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Food for Thought

The orphan trains

My friend and fellow writer Ethel Barker started out to write a novel, for young adult readers, about a piece of Iowa history that had fascinated her for years. Titled “For the Love of Pete,” the story is about three young children who were transported from New York City to the Midwest in an effort to give them a better chance in life. Commonly known as “orphan trains,” though a good many of the children were not technically orphans, the trains transported over 200,000 children from the slums of New York to 45 states, where they were fostered or adopted by families. Some of the children were cherished and raised as family members. Others, unfortunately, were acquired to be merely servants and farmhands. Many of those who were mistreated ran away from their new families and fended for themselves as best they could.
While Ethel’s story is about fictitious children, it is based on actual events and circumstances, the result of extensive research and first person accounts. Her research, aside from capturing real places and events, accurately depicts attitudes and practices of the times (1880s) as well as slang and other expressions in common use then. The story is told from the viewpoints of the three children who are the main characters, and, even though it is aimed at young adults, I found it very much a story for readers of all ages.
The children in this story arrive in Hartfield, Iowa. It is estimated that Iowa took on more of the relocated children than any other state, and this leads me to speculate about a story in my own family; a half-remembered and sketchily-told tale of a girl called Katie Hart.
My maternal grandfather was George Howard Fish, a descendant of Hamilton Fish (actually there were several Hamilton Fishes; the first I know of having been here before the Revolution, another who was Secretary of State to President Grant, the other that I know of was instrumental in founding the American Legion and was a senator from an eastern state until his death several years ago. All were descendants of that first one mentioned.) Many of their progeny settled in Michigan, for a time at least, before heading farther west. If my grandfather had biological brothers and sisters, I never met them, but I did know Kate, who my mother called Aunt Kate, though I’ve never been sure if she was formally adopted or just raised as his sister. No one ever told me how she came to be orphaned, if indeed she was truly an orphan, or how old she was at the time she joined my grandfather’s family. I do know that later her married name was Butterfield and I believe she lived in Cedar Rapids during the 1950s and perhaps later. I remember that she had a daughter named Barbara who was probably eight or nine years older than I was. I thought of her as a cousin, though I remember being told that she was actually no relation.
I may never know for sure if Aunt Kate was one of the transplanted children from New York, and I guess it doesn’t really matter. All I know for sure is that she was loved by my mother’s family and was a kind and lovely woman. After reading Ethel’s book, I began to wonder. The timing is right, for one thing. Orphanages in New York were overcrowded, little more than warehouses for children, with little to offer besides the barest food and shelter. The orphan trains were begun in 1854, and continued until 1929. Considering the great number of children involved, odds that she could have been one of them are pretty good. One of the persons responsible for this long-lived, ambitious project was a young Rev. Charles Loring Brace who was appalled by the sight of homeless children sleeping in streets and alleys, begging, stealing, selling flowers, hawking newspapers, shining shoes, whatever they could do to earn a few pennies.
He and his organization believed that the wholesome life in rural areas of the country would keep these children healthier and happier than their struggles to exist in the dirty streets of the slums. Families that adopted the children were required to promise to send them to school at least through eighth grade, though some did not follow through. Ethel’s story is told with both truth and humor; a captivating and informative tale.
“For the Love of Pete” is published by Ice Cube Press of North Liberty with charming illustrations and cover art by the author’s daughter Susan Dresdale, and is available at Prairie Lights book store in Iowa City.