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December 27, 2008 permalink
A century ago there was no birth control, and lower public health meant a larger parental mortality. This created a problem of homeless children of enormous proportion compared to today's tiny complement of orphans. Yet, as we repeatedly point out in these columns, the voluntary organizations of the day did a better job of handling their problems than todays bloated bureaucracies.
For over half a century, orphan children from the eastern United States were shipped west on orphan trains, stopping along the way hoping to find farmers who needed extra hands. The last train traveled circa 1929, sources differ on the exact date. A Denver television station has found one of the last survivors of the orphan trains, Stanley Cornell.
Mr Cornell was not separated from his parents by force of arms, he was not diagnosed with any disorders, he was not turned into a zombie on psychotropic drugs. When he got to his hard-scrabble adoptive home, he was offered nothing but hard work. Yet in spite of all the treatment that today would be considered abusive, he relates his adoption as a positive experience. Children coming out of today's foster homes often have nothing positive to say about them.
Colo. man one of the last few who rode the Orphan Train
posted by: Jeffrey Wolf December 27, 2008
PUEBLO - For about 75 years starting in the mid-1800s, more than 200,000 homeless abandoned children in the eastern U.S. were put onto trains headed west. The hope was someone would give them new homes.
Stanley Cornell, who now lives in Pueblo, is just one of a few surviving riders of what was known as the "Orphan Train."
"My first feeing was standing by my mom's bedside when she was dying. She died of tuberculosis," said Cornell, remembering back to 1925. "I remember her crying, holding my hand, saying to 'be good to Daddy.' "
Cornell says he was probably around 4 when his mother died in Elmira, New York. His father was wounded in World War I so he had problems keeping steady work. Eventually, he contacted the Children's Aid Society who came to take away Cornell and his younger brother.
They were taken to an orphanage in New York where Cornell says he remembers being separated by chicken wire fences and being beaten with whips.
To cope with the enormous orphan problem in the city, the Children's Aid Society of New York started to move the children out on trains, hoping to place them with families.
It's believed to be the beginning of foster care in America.
"We'd pull into a train station, stand outside the coaches dressed in our best clothes. People would inspect us like cattle farmers. And if they didn't choose you, you'd get back on the train and do it all over again at the next stop," said Cornell.
Cornell and his brother were "placed out" twice with their aunts in Pennsylvania and Coffeyville, Kansas. Those didn't last and they were returned to the Children's Aid Society.
Next, Cornell was on a train full of 150 children headed to Wellington, Texas. Each time a train was sent, adoption ads were put in newspapers.
J.L. Deger, a 45-year-old farmer, was there in Wellington. He already had two daughters, ages 10 and 13, but wanted a boy too.
"He'd just bought a Model T. Mr. Deger looked those boys over. We were the last boys holding hands in a blizzard, December 10, 1926," Cornell said.
He says that day he and his brother stood in a hotel lobby.
"He asked us if we wanted to move out to farm with chickens, pigs and a room all to your own. He only wanted to take one of us, decided to take both of us," Cornell said.
Work was hard on the farm, but Cornell had finally found a home.
"I did have to work and I expected it, because they fed me, clothed me, loved me. We had a good home. I'm very grateful. Always have been, always will be," he said.
Cornell came to know Deger as Dad.
Cornell eventually got married and he and his wife, Earleen, adopted two boys, Dana and Dennis, when each was just four weeks old.
"I knew what it was like to grow up without parents," Cornell said. "We were married seven years and couldn't have kids, so I asked my wife, 'how about adoption?' She'd heard my story before and said, 'OK.' "
After they adopted their two boys, his wife gave birth to a girl.
Dana Cornell says he doesn't need to find his birth parents because of how he feels about his adoptive parents.
"They are my parents and that's the way it's gonna be," said Dana Cornell.
Stanley and Earleen Cornell have been married 61 years. She is a minister at a church in Pueblo, and is the cook at her son's restaurant, Dana's Lil' Kitchen.
Stanley Cornell believes he is one of only 15 surviving Orphan Train children. His brother, Victor Cornell, a retired movie theater chain owner, is also alive and living in Moscow, Idaho.
Source: KUSA-TV Denver