Historical society honors orphan train

By Nina Gougis

Hundreds of children stood on the wooden block, feeling more like cattle than human beings.

The adults, interested in cheap labor, passed by as they poked muscles, checked teeth and pulled hair to determine who was most fit for long hours on the farm, said Shirley Howenstine, director for the Illinois Orphan Train Heritage Society.

These slave-like conditions were often part of the controversial Orphan Train movement, which placed more than 100,000 New York City orphans in homes from 1854 to 1929 and was the forerunner of foster care, Howenstine said.

IOTHS will hold a convention in DeKalb to raise awareness of the Orphan Train Oct. 22 and 23.

It is important for people to be aware of the train because people may have family members they didn’t know were a part of the movement, Howenstine said.

Howenstine’s father was one of these orphan train riders. He was placed in three homes before he finally found a loving one in Iowa, she said.

The movement started when thousands of children roamed the city streets, which persuaded Charles Brace, a young minister, to start the Orphan Train movement that would place the orphans into what he thought was a more moral agrarian environment, Howenstine said.

Although the movement helped a lot of children, they were often subject to farmers who saw them as a source of cheap labor, Howenstine said.

“It did not always work out, and children were often placed in other homes,” she said.

Another problem of the movement was that children with one parent or other living family members were sometimes removed from their homes, said James Schmidt, NIU associate history professor researching social welfare history.

Schmidt said the movement helped lead to the notion of what he called the “states’ absolute parental and ownership rights of children.”

Before there were state regulations for foster care, they often were determined by local officials. Children were often placed in local orphanages or apprenticeships, Schmidt said.

Modern foster care evolved in the 1920s as more states began to regulate child welfare programs. Nationally organized child welfare programs began with the Department of Children and Family Services in 1964, said John Hamm, DCFS public information officer.

Hamm said these conditions have changed because of stricter regulations and new organization. For more information, call IOTHS at 847-729-8862.

IOTHS Conference

Who: Illinois Orphan Train Heritage Society

What: Orphan Train Conference

Where: American National Bank of DeKalb County, 913 S. Fourth St., Ste. 100

When: Oct. 22 and 23