Thursday, April 10, 2014

Orphan Train Rider One Boy's True Story

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Orphan Train Rider:  One Boy's True Story

By:  Andrea Warren

"More than 200,000 children rode "orphan trains" in this country between 1854-1930." 

Andrea Warren has created a book that not only tells us about Lee Nailling, an orphan train rider, but also about the children of this time period and the "placing out" program started by "a minister named Charles Loring Brace."

Charles Loring Brace "had worked in the slums of New York City and was very worried about the homeless children."  In 1853, he started the Children's Aid Society.  "Brace asked wealthy people to help support the Society.  He also wrote articles and gave speeches for pay.  He used all the money he raised to start programs to "help the children help themselves."

Lee Nailling was born Alton Lou Clement and he was one of those children.  When he was just 7 years old his mother died giving birth to his youngest brother.  He was one of seven children and after a few months his father said he could not care for them.  He gave the two youngest of Lee's brothers to different family friends, sent Lee and his brother Leo to an orphanage, and sent the oldest three of his siblings to fend for themselves in the world.  

Lee said in the book that " we went from being part of a close family to feeling like outcasts.  Nobody visited us.  We were just two more homeless kids in a country that already had too many."

Warren goes back and forth between telling Nailling's story to giving us information and the background not only behind the Orphan Trains but the vast amount of orphan's in the big cities during the late 1800's.  She also tells us how children during this time period lived.  Stating that "children as young as five or six often labored long hours in factories to earn a few pennies a day.  Others sold matches, shined shoes, peddled newspapers, picked coal, or ran errands -- anything to make a little money.  Children barely old enough to walk begged in the streets."  Because she goes back and forth she really helps us to not only understand Nailling but what it was like for children and orphans.

Lee describes life in the orphanages and how bad it was for him and his brother and how he would fight a lot and lost all trust in adults.  He paints a picture that it was not much better living in their than it was on the streets.  He also talks about how he defended his brother and thought about running away but he stayed because his brother was too young to go with him.  In 1926, two years after life in the orphanage, he and his brother were told they were going to ride a train.  Lee said he "remembers clearly what happened when he, Leo, and ten other children from the orphanage went to the train station to get on the orphan train."

He said everyone got new clothes, he never had new clothes before, and they "wondered if they were going to meet the governor or something."  They had no idea what was going on.  He felt excited for the train until suddently his father showed up with one of his younger brothers that was three, Gerald.  He said he was going with them and he gave Lee a pink envelop with his address on it to write him when they got their new home.  Lee felt some hope now the lady on the train told him that "this was an opportunity for him" and he was "very lucky to be on it."  Lee did not believe her and hated her after she took his pink envelope and told him to "forget about it."  He describes this as a "bitter moment for him."

The trains would stop at different places along the way out west and the children were lined up and observed, questioned by those that had signed up to receive a new child.  Warren who did research on the subject according to her bibliography in the back also had several other Orphan Train Riders who told their story during this part.  They told about parents that treated them badly, like a servant, abused them, and made them do hard labor.  This was not what Charles Brace had in mind and sometimes children lived with several families before finding one they could stay with.  He also believed that "it was best for children to
break with the past and start a new life, so once a child left on a train, neither parent nor child knew how to find each other."  The book does say that most placements were successful though and the program grew.

Finding the new children a home sounded very harsh.  Warren even states that it was like buying cattle.  Children lined up and poked and questioned.  She said that "one rider later compared it to picking out puppies at the dog pound."

When the train that Lee Nailling was on stopped in Texas, him and his brothers finally found homes.  His youngest brother Gerald was taken first and cried once he knew what was going on.  Leo was picked next, and asked if his brother, Lee could go with him.  The couple had not planned on having two but decided to take them both.  Lee, however, unable to forget his experience at the orphanage, had a hard time connecting to the couple.  He was picked up by the train matron the next day and taken to a new family.  That one would not work out either.

Finally he was taken to the Naillings house.  They had no other children and treated him like the child they always wanted.  He eventually grew to love them and found his home.  They even got together with the other couples that took his brothers and let them spend time together.

"A 1910 Children's Aid Society report said that 87 percent of the orphan train riders had "done well."  Lee was one of those success stories.  I would be interested in hearing other stories that might not have been success'.  There are a few snippets of riders with pieces of their stories but nothing more.  I would be curious to read other riders stories.  This book does tend to make the Orphan Trains out to be great with Naillings story and this comment but it also tells some truths such as how the children were looked over, how some did not get great homes, and some children were just taken from their parents without ever seeing them again or knowing where they were.  These are only few little pieces in the whole book and mostly it paints a picture that this was the best life for all of these children.  I wonder if this is true.....

Warren tells us that there were many important people that developed out of orphan train riders.  She also discuss how the program stopped due to laws and welfare being developed.
Lee Nailling had a family of his own and when he was 67 found his brothers that did not ride the orphan train.  Four of his siblings were still alive and they all got together to catch up on the last 60 years.

This was a very enlightening book on something that I had no idea about before reading it.  It is very interesting to hear not only Nallings story but also about the Orphan Train itself.  Warren definitely completed her research and has a long list of references in the back.  I think this made me feel very confident in her book and the facts behind it.  I also think making it more than a biography and including this research make it a great book to include in the classroom to get a good picture of how children lived during the early 1900's.  She also includes real photographs of Nailling and other Orphan Train Riders.  Those photographs along with along with copies of fliers announcing the Orphan Trains coming and advertising the children gives us an authentic look at how the Orphan Trains were ran.

This is a very easy read and I believe could be easily used in an upper elementary classroom and in a high school classroom to discuss this time period.  Used with other books and historical fiction novels about the subject you could really get a good picture of what it was like for the Orphan Train Riders.  I know my interest is peaked and I hope to find more books about them myself.

Read more about The Orphan Train Riders 

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