Some Orphan Train riders made lasting mark on Republic County
It was a pathetic scene at the courthouse last Friday to look into the inquisitive and anxious faces of the sixteen homeless little ones as they sat there awaiting their inevitable fate. Tears were brought to the eyes of many sympathetic souls as the work of placing the little ones into the various homes in the county progressed. Both Mr. (J.W.) Swan and Miss (Anna Laura Hill) took deep interest in the little group and seemed intent upon seeing that they were placed in good homes–in fact, they emphasized this point. –From the Belleville Telescope, June 25, 1909
It was a time when children migrated from urban areas to rural areas.
Marked by tragedy or extreme poverty, the social service agency of the day gathered up orphans and sent them on a train halfway across the country. When they disembarked the train, they would be examined and judged by strangers, and either chosen for a new home or sent on to the next town.
In 1909 one of those trains– an orphan train–stopped in Belleville. The dozen children left behind when the train pulled out of the station were some of the more than 250,000 children taken from the East Coast between 1854 and 1929, usually from New York, and deposited with families along the way.
The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia documents the history of the orphan train movement, and as best it can, the stories of the riders. The center will celebrate its 16th program this weekend to remember the riders.
“The riders deserve closure,” says Lori Halfhide, who helps research history for the facility. “Medical history is a big thing for orphans, but they also need to know what came before.”
The best-documented orphan train family in Republic County may be the stories of Howard, James and Clara Reed. Part of the complex, the Morgan-Dowell Research Center bears their later names.
Immigration into the United States at the turn of the century figures into why so many children were left homeless, Halfhide says.
“The population of New York was exploding,” she explains. “A lot of these kids were children of immigrants–first generation to this country–so they didn’t have extended family to fall back on and help care for the children if something happened to the parents.”
Sometimes children were orphaned if one parent died and the other, usually a mother, couldn’t provide for their brood. “Women couldn’t get jobs,” she says.
The driving force of the orphan train movement was Anna Laura Hill. She and other placement agents were sincere about finding good homes for “their” children.
“And she did consider that these were ‘her’ kids,” Halfhide says of Hill. “She visited them once a year, and was often invited to their weddings and graduations.” In all, orphan train historians estimate that 80 to 90
of the placements were successful.
Families who took in children agreed to send them to school, Sunday School, and treat them like one of their children.
“In the earlier trains, kids were much older and with boys, the placements didn’t always work,” she says.
Siblings story documented
One of the best-documented stories of local orphan train riders is of Clara, James and Howard Reed. The children’s parents and oldest sister, Ethel, died of pneumonia after an accident in Pillar Point, NY. Before their mother died, she made arrangements for the 7, 5 and 3-year old children to be taken to the Children’s Aid Society orphanage in
Orphanage administrators initially planned to just send Clara and James to Kansas, thinking Howard was too young. “Seven year old Clara stomped her little foot and said ‘If Howard isn’t going, none of us are going!’” writes Halfhide.
The three children were on the Rock Island train that arrived in Belleville on June 18, 1909. Howard was selected first by Luther and Juliet Dowell, farmers from the Cuba area. Clara temporarily also went to live with the Dowells to help care for Howard. James was chosen by Joseph and Zella Elliott who owned a hotel in Belleville.
In February 1910, the new Presbyterian minister in Belleville, Rev. Harvey C. and Mary Duckett adopted Clara.
Clara always remained in contact with her brothers. Juliet Dowell had taught her to play piano, which inspired her to become a music teacher. After attending college for two years at Emporia, James’s adoptive father recommended her to the Belleville school board, where she taught for $100 per month. Two years later she moved to Douglas, Ariz. She married Robert “Lee” Morgan, and the couple had four children. Once her children were in school she returned to teaching. She died May 27, 2004 at the age of 102.
“I feel that my brothers and I were very lucky to have our lives turn out so well after such doubtful beginnings,” Clara wrote in a book that documents orphan train rider stories. “We grew up having a feeling of family, even though we were adopted into different homes.”
On the day the orphan train arrived in Belleville, Howard was presented a silver dollar dated 1900 by the mayor of Belleville, a momento he kept throughout his life, according to published reports. His birth name, Reed, became his middle name, and has been used as the middle name in four Dowell generations. By the time he was 12, Howard was working with mules and horses. He attended Hayworth country school and Agenda Rural High School. He married Nora Alice Anderson, and the couple had four children: Harold Dowell, twins Darrell and Darlene (Danielson) and Irene (Hess).
