By Jasmine Willis
WAYLAND — Imagine being taken across the ocean to some strange land, and spending all of your hard-earned money on an impossible dream of survival. Now imagine having that dream shattered when your own children are thrown to the streets.
It may sound like a headline from today’s newspapers, but this is what started the Orphan Train Movement in 1855.
Rev. Charles Loring Brace founded the Orphan Train Movement in hopes of finding homes for the immigrant children left to starve on the streets of New York City. These children often came from German, Irish, and Italian heritage. This and their religion would often determine whether the child was adopted or not. Other things to consider in that time frame were good health, good teeth, strong backs, and nice appearance. There was a stigma around adoption in that time period, so it was not often praised to adopt a child.
Sandy Booth, Wayland Historical Society member, gave a presentation on July 21 on this tragic movement that so few know ever happened.
The main focus was on the local girls who were adopted from the Orphan Train in Wayland in 1900 and 1903. They were Mary Booker and Florence Katherine. Mary Booker was just three years old in 1903, and was adopted by George and Monkia Soeder. She would later marry John Recktenwald and have many children and grandchildren. Florence Katherine was an infant in 1900, and was adopted by Jacob and Barbara Hemmer. She would marry Herman Last Sr. and have many children and grandchildren.
Booth mentioned the history of the Orphan Train Movement, how it reached all the way to our towns, and the stories of these amazing women.
“Mary Booker was born in a New York City Asylum. Asylum at the time just meant orphanage. It didn’t have the same stigma it has today. Florence was also born in New York City,” she said. “I want to take you to the Orphan Train Movement in New York City back in 1855. Immigration from Europe and other countries was starting to become a big thing. Before 1855 we didn’t have Elise Island, so these people coming on ships ended up on the East Side of Manhattan.”
“The reason we had the Orphan Train Movement was because, these immigrants were coming in by the boat loads. At times parents died on the boats. Sometimes they were very sick when they got here. Unfortunately, children were left to live in the streets. People were destitute and couldn’t find jobs,” Booth continued. “The streets were becoming overrun with little orphan children. The movement started since people needed to do something about it. The Children’s Aid Society formed to take care of the problem. These children had to steal what they could to eat, and certainly weren’t getting any kind of education.”
Booth said when these immigrants came over to America they had lots of relatives they needed to reach, but due to the conditions it was impossible to do so. They wound up in places like Castle Garden and Elise Island. Castle Garden saw eight million immigrants in its time. Elise Island saw 15 million immigrants in its time until 1954. Elise Island was stricter, and if someone arrived penniless, they would be sent back to their country.
“Rev. Charles Loring Brace knew a lot of people and places in New York City. He wanted to do something about the children. He got a lot of church organizations to help him. They started the Children’s Aid Society. They started an Orphan Hospital. They had a colored hospital and orphanage. The Catholic Home Bureau is the one who sent Mary Booker to Wayland,” Booth said.
It was not ideal for the orphans in the fondling hospitals since there was abuse. There was abuse with the adopted parents as well, and in that case the bureau would try to find new homes for the children.
“The Catholic Home Bureau advertised in our area looking for homes for orphans. Mary Booker boarded the Orphan Train from that building to go to Wayland. There is an ad in the Bath newspaper in 1899 from the Children’s Aid Society. You can find them late 1800s until 1920s. If you wanted more information on the children you could contact the society,” Booth said.
Booth added that a couple of adults would accompany the children on the trains, and they would be given a new outfit to wear in hopes of being chosen. They would be told to behave and be lined up from oldest to youngest as they would be treated like cattle at an auction.
There were about 250,000 children adopted in 45 states and Canada during the Orphan Train Movement. The most being in New York State with 33,000 children. Even Native Americans adopted about 100 children. Nunda, Wayland, Dansville, Mount Morris, and others had Orphan Train children.
Booth shared some of Mary Booker-Soeder’s story with the community.
“The Soeder’s lived on Dieter Road where the transfer station wraps around the road. The Soeder Homestead is still standing across from the transfer station. It has been passed down in the family. Mary married John in 1918. Mary was adopted at age three. Monika and George were both German and had been married 13 years. They couldn’t have any children of their own, so they adopted Mary. George was born in Germany in 1865. George had an unfortunate death and drown in 1925. Monika was born in Germany in 1870, and lived until 1969,” Booth said.
Booth shared some of Florence Katherine Hemmer’s story with the community.
“Florence is our other girl. Florence was adopted by Jacob and Barbara Hemmer. The big Hemmer Farm is still there on the road between Wayland and Perkinsville. It is a big white house just up the road from the old Jehovah Witness house. She married Herman Last Sr, of Perkinsville. Both of these families went on and are still around today. Everything I found out about Florence through the family was that she loved the horses. She had a really good life in Wayland,” Booth said.
Many found the Orphan Train Movement and Orphan Train Girls of Wayland stories to be interesting. There was a full house at the Wayland Historical Society. Wayland Free Library has many books on this subject if anyone wants to know more.