TRAINS LOADED WITH ORPHANS

A 1910 Victorian dollhouse is on display at the Heritage Village in Seguin. It belonged to five-year-old Alice O’Brien who arrived in Texas on an orphan train from New York City. She lived only nine months with her new family before the mother died and German immigrants

Dietz Doll House

Dietz and his sister, Miss Mollie, asked the parish priest to allow them to raise Alice in their home. Louis Dietz, a local cabinetmaker, immediately built the ornate child-size playhouse complete with a handmade wardrobe and dresser for Alice and her new playmates.

Alice grew up in the Dietz home and her little house eventually became the property of the Seguin Conservation Society where it is displayed as a reminder of approximately 200,000 unwanted, abandoned, neglected, and orphaned children from the slums of New York City who were shipped to small towns and farms in forty-seven states between 1854 and 1929.

Destination sites of orphans.

The program began when Charles Loring Brace, a Congregationalist minister from Hartford, Connecticut, moved in 1848 to New York to study theology and was horrified to discover thousands of vagrant children on the streets—begging, selling flowers, boot blacking, stealing, joining gangs, and prostituting themselves to survive.  Civil authorities, overcome by the shear numbers, treated the children like criminals placing them in adult prisons and almshouses. Brace believed the children were not criminals, but victims of terrible financial and social conditions.

Although poverty had always existed, the economic recession in the mid-nineteenth century, the onset of the industrial revolution that resulted in many job losses, and the arrival of European immigrant families without the skills to find work, created intolerable big city slums. Many of the children were orphans, some were on the street to help support their families, and others were abandoned because parents could no longer care for them.

In March 1853, Brace organized the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) with plans to give the children religious, vocational, and academic instructions. His group soon established the Newsboys’ Lodging House, the nation’s first runaway shelter where boys found inexpensive room, board, and some education. Brace and his organization tried to find jobs and homes for the children, but they were soon overwhelmed with more children than they could handle and not enough money to expand their services. That’s when Brace hit on the idea of sending groups of children to small towns and farms. His plan called for families to raise the children as their own—feeding, clothing, educating, and giving each child $100 upon his or her twenty-first birthday. Brace and his colleagues believed that offering the children as “helpers” on the farms and in the homes would be an incentive for families to open their doors.

The first trainload of forty-five children arrived in Dowagiac, Michigan, at three in the morning on October 1, 1854. They waited on the station platform until dawn and then moved to a meetinghouse that served that Sunday as the Presbyterian church.  Notices placed in the newspapers and posted at the general store, a tavern, and at the railroad station, advised residents that homeless children would be available for them to take and rear as their own. The plan called for each family to be recommended by their local pastor, a doctor, or

Newspaper Ad for Orphan Train Children

another worthy public servant. However, beginning with the first trip, children were handed out along the route simply because the society’s agent accompanying the group believed the prospective “parent” looked worthy.

After the crowd examined the children—some actually felt their muscles or looked into their mouths—the selections began the next morning. By the following Friday, eight children—mostly those too young to work—had not been selected. They were placed on another train for Chicago, where the society’s agent left them and headed back to New York. The group continued another day and a half to Iowa City where a pastor who ran an orphanage tried to place the children with local families.

Although the plan called for representatives of the CAS to check on the welfare of the children, most of the letters of inquiry were ignored and the fate of the children remained in the hands of the families who took them. Some thrived in their new surroundings. For instance, on August 2, 1859, twenty-seven children left New York on a weeklong train ride bound for Indiana. Two boys about ten years old sat next to each other —John Green Brady, who later claimed he had been rescued off the streets of New York by Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., father of the future president and Andrew H. Burke.  Brady became a Presbyterian minister, moved to Alaska and served as governor of the territory from 1897 to 1906. Burke became a drummer boy during the Civil War, finished his education, and moved to North Dakota where he served as governor from 1891 to 1892. A listing in 1917 of “Noteworthy Careers” of CAS children named 180 who served in impressive positions such as U.S. congressmen, clergymen, bankers, physicians, and teachers.

Critics of the program, which was copied by up to 100 private “child welfare” charities in the large eastern cities, say that these groups actually “bound out” children into indentured servitude to western states. Many of the children told stories of being

Dressed to meet prospective “parents.”

taken by farm families who had lost their slaves after the Civil War and saw an opportunity to acquire a free labor force. Some of the farmers sent the children to other farmers or tried to send them back to New York, complaining that the children were awkward and did not know the first thing about farm work. Many of the children ran away from their new homes.

Galveston became the end of the train line for many of the children who were taken in by the Island City Protestant Orphans Home that had moved into a grand Gothic Revival building.

1895 home of Island City Protestant Orphans Home

During the 1900 storm that killed over 6,000 people, the orphans survived huddled in the massive, crumbling building. After two years in Dallas, the children returned to a rebuilt facility, which continued to operate until 1984.

