The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

July 20, 2013

Taking a glimpse at family heritage

Railroad museum presents story of Orphan Trains

By Phyllis Zorn, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — For Fairview resident Brenda Davis, Saturday’s “Riders on the Orphan Train” presentation at the Railroad Museum of Oklahoma was a glimpse at her family heritage.

“The oral tradition in my family is that my great-grandfather came from New York on the Orphan Train,” Davis said.

Her great-grandfather, James W. Hale, lived in Springdale, Ark., and went by the name of the family that adopted him. His original name has been lost, Davis said.

Saturday’s presentation featured musician Phil Lancaster and author Alison Moore, who wrote the novel, “Riders on the Orphan Train.”  They are a husband and wife from Austin, Texas.

The multi-media presentation included live music, a video and talks by both Lancaster and Moore.

In the video, two Orphan Train riders talked about being adopted from the train.

The man said the first person who tried to take him was a farmer who smelled like he had not bathed in many days and told him he wanted him to work.

He refused to go with the farmer. Ultimately, an older man who had no children took him instead. His adopted father treated him with patience and love, never once hitting him and always correcting him by talking to him about the kind of life he wanted to see him live.

“His kindness was why he got next to me,” the man said. “He saved my life. I wanted to live the life he wanted me to, and I think I did.”

A woman in the video said the first couple who took her also was older and she spent one night in their home. Their daughter-in-law, who shared a bed with her that night, told her they had taken her because their son was about to come home from the war and they wanted someone to take care of the big house where they lived after the daughter-in-law left. The daughter-in-law told her to return to the hotel where the Orphan Train children were being given out and tell people they didn’t want her. She walked back to the hotel and was taken by a school teacher the following day. The school teacher found a family who wanted her, and they raised her with love.

“There is no real documentation,” Lancaster said of the children who rode the Orphan Train between 1854 and 1929. “There is not a lot of who got off and where.”

The last Orphan Train took children to Sulphur Springs, Texas, Lancaster said.

It’s estimated that one American in 25 has a connection to the Orphan Train movement, Moore said.

Orphan Train rider Hazel House lived in Enid, Moore told the group.

The Orphan Train movement was begun by Charles Loring Brace, who founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853 to help the thousands of children living on the streets of New York City. Children were sent by train to outside the city with funding from private donors, in the hopes that families would take them in.

Hundreds of thousands of children were relocated while the movement lasted and were taken to every state, Moore said.

The National Orphan Train Complex, a museum and research center in Concordia, Kan., was founded as a nonprofit organization in 2003, and opened to the public in 2007. It is dedicated to preserving the stories and artifacts of those who were part of the Orphan Train Movement.