I was on the ORPHAN TRAIN
Plain Truth Magazine
April 1984
Volume: Vol 49, No.4
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I was on the ORPHAN TRAIN

A crisis grows over the "adoption triangle" — the adopted, their biological parents, their new families. We asked vibrant 87-year-old Henrietta Wiens to tell about her life as an orphan, in the hope it may help other adopted persons.

   AT THE TURN of the century "orphan trains" were running from New York City to the American heartland.
   During a span of about 50 years, 100,000 children were placed on farms and in villages in the Midwest. I was one of that 100,000.
   Immigrant families were arriving from Europe, seeking a better life. The Homestead Act of 1862 brought many to the land of opportunity. But opportunity often stopped knocking in New York City when immigrants found themselves running out of funds with which to continue their journeys. There was desertion, poverty and sometimes death.
   The orphanages were soon extremely overcrowded. The Children's Aid Society was formed and with it the idea was born of finding homes for these children in the American Midwest, homes where they hopefully would be loved, given an education and the opportunity to grow up into responsible, useful citizens. The Children's Aid Society, in cooperation with the railroads, began moving the children west. Advertising had preceded these orphan trains. Word had spread far and wide. I was on a train that left New York City in June of 1902.

I Journey West

   Excitement ran high that morning. Although I was only 5 years old, I sensed this was far from a normal day at the orphanage. I was bewildered as the man in the white coat pushed up my sleeve and stuck a sharp instrument into my arm.
   That hurt!
   Years later I was to learn I had been vaccinated against smallpox.
   Next, my curls were being cut off! What was happening to me? The girls were all dressed alike. All the boys wore similar shirts and trousers. We were each given a small piece of luggage, which we had to carry. Though I was very frightened by what was happening to me, I had learned in the orphanage to do as I was told. I did not ask questions.
   We left the large white house with its white picket fence. It was the only home I had ever known. We soon arrived at the train station. Twenty-five of us boys and girls were placed on the train. After a long wait, we began to move.
   The older children were to look after the younger, and I, age 5, quickly attached myself like a leech to a tall, gangly freckle-faced boy of 14. I was sure he would help me.
   It was not long before I became train-sick and vomited all over him. Each coach had an attendant and much to his disgust, the boy was told to clean up the mess. But I sensed his sympathy for me. He was always kind and always took my hand when necessary. After many long, tiresome days we reached our destination — the small town of Exeter, Nebraska.
   We were taken to the town hall and lined up on a platform. The train was to remain in the area several days while prospective adoptive parents took one or more children home with them. If all went well, the child would be able to stay with the new parents. If not, the children were taken to another town.
   We children were, I learned later, to be given at least an eighth grade education and were not to be mistreated. Many had come to see us simply out of curiosity. Some were looking for free labor. Yet there were those who genuinely wanted to give a needy child a loving home.

Selected Out of the Crowd

   In the throng of people were an older couple in their early 60s. They had never had a child of their own and the yearning was still deep inside them. Their hearts went out to me — small, sick and frightened. The doctor told them I would be all right as soon as I was removed from the train. Permission was given for them to take me home. Thrilled, the couple walked home with me between them. As we approached their home a large friendly great dane barked his welcome and jumped all over me. I screamed in terror. I had not seen a dog before! There were also pigs, chickens and a beautiful driving horse on their small acreage. They had been successful farmers, but had recently retired and moved into town.
   Supper was a big meal. I was accustomed to tapioca and milk. But bedtime brought the biggest surprise of all that night. I was accustomed to all the other children around me, and now I was to sleep in my own room in a huge bed all by myself. I cried. And cried. Finally, to comfort me, my new parents put a pallet on the floor by their bed and then I could sleep.
   The days sped by and it was time for the train to leave. My prospective adoptive parents wanted to keep me! Strong criticism from others couldn't deter them. They wanted to love me, so as soon as possible I was legally adopted.

