Movie sheds light on orphan train history

It was 2000 when I first heard about the orphan trains. I was working as a stringer for The Quad City Times and was assigned a piece on the Delmar Depot and a Maquoketa man who landed in the area after riding an orphan train from the east.

He was quiet and kind, showing great patience with my nervous, cub reporter-self. Inviting me into his home, I sat with him and his adult daughter while he shared his experience.

wilton orphan depotIt wasn’t a happy one. I remember he swallowed back tears telling me of the pain he felt being given away. He talked of being taken in, not as a son, but as a farm hand, and how the other kids at the farm would make fun of his eastern accent, specifically for how he said the word “horse” as “haws.” He said it was hard coming on an orphan train because, as he put it, he wasn’t wanted.

Not to wax saccharine, but in spite of this man’s sad start in life, I remember looking at his daughter and thinking of the love he eventually found in marriage and creating his own family. Surely it doesn’t replace the early love lost, but it must’ve filled at least a little of the empty space. My inexperience cost me. I didn’t ask the question, and he’s since died, taking his story with him.

Oddly enough, what Wisconsin author Clark Kidder wrote in “Emily’s Story” about his own grandmother’s coming from New York to Iowa on an orphan train echoed a similar experience.

First being taken in by the Pelham family of rural DeWitt, Clark noted it wasn’t a good environment for Emily. She was then taken in by a LeClaire family. Again, more pain awaited her. In fact Emily was never formally adopted, rather she grew up in Wisconsin, staying with families that gave her shelter in exchange for housework and childcare.

As with the Maquoketa gentleman, Emily’s joy did not take flight, it seemed, until a friendship with Earl Kidder sparked into romance and a family of her own grew up around her.

Since that mid-90s newspaper assignment the story of the orphan trains remained a part of me. Maybe it’s the regular drives through Delmar and past Maria Casad’s shadowy mural of train passengers, or maybe it’s the unsettling disbelief that such things took place for 50+ years from 1854 to 1930.

Given today’s standards for adoption, it’s surreal to imagine loading trains with orphans and indigent children, and sending them blindly into an unknown. Obviously organizers hoped they would find new, loving families, but there were no guarantees.

As the children were paraded across stages like that of DeWitt’s Operahouse Theatre, reciting a poem or a psalm, they could be taken into the home of a predator just as easily as that of a caring family, eager to give shelter and love.

I still question why I never learned about it in school, as if it was some ugly mark kept hidden, forgotten in a corner of our history. I marvel at how few people are aware of this period. While the movement was sparked out of concern and love for those children, as with so many altruistic efforts, pure intentions are easily sullied by the harmful actions of a few.

Monday the history of this orphan train experiment will come to the big screen in DeWitt with the premiere of the film “West By Orphan Train.”

Through an odd twist of events, Clark reached out to one of my dearest college friends, Colleen Bradford Krantz whose 2010 documentary “Train to Nowhere” on illegal immigration, sparked her book of the same name.

Clark pitched the idea of doing a documentary on the orphan trains, using his grandmother’s story as the framework. Colleen agreed and pulled in Iowa Public Television to partner on the project.

In planning the film schedule, Colleen realized how close my daughter, Moira, was in age to Emily when she rode an orphan train to Malone Station east of DeWitt. With Moira portraying Clark’s grandmother, additional children were needed to portray other orphans and Maclane happened to fit one of the costumes, serving as an extra for filming at the depots in West Liberty and Wilton.

Even though witnessing movie magic was an enjoyable experience, it remained a sad look at our nation’s past. Watching Moira wander, alone, along Anne Soenksen’s property near the original Malone Station; seeing Maclane sit on a suitcase and stare across the West Liberty railroad tracks . . . my mind continued to turn over the sadness experienced by so many young ones.

Reading “Emily’s Story,” I gaped at the strength necessary to withstand rejection at such a fundamental level, in many cases by your own family and then by adoptive families taking you in solely for your ability to work.

Seeing mine and the other children in period dress left me emotional. Their little bodies. Their long, sad faces. It was hard NOT to imagine the fear Emily and thousands of others must’ve felt as their trains chugged toward the next stop . . . being marched across a stage, holding their backs straight, chins up, hoping to be chosen by a nice family.

I know not every story was one of sadness. In spite of her tough start, “Emily’s Story” is a beautiful telling of one girl’s willingness to persevere. In fact, after my book club read it, a single word, “spitfire” continually sprang to mind whenever I thought of Emily. She simply never gave up. And thanks to her grandson’s book and Colleen’s film, her story and that of other orphan train riders are preserved for the ages.

Monday, consider joining Clark, Colleen and the Friends of Frances as we host the premiere of “West By Orphan Train” at The Operahouse Theatre. This free event begins at 6 p.m. with Clark signing copies of “Emily’s Story.” The movie will show at 7 p.m. and a question-and-answer period with Colleen and Clark will conclude the event.

*Unfortunately I was unable to locate a copy of my orphan train piece in the early 2000s and did not want to risk misidentifying the name of the Maquoketa gentleman I interviewed. My deepest apologies for the omission.

Originally published 25 October 2014 in The Observer.