ORPHAN TRAINS CARRIED MANY TO ETEXAS, INTO HISTORY
By: PATRICK BUTLER, Religion Editor
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series on America's
"orphan trains" that crisscrossed the country for 75 years and brought
more than 1,000 orphans to Texas.
Billy the Kid rode the orphan train. So did a couple of future governors, along with up to 250,000 other orphans from 1854 to 1929.
And so did Tyler resident George Lewis Webster who came to East Texas in 1918 and would stay the rest of his life, said his granddaughter Melissa Dickerson.
"He was a sweet father figure," said Ms. Dickerson on Oct. 23 after
listening to an "Orphan Train" presentation sponsored by the Texas
Humanities and Arts Council at the Lindale Library on Oct. 23. "He lost his brother who got put on another car and they couldn't find each other," she said. "He came to Tyler and when he was older, he worked for a dry cleaners on the corner, I think, where W.C. Supply is today. He drove a delivery truck and I'd ride along with him. He also worked at a gas station on Gentry (Parkway).
Webster died in 1983 and is buried in Tyler. Ms. Dickerson wept openly
during much of the singing and slide presentation at the library and
later said, "I never knew how hard it must have been for him; he was so little. It must have scared him awfully to come here and not know
anybody. It wasn't very easy for him, too, in the beginning. The first
man who took him in beat him with a belt. Eventually he ended up with a loving family."
Presenters Alison Moore and Phil Lancaster described the fears, hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of "street waifs," who lived on the streets of New York. Disease from exposure killed thousands, they said, and young street gangs often engaged in petty crimes or got into fights. "I'm so glad my grandfather didn't die in those mean streets," said Ms. Dickerson. "Thank God for those orphan trains, even though it was hard, or none of us would be here today."
Ms. Dickerson's comment illustrates the tension that still exists over
the largely unknown phenomenon of America's orphan trains, said Lancaster and Ms. Moore.
"The searing and heart-rending situations these kids found themselves in seem unbelievable today," said Ms. Moore. "Orphan trains seem cruel or heartless, but they were started because the alternative was even worse."
Kids on the streets were sometimes barely kids, Lancaster said.
"They smoked, drank, gambled and had total 'freedom,'" he said. "Like in the film 'Newsies' they sold papers, or were boot-blacks or couriers, or sold matches or stole to survive. They were tough. There were no juvenile prisons and kids were often locked up with adults. Some were even hung."
Methodist Minister Charles Loring Brace traded his pulpit for the purpose of saving the orphans, Lancaster said. Brace started the Children's Aid Society and his writings show his idea was to get kids into "the wholesome Christian environment of America's farm life" where "compassionate" people lived.
Lancaster said, "But lots of these kids were used to no restraints. They didn't like talking about God, so the society taught them how to read and write instead and got through to some of them that way."
And the trains started rolling in 1854.
"These trains, which were not whole trains but many times a chartered car or two attached to a train going somewhere, were one way the homeless child issue was addressed for 75 years," Lancaster said.
The presentation was not meant to a political comment in any way, shape or form, they both said.
"It's a chapter in American history that just captured my heart," said
Ms. Moore, a former assistant professor creative writing at the
University of Arizona. "If you want to draw a parallel for today, though, adoption and social agencies are still underfunded. There is still a problem with adoption today."
The evocative presentation drew awestruck disbelief from the gathering
event organizers estimated was attended by 70 people. "I've read history for 50 years," one man said. "How come I've never
heard of orphan trains?" Lancaster said it's been a common question in his seven years of presenting "Orphan Trains."
"It was common that orphans thought their train was the only one that
ever went out," he said. "Many had no idea of the long history behind it.
Kid's didn't want to be known as orphans who nobody wanted and had to be shipped out. Many were hurt or ashamed. They didn't talk about it much."
Ms. Dickerson agreed.
"My grandfather never talked about it," she said. "He was real quiet
about being an orphan."
Bob Roberts, 89, a woman who has lived in Lindale her entire life, said she remembered when the orphan train came to East Texas.
"There were two boys, Adolph Miller and Albert Bush, that I knew," she
said. "Lindale was small in those days. Everybody knew everybody, and
everyone knew about those two boys and the orphan train. They were part of our community, but no one talked about it much."
L. Lonnie Wentworth of Arlington was passing through when he saw a flyer for the event in a Lindale restaurant. He took a detour to the library.
"This was an awesome presentation," he said. "I grew up on a Nebraska
farm, where my family lived since 1883," he said. "My parents often
talked about the orphan trains that came near us. They knew orphan train kids, but I've never seen anything like this before. I had to come hear about it."
Wentworth took away a mental picture of God the Father to the fatherless in America.
"Seeing the photos of the actual children, made me think how hard it is for kids who don't have a commitment from their earthly father, to make a connection with their heavenly father, God Almighty," he said.
That reaction fits, said Ms. Moore.
"There is something about Americans that seems like they are always
searching for "home" she said. "Many of us are displaced and in exile
from heritage lines in the foreign countries we originated from, and
we're always moving. Now we see these orphans searching and finding each other, bonded by their common experience."
Orphan train reunions are held in several states, she said.
"Just Google "orphan trains" and you can find a reunion somewhere in the country," Ms. Moore said. "They're all over."
Patrick Butler covers religion. email: email@example.com