Orphans and the Orphan Train in Howell County
Thu, 04/21/2022 - 1:14pm admin
A rather bizarre Willow Springs Republican newspaper article dated July 19, 1923, circulated on Facebook recently. Before, I had seen the story but was reticent to write about it without further research. Here as in other rural parts of Missouri, children whose parents died or could not take care of them were often taken in by close relatives or neighbors. Children were considered an asset on farms, eventually supplying much-needed labor. As farmhands, kids could take on tasks like milking done by hand, hay harvesting and storage, feeding and watering livestock, cutting and gathering wood for heating and cooking, gardening, food preservation, and many labor-intensive duties. Families were usually large, and another mouth to feed wasn't a big deal.
Children who were not taken in became a responsibility of the county court system and a county judge who was designated as the county juvenile officer. If they could not be placed locally, they might be sent to orphanages in St. Louis or Kansas City.
I'm not sure why this particular solution to the problem was applied in Willow Springs, but under the headlines "Real Live Baby to be Given Away" and "Who Will Get This Orphan Baby?" the article read, "Certain parties in this community have an orphan baby whom they would like to keep, but financial reverses make it necessary that they find another home for the little one. With the permission of the proper authorities, the management of the Star Theatre has volunteered to assist in placing this baby with some good person who would appreciate and care for same."
"Somebody ought to take this little one and care for it, so the interested parties have decided to give coupon tickets with each adult admission ticket to the Star Theatre next Thursday night July 19, each coupon bearing two similar numbers. One number will be dropped into a box provided for the purpose. The other number will be retained by the holder of the ticket. Between reels of the show, a boy will be blindfolded and will reach into the box and withdraw a number. The party holding the same number will be given the baby if they want it. If they do not want the baby, another number will be drawn, and this repeated until the baby is given away."
"A description of the baby follows: Weight 15 pounds, auburn hair, blue eyes, and aged two months. For obvious reasons, the parentage of the baby will not be divulged. Who will get this little baby? Some of the clothes that have been donated for this baby are on display in Charles Ferguson's display windows.
I did a diligent search for any subsequent article in any of the area papers reporting the result of the drawing and found nothing. I can only hope, and I suspect the child was taken into a loving home and the adoptive family's interests superseded the desire to know details by non-involved parties.
In 1925, an abandoned two-year-old boy was discovered in a barn near Willow Springs. A couple living nearby volunteered to take the child. After locating the child's biological parents in less than a month, the Howell County Juvenile Officer approved the adoption. It was all covered as news in local papers, names of all concerned included.
In discussing these newspaper articles in this community, I found the "Orphan Train" often mentioned. Children were brought from as far away as New York City to adoptive families in the Midwest. Howell County was a participant, and I draw from an article in the West Plains Quill one hundred years ago this month to illustrate. The Quill reported the headlines on April 6, 1922: "New York Orphans Happy in West Plains Homes Today" "Waifs eager for homes and parental love, 'Two or three nice ladies wanted me,' one boasts."
The details of the story are heart-rending. The article detailed, "Eight little orphans who arrived in West Plains yesterday from New York City, each looking for a place in somebody's hearts and home, all are happy today in good homes in West Plains and vicinity, and although all of them have not yet found permanent homes, there is little doubt but that each will be permanently placed in a few days."
"Many of the people who made applications to the local committee for one of the children, were unable to come to West Plains yesterday on account of the heavy rains of the last few days and bad conditions of the roads. Also, many of the applications were for girls, and all the orphans brought were boys with one exception, owing to the fact that two of the girls which were to have been brought here had to have their tonsils removed, and others were quarantined with chickenpox."
"Following an interesting address by Reverend J.W. Swan of Sedalia, agent of the Missouri Children's Aid Society, at Catron Hall, where a reception was held for the children yesterday afternoon, and the applicants for the children made their selections. The scene was pathetic. So eager were the youngsters for a home and for parental love that everyone who witnessed the scene was deeply touched. When those who had come to offer homes to the children had made their selections, many West Plains people volunteered to take one or more of the children into their homes and keep them until the work of securing permanent homes for them here was completed. Therefore every one of the youngsters was taken into some good home, and all are happy today."