James Reed, 6, was placed with Joseph (proprietor of barber shop) and Zella C. Elliott. 1910 Census shows members of their household to include daughter Jeannette, 12, son James T., 6, and three lodgers who worked for the railroad.
Joseph Elliott bought the Yankee Inn, and remodeled it to become the Elliott Hotel at the corner of 19th and L STs. James Elliott sold his interest in the Elliott Hotel to his sister, Jeannette, in 1936 following the death of their mother, reports the Telescope.
In 1940 James R. Elliott and his wife, Hazel, owned and operate a cleaning shop. James Elliott died in 1988 in Longmont, Colo.
Another orphan train rider, William Meslingo, 7, was placed with farmer Elwood H. West, 54 and his wife, Ida, 53 eight miles northwest of Belleville where the Wests homesteaded in 1872. Other members of the household according to the 1910 Census are daughter Tacy Smith, 22; granddaughter Ida L., 3; grandson Robert L., 1; and Daughter Esla C. West, 17. Meslingo is listed as an “orphan boy”, and William D. Wiliams, a hired man, also lived with the family.
In 1920, the Liberty Township Census lists William West, 17, as an adopted son. In 1930, Tacy Smith was listed as the head of the household of a residence at 1618 I ST, Belleville, and West, 28, her brother, was reported as a bank clerk.
In 1940 the family still lived at the same residence, and William West, 35, was listed as assist’s cashier at First National Bank. In 1946 he moved to Kanorado, then California. He died in California in 1989 at the age of 87.
An August 9, 1934 edition of The Telescope reports that William West, teller at the First National Bank and a member of the Belleville fire department, made a fire run by himself Saturday. Notified at his home that there was a fire in one of the basement windows at the rear of the bank, he rushed to the fire house, drove out the chemical truck and extinguished the blaze.
In a letter to the Telescope in 1989, the late Barbara Snyder of Republic wrote that Bill West was her great-uncle.
“The special story I remember being told about him was that when the orphan train had come through from New York earlier, Bill got off the train, being a small boy, they didn’t know how old he was, so they guessed his age to be about 5. He walked up to my great-grandfather Elwood
West, pulled on his coat tail, looked up to him and asked “Will you take
me home with you?” Great grandad said his heart just melted and he said “sure”. That small boy continually enriched the hearts of family and friends”
Ida Meslingo, age 9, was listed as a border in the Alvin A., 37, and Jessie M., 33 Thompson household in Fairview Townshp three miles east of Belleville.
Minnie Meslingo, 6, was placed with the Oliver, 46, and Catharine, 45, Westrick family in Belleville Township. Other family members include sons: Samuel V., 25, Roy, 20, Frank, 18, Walter, 15 and Floyd, 9.
Myrtle Williams, 11, was placed with James Ramsbottom, near Munden. In 1918 she married John Rhine of Haddam. They had two children, Marvin, and Alice (Wineinger). She died in 1941 and is buried in Hawks Cemetery east of Cuba.
In a 1980 letter to the Telescope, the late Alice Wineinger noted that: “It’s too bad these young people today that have everything couldn’t see what people had to contend with. My mother didn’t see some of her brothers and sisters until 28 years later in New York.”
Records of some of the children who stayed in Belleville give little clue to their whereabouts later in life. Those include:
- Edward (Edwin) Reeves, 11, was placed wth Abbott Cheney, four miles north of Belleville. He is listed as the only other member of the household with Cheney, 61, and his wife, Ellen, 53, in the 1910 Census in Freedom Township.
- Ray Runions, 7, was placed with Will B. and Bertie B. Canfield in Belleville Township.
- Clarence Hughto, 9, placed with F.W. Whitney 10 miles north of Belleville. The US Department of Veterans Affairs says that he died in April 1976, and had served in the military from August 1916 to August 1920.
- Arthur Simmons, 6, placed with William T. Doherty, Belleville, and Marvin (Myron) Simmons, 4, placed with Clarence Greenleaf near Haworth.
- Minnie VanTassell, aged 9, placed with Andy Hill fi ve and one half miles northeast of Belleville. In 1912, she was one of the children at the Hill School District #12 who had not been absent or tardy in the month of November.
- Theressa McDonald, James Simmons and Edith Batesman were not placed in Belleville but taken to Lincoln.
A complete schedule of all events and full registration for this weekend’s events are available at NOTC or on the website at www.orphantraindepot.org. For more information, contact the NOTC office at 785-243-4471 Tuesday through Saturday. Special thanks to Lori Halfhide for the records she compiled on the orphans.