A New Life

   My "papa," as I called him, bought me my first bag of candy, and, learning of my love for bananas, would often bring one or two home, just for me. I adored him and was on my way to being thoroughly spoiled.
   My adoptive mother's approach was "if you spare the rod you will spoil the child," and so my scoldings and spankings were from her. I seemed to need a lot! Mother was determined to make a "lady" out of this little girl, and I didn't make it an easy job for her. I managed to get into a great deal of mischief, and I was forever tearing the beautiful dresses she made for me.
   My years with both of my adoptive parents were to be few. My papa had a history of bronchial asthma and had been sickly all his life. He died two years later, in 1904, when I was 7. My adoptive mother struggled on alone, still trying to make a lady out of me. Many, many times in trying to get me to behave, she threatened to send me back to the orphanage. Financially we were secure and my papa had set up a trust fund for my education.
   After completing high school, I went on to college. It was in college that I began to be seriously concerned about my roots. Why was I an orphan? What was my true heritage?
   After graduating from college and teaching for three years, I married.
   My husband became successful in the farm implement business. We had two sons, and when the first boy was born I asked my husband, "Is he normal?" "Of course he's normal," my husband replied. "Why wouldn't he be?" I had not told him how worried I was concerning my heritage.
   As the years went by, the desire to know my past grew. My husband had to go east on business, and he suggested we stay in New York City and visit the Children's Aid Society to see what we could learn. As we entered the office I was shocked to find a copy of my high school picture on the wall!
   The gentleman explained that it had been obtained from my adoptive mother by one of the inspectors who made yearly trips to check on us children. My husband and I explained the purpose of our visit.
   A gentleman asked, "Why do you want to do this? Haven't you been happy with your life? We have heard so many fine things about you. You have had a far better life than most. Why risk possible heartache? If you insist, you may find facts that will deeply hurt you."
   Nevertheless we insisted and began the search. We finally found what we were looking for. We learned my name, my birth date, my place of birth and that my father had died in Germany. The manager said, "We get so many inquiries, but my advice to you is to forget it." Discouraged, we left.
   While waiting for our plane I suddenly decided to see if there were any names such as mine in the New York telephone directory. Hastily I scribbled down the 12 names I found.

The Answer Comes

   It was sometime later that I decided to write to these 12 people. I really did not expect an answer. I was sure no one would want to get involved, so I kept my search a secret. I received nine replies, but no one could help me.
   One day another letter came and I slipped away to read it. There were only a few lines, but oh, the message it brought! "I think I can help you. In fact, I'm sure I'm the only one who can, but you must tell me who you are."
   I had written in the third person to conceal my identity. I was so encouraged I could hardly hide my emotions. Still, I kept my secret. Cautious and afraid of blackmail, I continued to conceal my identity in my reply.
   The author of these letters was willing to prove his honesty. I wrote to the orphanage asking them to investigate this person, as they had said they would do that much for me if I pursued my search on my own. The orphanage replied: "By all means reveal your identity."
   I had found my mother's cousin!
   At last I was going to learn how I came to be an orphan, what my full heritage was. My cousin wrote that in 1897 my mother, at age 19, with her l-year-old baby, had emigrated from Germany. Her husband recently had died and she felt unwanted by her own large and overburdened family. My mother's sister had written encouraging her to come to New York City, telling my mother we could live with her and her family.
   My mother's sister promised to take care of me while my mother worked. There was work for everyone in America — the land of opportunity. And so Mother booked passage on a steamship, and we arrived in New York to begin a new life.
   My mother soon found employment as a maid for a German-speaking family. All went well for a few months, but tragedy struck again. My aunt unexpectedly died of pneumonia. My mother had been struggling to learn English, yet progress was slow, and in her new and difficult situation she had no one to whom to turn for advice.
   She decided to take me with her to work, but her employer told her she would have to make other arrangements for me or find employment elsewhere. Before my mother could do so, her employer informed my mother she had found a children's nursery for working mothers where she could leave me and be able to visit me on Sunday afternoons. The fee was to be taken out of her small wages. Heavyhearted, my mother made the trip to the nursery with her employer. I was not yet 2 years old at this time.
   More heartache was just around the corner. My mother was kept so busy that it was many weeks later before she had time to come for a visit. When she arrived, I was gone! Because the fees for my care had not been paid, I had been sent to an orphanage. They couldn't (or wouldn't) tell my mother where I was.
   Heartbroken, my mother wrote a cousin in Germany pleading with him to come and help her find me. He had lived in New York and hopefully together they would be able to find me. My mother immediately quit her job and found other employment.
   When her cousin arrived they searched everywhere but to no avail. My mother stayed in America, eventually to remarry and have two sons, but never forgetting me, hoping one day to see me again.

We Finally Meet

   As soon as my cousin realized he'd found me he went to see my real mother. He showed her our correspondence. It was a terrible shock, but soon she was calm enough to hear the story. My mother's prayers had been answered.
   I was now 33 years old and had two sons of my own, ages 10 and 5. My mother immediately invited us to New York for a two-week visit. Our meeting was joyous.
   We returned to Nebraska with a promise from my mother she would come and meet my adoptive mother. Over the remaining years of my mother's life we kept in touch by correspondence and visits. But to me, my adoptive mother was, understandably, my "real" mother, for even though my real mother loved me, it was my adoptive mother who gave me the love and care more than 80 years ago when I needed it most.

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Plain Truth MagazineApril 1984Vol 49, No.4