A listing of the children and their adoptive parents followed in the article.
"Those who have never known anything of the loneliness and emptiness of the life of a homeless waif can have no idea of the eagerness with which the youngsters viewed newfound parents and friends yesterday."
"'If you take him, Mister, won't you please take me too-me and him are pals,' one of the older boys pleaded yesterday with a prominent farmer of West Plains, who selected as his new son the youngest of the eight orphans. But the farmer and his wife had planned to take but one child, and the older boy was left behind, very much grieved because the little fellow cried for him when taken away by his new parents. Later, the older boy, when told that the little fellow had been taken into a very fine home, expressed much delight. 'I'm surely glad he has a good home,' he said beamingly, 'he's so good. You know New York is an awfully bad place, but he's only five years old, and he's so little he hasn't ever learned any of the badness.'"
"West Plains' people were surprised at the good manners of the children. In the orphanages from which they were brought, they have been taught real politeness, and they are able to express with very pleasing courtesy their appreciation of every favor shown them."
"Those who are being kept in local homes temporarily are really pathetic in their genuine appreciation of their shelter and the courtesies shown them. Today they are playing marbles, riding horseback, and learning to be real 'Ozarkers.'"
"One bright little fellow who is being entertained in a happy home in the east part of town until he can find new parents is having a wonderful time playing with a little son of the family who is near his age. This morning he and his little playmate-host were playing marbles, playing the Victrola, and romping both indoors and out. Suddenly the little orphan stopped and looked up into the face of the mother of his newfound playmate, and between smiles and tears, he said: 'Do you know Mrs. --- that the finest thing in this world is a good home.'"
"This youngster has a brother who was taken into a home in a nearby town five years ago and is very happy there. Therefore he is eager to find a home in this section of the Ozarks, as he thinks it will be wonderful to be near his brother and perhaps to get to see him sometime."
"Many people yesterday commented upon the unusual brightness of the children and their attractive appearance. The Reverend Swan, who has had many years experience in his work of finding homes for children from the orphanages, stated that the New York Children's Aid Society is the oldest organization of the kind in the United States and that they are very strict in their rules governing the sending out of children. Only children who have undergone physical and mental tests are offered to private homes for adoption. This, he said, is the reason all the children brought here are bright and attractive. 'If a child is physically or mentally deficient,' the Reverend Swan said, 'it's not sent out. If it is not strong physically, it is placed under expert medical care until it becomes strong and well. Also, if any child which we place in a home develops tuberculosis or other chronic disease, we take it back immediately and place it in the hospital.'"
"Mr. Swan made it very clear to those who heard his lecture yesterday that the children were not being let out as servants but to be loved and properly reared and educated. 'Of course, we want them taught to work and to be useful and obedient, but no man who expects to take one of the boys or girls merely to labor for him to put shekels into his pocket can ever get one.'"
"Owing to the many calls for children here, it is probable that the New York Society will send another consignment of children here later, which will include more girls."
"Mr. Swan and Miss Alice Bogardus, of Omaha, Nebraska, the latter a representative of the Nebraska Children's Aid Society, who assisted in bringing the children to West Plains, will be at the Commercial Hotel in West Plains for a few days, and anyone who desires to see them in regard to securing either a boy or a girl may call on them at the hotel.' There are four very bright and attractive boys of the party brought here yesterday who have not been permanently placed and applications for them are still open. Homes on the farms are especially desired for boys,' Mr. Swan said."
The Orphan Train system continued until 1929. Its arrival in Howell County was well attended by many onlookers not interested in adoption and was a bit of a spectacle. Reverend and Mrs. J. W. Swan continued to work in the Ozarks, checking on earlier placements with follow-up inspections and reports each year. Swan and his wife were well-adapted for the job and were remembered affectionately by the children they helped to place. Because of his kindness, Revered Swan was known to the children as "Grandpa Swan." He died in 1934[Ma1][Ma2].
Over one hundred thousand children were estimated to be placed over the 1853 to 1929 lifetime of the Methodist Church's sponsorship of the Orphan Train in Missouri.