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Orphan Train Rider Speaks

December 2, 2014 permalink

Mary Law rode an orphan train in the 1928 and was adopted in Iowa at age three. Mary has noting but praise for the family that adopted her. Unlike many of today's adoptees, the identity of her birth mother and siblings was never concealed from her.



Muscatine woman recalls journey on orphan train

MUSCATINE, Iowa — In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of children were sent on trains from the east coast to the Midwest to be placed with rural families.

These children — typically 14 years old or younger — were orphans, partial orphans, children who had been given up by their families, children who had been "recruited" or children who had been taken away from homes declared unfit. The trains they traveled on came to be called "Orphan Trains."

Mary Law of Muscatine was one of those children.

The idea of sending children west originated at the New York Children's Aid Society, where Mary was sent west from.

Mary's story is on the forefront of her and her family's minds since she and her children — Janet Tumey, Jeff Law, Joyce Lawrence and Joanne McKee — recently connected with author Clark Kidder.

Kidder wrote "Emily's Story: The Brave Journey of an Orphan Train Rider," which is the story of his grandmother's experience. The connection is special to them, as is the upcoming documentary about Orphan Train riders, which will air on Iowa Public Television at 7 tonight, Dec. 1.

Born as Rosemarie Roat in Geneva, New York, in June of 1925, she was rechristened Mary Lou Eichmeier by the couple — Frank and Anna Eichmeier — who adopted her almost three years later.

"My mother evidently had a friend with that name, Mary Lou," Mary explained.

Mary was only two years old when she rode the orphan train with her older brothers Frank, who acted as her caretaker on the train; Harry, and Charles in April of 1928. She was adopted by the Eichmeiers, along with Charles, in Kearney, Nebraska.

Their brothers Frank and Harry were never adopted, although they did end up with families whose names they then assumed. Frank had some trouble being placed with a family, running away from one or two before finding the family he would stay with.

"A lot of boys were adopted to be farm hands," Mary said, explaining that some families viewed the children as a labor source rather than an addition to the family. Fortunately for Mary and Charles, the Eichmeiers were not such a couple.

"They were wonderful parents," she said. "I couldn't have asked for anything better."

"My dad was a wonderful person," she added. "He was so kind. He used to take hold of my hand and we'd do a lot of walking, we'd do a lot of things together. And my mother, she was very good — she was the boss of the house — but she was a good person."

Even after they moved the family away to Muscatine, where Anna grew up, Mary and her family kept in touch with Frank's and Harry's families as well, spending time together during vacations, Mary's daughter Janet recalled, although the families weren't always in such close contact over the years. However, Mary went to both Frank's and Harry's funerals and said she considered her relationships with them to be close.

"They were nice. I loved them," she said. "It was nice that we kept in touch."

In a trip she made to the New York Children's Aid Society with her late husband Emery, Mary learned that the Society still had records of her, although what she discovered was sometimes conflicting.

Some documentation about how Mary came to be sent west on a train indicates that her biological mother gave her up, while other documentation shows that Mary was taken from her biological mother, Janet explained.

Mary also received a picture of her biological mother, which Janet remembered Mary had for a time refused to even look at.

"'That’s not my mother, [Mary said]. 'That’s the woman that gave birth to me. That’s not my mother,'" Janet recalled hearing Mary say.

Mary knew from a young age that she was adopted.

"[Being adopted] didn't bother me because [Frank and Anna] were good parents," Mary said. "I had lots of love. I guess that's what it takes. So I never had any bad feelings."

Kidder's book is available at

Source: Muscatine Journal