. This was fine with me, but for many, many years, I wondered about the name field. Every time I heard of someone else by that name, I wondered if we might possibly be related. I was later to learn just how impossible this was.

Apparently, I fitted into the Smith family pretty well. I also acquired a brother, some four years older. I quickly became both is playmate and his plaything. His name was Cecil, my Dad’s name was Worley, and my Mom’s name was Lillian. Up the road to the next farm lived Fredonna Humphrey. Fredonna turned out to be my real playmate, as we were the same age, started school together, and shared many experiences, including the measles and mumps.

My new home was a huge, square house with a big porch around the south and east sides, and set on a hill between huge pine trees and a big grassy lawn. The house was three stories high, including the attic where some very interesting things were to be found. Unfortunately, the house was not to be enjoyed very long, for one very cold January night, as we sat about the kitchen stove for warmth, Cecil noticed a [thin] curl of smoke coming out of the cabinet nearest the chimney. When the door was opened the flames rushed out, and the awful realization that the house was on fire, galvanized Mom and Dad. Cecil was instructed to take his scared, little brother and head up the hill to Fredonna’s house, where we fearfully watched the old house burn to the ground. The fire engine came, but the well soon ran dry and there just wasn’t enough water to stem the blaze. The house made a spectacular fire and the plight of the Smith family with their new son was the talk of the town. Everything went with the flames, but it wasn’t long before carpenters had put up a big garage which became our home until a new house was completed in the spring. During our stay with the neighbors, Fredonna’s mother found out that little Arthur was very fond of her biscuits, and ever afterward if there were any left over, they went home in my pockets. (At almost 75 years some very good friends are still sending me home with the left over biscuits.) This began my life on the farm in Iowa with the Smith family.

Contrary to the plight of many Orphan Train Riders, I was treated very well, but even though I did not at first realize it, there was purpose behind my adoption and a responsible role for me that started right away. It’s surprising what even a little shaver can do on a farm. We had lots of chickens, and one of my very first jobs was to gather the eggs. The food was good and there was plenty of it. My mom baked round hot loaves of bread and I was often given the first slice, spread with homemade jelly. Even when going to school, I learned that there were little chores to be done before and after.

To read the rest of Arthur’s story, see Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories, Vol. 2., available for purchase in our gift shop.