Families of Orphan Train riders keep history alive
Jane Clements has a myriad of photos and information she’s gleaned about her father, Orphan Train rider Robert J. Hunt.
She recalls memories of him as a “wonderful” parent; and considering his upbringing, Jane calls it nothing short of a miracle.
“My dad was adopted by a couple with the last name of Hume who had a son that died, and he would have been the age of my dad. That was the reason they wanted a child; however, it would have been much better had they never taken him and he could have gone to a better home. It’s a miracle my dad turned out to be a nice man.”
Robert Hunt was born in 1900 in Greenwich Village, New York City. In 1901, his family gave his sisters Margaret and Sadie away to the Five Point House of Industry in New York City, but the family kept Robert for a period of time.
The Five Point House of Industry orphan home was established in 1851 by Rev. Lewis Pease, who conducted its affairs for nearly three years without public aid. It was located in what was then the “most depraved and wretched portion of the city.”
In 1904, a few months after Robert was also taken to the Five Point House of Industry, Robert and sisters Margaret and Sadie were moved to the Children’s Aid Society. Soon after, they were put on the Orphan Train.
“My aunt said they fed them raspberry jelly sandwiches on the train. She also talked about coming halfway from New York and some of the kids got head lice, so they had to stop the train and cut hair and other things to get rid of head lice.
“There were 17 kids brought to Sidney, Iowa. They were given away at the front of the Methodist Church in Sidney. The church had just been built and paid for at that time, and the same church is still here.”
ROBERT WAS 4-years-old, Sadie was around six and Margaret close to 11 years of age when they arrived in Iowa.
Sadie was chosen by Mrs. Melissa Hutchinson. The couple had three boys and she wanted a girl.
“They raised Sadie and gave her a lot of advantages,” Jane said of her aunt. “The day she was taken, Aunt Sadie said Mrs. Hutchinson gave her a little bracelet and a bag of candy when they went to go home. Before they got to Anderson, Iowa, just a little north of Sidney, she said, ‘I’ll give you back the bracelet and the candy if you give me back my sister’.”
Mrs. Hutchinson proceeded to tell Sadie she was not taking her sister away from her and that she would get to see her. However, the words didn’t satisfy Sadie’s longing for her sister and she didn’t eat well for several weeks. The Hutchinsons finally took her to see Margaret and Robert, who were temporarily staying with their great-grandparents. The three childen were able to stay in contact as they grew up.
Sadie was never adopted by the Hutchinsons. She eventually married and was a telegrapher and had her own telegraphy office in Shenandoah. “She sent out the telegram about the gold standard that (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt put out and sent to the banks. That was one of the things she was most proud of in her career,” Jane said.
Sadie went on to work in an orphanage in Council Bluffs, and had an apple orchard in Tabor. “It meant so much to her because she remembered fresh apples being brought into the home in New York City. They would each get one apple and Aunt Sadie and her friend would take one bite out of an apple a day and save it for the next day.”
MARGARET LIVED IN a number of homes, a fact Jane discovered during a casual conversation with a stranger.
“After Jim and I were married and lived in Leon, Iowa, I was visiting with a woman across the street from his aunt and uncle’s home. She didn’t know me and asked me about my background and family, and I commented my dad had come on the Orphan Train.”
The woman told Jane she knew a girl that came on the Orphan Train. When Jane inquired as to what her name was, the lady replied “Margaret Hunt.”
“I told her that’s my aunt; but that couldn’t be, she was never over here.”
After the woman described Margaret, Jane knew it was her aunt. “The woman said the meanest family you could imagine took her. Finally they came and removed her. I told my dad about this and he said Margaret was never at that place.
“In later years in talking to my aunt, she didn’t admit it. So I talked to her daughter, and she said her mother wasn’t there. They got to talking to her and Aunt Margaret admitted she was taken to this place. They were so mean to her she’d blotted it out.”
Margaret was moved to three other homes around Clarinda and Shenandoah before she settled in with a family in Afton, Iowa; however, like her sister, she was never adopted.
Margaret later married and moved to California. After raising her family, she went back to school and taught until she was past 80 years old.
ROBERT WAS CHOSEN by the Hume family.
“My dad probably had the worst life of all three of the kids because of the couple that raised him. The father was an alcoholic, plus the drug of choice at that time was opium and they put him in an institution for that at one time. The mother also began to drink, plus she was a mean personality woman anyway. She used to tell my dad on a regular basis ‘you’re just an adopted brat’.”
Jane obtained the census records and discovered more about the Hunt family, “which really thrilled my aunts,” she said. “That’s the first time Aunt Sadie ever knew she lived with her parents in her own home. When she saw that, she said ‘we were a family at one time’.”
At the time Jane’s dad was given away, his father was out of work for a lengthy period of time. The census revealed he was a driver.
Jane also learned members of the Hunt family were very musical and entertained on the weekends in New York City.
“My dad hated the accordion and I don’t like it either. I found out his father played an accordion. Perhaps they found out they were given away by a man that played an accordion … I don’t know.”
Despite not being able to finish the 8th grade, Robert became a self-educated man and very well read. He went on to do carpentry and concrete work and farmed.
“If there was anything to do he could do it,” Jane said with a daughter’s proud smile. “He was a blacksmith, and I spent my life between one and five in his blacksmith shop with him. I have wonderful memories of that time. We weren’t rich in money, but we were rich in other things.”
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