By Clark Kidder
During our formative years there are a handful of very special people who inevitably have a tremendous impact on us. For me, two such people were my paternal grandparents, Earl and Emily Kidder. So many children never really get to know their grandparents, but I had the good fortune of having mine reside with us on our 175-acre farm in Milton Township, Rock County, Wisconsin.
I wasn’t much more than 5 years old when I decided I wanted to sleep in my grandparents’ apartment. The two apartments were attached and shared two common doors, much like a duplex. I would spend most of the next eighteen years of my life with them, sharing meals, listening to their wonderful stories of yesteryear, and soaking up every bit of love they could spare. Grandma Emily would often shoo me over to my parents’ side of the house, telling me that I needed to spend more time with them. I could never understand why she had been so emphatic about it. My answer would be found many years later.
In 1981, at age 18, I followed a suggestion made by my aunt, Mildred (Kidder) Yahnke, that I should begin researching our family tree. I decided to do just that and began interviewing my paternal grandparents and other family members. By then, Grandpa Earl was 88 and Grandma Emily was 89. The stories they told about our ancestors fascinated me, but I was particularly interested in the story of how they met and what their young lives were like.
Grandma told me that she was an orphan and was placed in an orphanage in Brooklyn, New York when she was about 8 years old. She told me her parents died of pneumonia and that her brother Richard was also placed in the same orphanage and was later adopted “by a rich family.” She recalled how a minister by the last name of Clarke brought her to the Midwest on a train under the auspices of the Children’s Aid Society of New York City.
It was not until several years after my grandparents passed away that I read about an organization called The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, which gathered and disseminated information on Orphan Train riders. It occurred to me that my grandmother, Emily, may have been one of the children who was sent west on what they were now calling Orphan Trains.
I later learned that a woman in my hometown of Milton had several volumes of journals and scrapbooks kept by a minister named Herman D. Clarke. She mentioned to my aunt Mildred that Mildred’s mother (my grandmother) Emily’s name was in the journals. My aunt informed me of this and I made a call to the lady that had the journals. As it turned out, Reverend Clarke was the minister that my grandmother often referred to as having brought her out on the train from New York, for in his journals was a wedding picture of my grandparents and a history of grandma’s trip on the orphan train. The woman who had them was the widow of Reverend Clarke’s grandson.
I contacted the Children’s Aid Society in New York and they confirmed that they were still in possession of a file on my grandmother – that she was indeed one of an estimated 250,000 children sent west on orphan trains. What followed was a journey of discovery.
Reading the reports that Reverend Clarke sent to the Society regarding my grandmother was difficult at times, but also very interesting. I found it hard to comprehend in this day and age with all the bureaucracy and red tape involved when one wants to adopt a child or become a foster parent, that there was a time in America’s not so distant past that groups of children were offered to anyone that happened to express an interest in them. Many orphan train riders described the process as not unlike going to pick out a puppy. With just two weeks’ notice, the citizenry of an entire town and its surrounding countryside was invited to come and take their pick out of a group of homeless children.
Reverend Clarke placed over 1,200 children in homes from the orphan trains. The stories he recorded in his journals about their trials and triumphs were absolutely incredible. I came to realize that the plight of children then was not so different than what it is today; there are still many thousands of children around the world that are in need of a real home, the tender touch of someone who loves them, and the sense of place that comes from that. Many people still feel that it is preferable to bring a child up in a home in the country versus one in the city, but as Reverend Clarke so aptly points out in his journals, no matter what the setting, the main ingredient in bringing a child up properly is love.
The majority of the stories of the individual orphan train riders are nearly forgotten now in the attic of American history. In an effort to rescue my grandmother’s story from such a fate, I wrote a book titled Emily’s Story; The Brave Journey of an Orphan Train Rider. It was the culmination of nearly a decade of research. The book reveals the unspoken chapters in my grandmother’s incredible life – a story of triumph over personal tragedy and seemingly insurmountable odds. The book has now inspired a television documentary titled “West by Orphan Train.” Please return to this site as we build it and invite others to share their own stories. Do you have one?
– This entry includes excerpts from Emily’s Story; The Brave Journey of an Orphan Train Rider