Orphan Train

Homeless children from the East Coast were loaded on railcars like this one, and transported to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest as part of a supervised welfare program called Orphan Train.

Orphan Train was a name attached to train loads of children that agencies delivered from New York City to other parts of the United States and territories between the years of 1854 and 1929.

Children, called “street urchins,” were abandoned in large cities, such as New York City and Boston.

The Eastern large cities were flooded with immigrants and not enough jobs were available. The Midwest suffered from a severe shortage of laborers. Sad as it was, the orphans helped to solve some of the Midwest’s labor problem.

Capt. Mathews of the Children’s Aid Society of New York City rounded up 12 boys from the slums in the Manhattan metropolis, placed them on a train and brought them to be placed in Sheldon homes. On the second trip, 15 boys were delivered. These boys were orphans or abandoned children he picked up which Sheldon farmers could adopt or become their foster parents. The children arrived in the spring of the year when the farmers would be planting their crops and could use their help. Farmers were happy to put these boys to work on the farms and the farmers were begging for more boys to help.

The orphans were outfitted with new clothes and shoes with the hope that someone would be enticed to adopt them or give them a home and food.

Boys and girls were transported to Sanborn and Sheldon. Some of those adopted were abused or exploited. Many became slaves. Some had to cook and clean for the whole family. Some became babysitters for young children in a family. Others were required to work from dawn to dusk. Quite often brothers and sisters were separated and lost contact with each other. Some were deprived of enough food to eat. More than likely these orphans would be separated for life from their family members. Not all the orphans were lucky to end up in happy and loving homes.

Anne Baudler, a Sheldon kindergarten/first-grade teacher, said that “Cap” Ewers raised George Schee like one of his own children. “Cap” was an early homesteader and a Civil War veteran. George grew up to become a prominent and successful business man in Primghar. He gave flags to all the county schools. He donated substantially to charities. Anne said he gave $500 to each of the prizewinning school students. When “Cap” Ewers and his wife were in their old age, George took care of them like a son would.

Matt Schultz, a retired postal employee, remembered that Mrs. M. Virgil adopted a boy by the name of Henry Wiese and called him “Heinie.” When Heinie grew up, Harley Cobb hired him to work in the Golden Rule Store that Cobb owned. This store was located west of the store that is the Evie’s Hallmark downtown today.

Heinie was a member of Company E of National Guard. In 1916, he went with Company E to Brownsville, TX, to help protect against the border raids by Pancho Villa, a Mexican revolutionist. The next year World War I began. In Richard Bauer’s book, “Spirit of the Guard,” Henry J. Wiese is listed as a corporal in Company E.

After the war, Heinie came back to Sheldon, the only home he knew. George Marsh hired him to work in his pool hall located in the H.C. Lane building. Heinie was well-liked and had many friends. He married George Marsh’s daughter.

Heinie never knew his biological parents nor any of his relatives. One day he received word from an uncle in Davenport, who had traced Heinie’s name through Army records. Heinie’s uncle was a well-to-do businessman and offered him a job. Heinie, with his wife, moved to Davenport to work for this uncle. Heinie and his wife came back to Sheldon to visit his wife’s father occasionally.

George and Heinie were two of the lucky orphans that came to Sheldon on an Orphan Train. Perhaps some of these children would have starved to death if they had not been members of the Orphan Trains, so it could have been a blessing that they came to the Midwest.

Millie Vos is the secretary/treasurer of the Sheldon Historical Society and the museum director and a board member of the Sheldon Prairie Museum, 319 10th St. This is part of a series of historical articles about Sheldon. Members of the Sheldon Historical Society receive a yearly newsletter with articles like this. To join the society, call her at 712-324-3235 or stop by the museum.