Crumbled remains of Orphans home where all survived.

Today, the old Galveston Orphans Home has been reborn as the Bryan Museum, a renowned collection of Southwest art and artifacts. The building restoration uncovered a few toys on the children’s ground floor play area and names carved on the wall of a hideaway under the stairs.

Children’s hideaway under the stairs. Display at Bryan Museum.

Although some children continued to be “placed out,” the last official shipment of orphans left New York headed to Sulphur Springs, Texas, on May 31, 1929.

Stephen O’Connor’s Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed offers a detailed account of the program.

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Home for Unwed Mothers

In a plan to redeem prostitutes and “combat the social evil of fallen women” in 1894, the Rev. J. T. Upchurch and his wife Maggie Mae organized the Berachah Rescue Society in Waco. One newspaper account claims he was “driven away [from Waco] by angry fellow Methodist church members who opposed his missionary work with prostitutes.” Regardless of the reason, the Upchurches moved in 1903 to the Dallas slums to continue their mission.

Portrait photograph of Rev. J.T. Upchurch and his wife, founders of the Berachah Rescue Work library.uta.edu

Portrait photograph of Rev. J.T. Upchurch and his wife, founders of the Berachah Rescue Work library.uta.edu

Sometime in 1903 Mrs. Upchurch’s father donated twenty-seven acres in Arlington between Dallas and Fort Worth, and the Upchurches opened the Berachah Industrial Home for homeless, often pregnant girls, from all over Texas and the surrounding states.

Although Upchurch held conservative theological views, his ideas for social reform were liberal for the time. His home, unlike others for unwed mothers, required that children remain with their natural parent and that the mothers learn to care for themselves and their children. He believed that there were no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.

Upchurch published The Purity Journal for financial contributors who were primarily Dallas-Fort Worth businessmen. In the journal articles Upchurch wrote of the evils of brothels, saloons, and social corruption. His stories about the slums and the shelter included accounts of redemption and salvation. He also described the work being done at the home and detailed individual case histories. The residents worked in the home’s handkerchief factory, operated the press for the Purity Journal, and maintained the large gardens and orchards. Upchurch required all residents and staff to attend worship services on the premises and to refrain from using the phone on Sundays, eating pork, or consuming coffee, tea, or tobacco.

At the height of the operation in 1928, the home added an additional forty acres and expanded to at least ten buildings including a hospital/clinic, nursery, dormitory and dining room, handkerchief factory, school, auditorium, and barn. The home closed briefly in 1935 and Upchurch’s daughter and son-in-law Allie Mae and Reverend Frank Wiese reopened the facility as an orphanage that served until 1942.

Today the property is on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington, and the only physical reminder of the history of the site is the cemetery opened in 1904 that contains over eighty graves of unwed mothers, stillborn babies, children who died in measles epidemics, and employees and their children.

Berachah Home and Cemetery marker, Arlington, TX

Berachah Home and Cemetery marker, Arlington, TX

Going to the Poor House in Texas

The dream of finding a new life, the belief that if a man worked hard, he could “make it,” drove settlers by the thousands to the cheap land in Texas. If illness, death of the breadwinner, drought or crop failure forced a family into poverty, they and their neighbors believed that the need to accept public assistance was a form of moral failure.

During the Civil War, churches and charities that had always helped the indigent, could not keep up with the level of poverty after the men left for service in the Confederacy. When the men returned, they found four years of neglect, the cattle sold or stolen, fields grown up in weeds, and houses crumbling for lack of money or labor for repair. In an attempt to address the mounting problems of the destitute—young, old, mentally ill, and sick—an addendum was added to Texas’ 1869 constitution assigning to the counties the responsibility for providing a Manual Labor Poor House to care for the indigent and those who had committed petty crimes. Notice that lawbreakers were to be included in the poor houses—a clear indication of the disdain that coupled the impoverished with the criminal element of the community.

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) conducted a survey in 1987 and discovered that at least sixty-five of the 254 counties in Texas opened a poor farm. While very few of the farms kept records of the names, number or type of indigents housed in the facilities, Anderson County listed “indigent blind person, “indigent widow,” and “pauper” among its poor farm residents in 1887. The superintendent was allowed $6.50 per month to provide food and clothing for the paupers and twenty cents per day to feed the convicts and farm hands. The county paid for clothing, medicine and doctor visits for the tenants, but stipulated that funds would not be paid for babies nursing their own mother.

Debbie Cottrell’s research for her article in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1989-April 1990 reveals that most of the farms closed with the introduction of federal assistance programs during the Great Depression. Cottrell writes that three counties—Anderson, Parker, and Cass—left more records than most other counties. Anderson County, which opened its farm near Palestine in 1884, built a potato barn, a superintendent’s home, housing for indigents, and a jail. It operated until the 1940s. Parker County began housing indigent families south of Weatherford in barracks-style houses about 1889; by the 1930s the residents were mostly elderly.

