My current hometown, Dowagiac, Michigan was the first stop on the Orphan Train. Before I get into describing the mural which is the subject of this post, here’s a summary of the history of the Orphan Train, patched together from the website https://kidskonnect.com/history/orphan-trains/.
“The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. The children ranged in age from as young as about one year to 17. These homeless children came mostly from large cities on the east coast, such as New York and Boston. Most children were poor and many had been in trouble with the law. Many times, children were separated from their brothers and sisters during these moves. Some never saw their siblings again. At the same time, the midwestern and western farmers suffered a severe labor shortage. They needed help with the work on their farms and ranches. The Orphan Train era was initiated by social welfare reformer Charles Loring Brace of the Children’s Aid Society in New York. Brace urged that children of the poor be given an opportunity to live and work with another family. The children were accompanied on the train by adults, often Catholic nuns. The children left the train at each stop and were chosen or not chosen by the people who came to the station to see them. In some cases, the match was made ahead of time, and the couple would present a number to the chaperones who would match the number to the child wearing the same number. The Orphan Train movement provided many children with homes during a very difficult time. Many of these children were loved and treated very well, but many were not. Many children were separated from parents and siblings for the remainder of their lives.”
So, what was the connection between the Orphan Train and Dowagiac? Here’s a snippet from the Dowagiac Daily News, written by Steve Arseneau, director of the Dowagiac History Museum:
“Some orphans were abused by their new families, forced to perform hard chores with little appreciation for their efforts and were never welcomed into the families. Some of the children ran away from the new families or had to be placed with new ones. Today, we can look at the Orphan Train and be aghast at the concept. Children paraded off a train to be inspected by area farm families to see if they could take them in to help with chores. It was, however, better than what faced orphans on the streets of New York City in 1850 and it opened the door to reforming the orphanage system and how society treats orphans. It certainly influenced child welfare in the 20th Century. So, what was Dowagiac’s connection to the Orphan Train? In late September 1854, Dowagiac was the destination of the first Orphan Train. The Children’s Aid Society sent 46 boys and girls, most between the ages of 10 to 12 years old, on two boat rides and two train trips from New York City to Dowagiac.”
Ruth Anderson, an artist and good friend of mine who lives in nearby Cassopolis, decided to see how many ways she could revive the history of the Orphan Train. Earlier endeavors included writing a play about it which local high school students performed and entered into state and national competitions. They won the competition for Michigan History Day last year and went on to Washington, DC to enter the national one. In the meantime, Ruth had an idea for the huge, inviting vacant wall along one side of the Dowagiac post office. Teaming up with the Dowagiac History Museum, she was able to raise funds for a giant mural which will cover the entire wall. All of the labor is volunteer, which is where I come in. A revolving number of interested people, artists and non-, have been painting away for a few weeks now. We still have a long way to go, but according to Ruth we’re ahead of schedule. Which is a good thing, since there will be a reunion for descendants of Orphan Train riders Sept. 23.
Although some of the already painted portions look “done”, there are many areas that are still unfinished, such as the “grassy” portion I’m standing next to in the photo above. I’m just glad I’m not charged with painting the complex locomotive…at least not yet…