1914 Photo Cass County Poor Farm Right, pauper's and their home, Left is superintendent's family and house with inmates attached dining room.

1914 Photo Cass County Poor Farm Right, pauper’s and their home, Left is superintendent’s family and house with inmates attached dining room.

Cass County’s farm outside Linden opened in 1895 and replaced the earlier system of paying from $3 to $8 per month to individuals on the pauper list. Jean Howe Stow writes in Frontier Times that in Cass County to be eligible for residency in the poor farm a person could not “own more than $10 in worldly goods. . . had to appear before the commissioner’s court and take a pauper’s oath. . . declaring to the county judge and commissioners, ‘I am a pauper.’” Stow adds that “in addition to furnishing all the necessities of life for the paupers, the commissioners supplied them with the necessities of death . . . payment of $8 for a coffin and a payment of $2 for the digging of a grave.”

El Paso’s second poor farm was located in 1915 near the property of John O’Shea, a wealthy farmer and businessman, who took over operation of the poor farm. His wife Agnes O’Shea, was in charge of the residents, and in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression,

Rio Vista Farm Historic District
Texas Heritage
Trails Program

John died. Renamed Rio Vista Farm, it housed the temporary base for a Civilian Conservation Corps, and it sheltered hundreds of homeless adults and children. It served from 1951 to 1964 as the reception and processing center for the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican laborers to work in the agricultural regions of the United States. Rio Vista accepted neglected and abandoned children in addition to indigent adults.

Edna Gladney, an early champion of children’s rights and better living conditions, moved with her husband to Sherman, and while on a campaign with the Sherman Civic League to inspect local meat markets and public restrooms, they discovered the deplorable conditions at the Grayson County Poor Farm. After writing a scathing article in the local paper about the poor farm being little more than a dumping ground for the poor, insane, handicapped, and children, she arranged for the Civic League to have a meeting with the Commissioners Court and the owners of the poor farm. She enlisted the aid of Civic League to clean and whitewash the facility. Then, she arranged to have the children transferred to the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society in Fort Worth.

Kaufman County, whose last residents left the farm in the 1970s, has been preserving some of the structures on the remaining twenty-seven acres of the original facility with the intention of making it a heritage tourism destination and educational resource. The farm, which was opened in 1881, housed the local

One of the original buildings on the Kaufman County Poor Farm.One of the original buildings on the Kaufman County Poor Farm. 

paupers who were expected to support themselves by working on the farm until they were financially able to leave or until they died. During the 1900 outbreak of smallpox, the poor farm served as the Epidemic Camp. A burial site on the property has been in use since the 1871 typhoid fever epidemic and continues to be the location for the burial of transients, inmates who die in jail, and persons who have been quarantined.

The Texas Historical Commission is working with counties throughout the state to locate and document the operation of Texas poor farms—a legacy that has been forgotten.

Early-Day Home for Unwed Mothers

In a plan to redeem prostitutes and “combat the social evil of fallen women” in 1894, the Rev. J. T. Upchurch and his wife Maggie Mae organized the Berachah Rescue Society in Waco.  One newspaper account claims he was “driven away [from Waco] by angry fellow Methodist church members who opposed his missionary work with prostitutes.”  Regardless of the reason, the Upchurches moved in 1903 to the Dallas slums to continue their “mission.”

Sometime in 1903 Mrs. Upchurch’s father donated twenty-seven acres in Arlington between Dallas and Fort Worth and the Upchurches opened the Berachah Industrial Home for homeless, often pregnant, girls from all over Texas and the surrounding states.

Although Upchurch held conservative theological views, his ideas for social reform were liberal for the time.  His home, unlike others for unwed mothers, required that children remain with their natural parent and that the mothers learn to care for themselves and their children.  He believed that there were no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.

Upchurch published The Purity Journal for financial contributors who were primarily Dallas-Fort Worth businessmen.  In the journal articles Upchurch wrote of the evils of brothels, saloons, and social corruption.  His stories about the slums and shelters included accounts of redemption and salvation.  He also described the work being done at the home and detailed individual case histories.  The residents worked in the home’s handkerchief factory, operated the press for the Purity Journal, and maintained the large gardens and orchards.  Upchurch required all residents and staff to attend worship services on the premises and to refrain from using the phone on Sundays, eating pork, or consuming coffee, tea, or tobacco.

At the height of the operation in 1928, the home added an additional forty acres and expanded to at least ten buildings including a hospital/clinic, nursery, dormitory and dining room, handkerchief factory, school, auditorium, and barn.  The home closed briefly in 1935 and Upchurch’s daughter and son-in-law Allie Mae and Reverend Frank Wiese reopened the facility as an orphanage that served until 1942.

Today the property is on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington and the only physical reminder of the history of the site is the cemetery opened in 1904 that contains over eighty graves of unwed mothers, stillborn babies, children who died in measles epidemics, and employees and their children.