By Susan Bromley
Brandon Twp.- All aboard for a trip back in time.
“The Orphan Train in Michigan” will be presented by father and son research historians and television producers Al Eicher and David Eicher from 7-8 p.m., June 21, at the library, 304 South St.
Between 1854 and 1927, about 12,500 “orphans” from large east coast cities, primarily New York and Boston, were placed in Michigan, brought via trains through efforts by the New York Children’s Aid Society. Michigan receives special recognition in this piece of American history with the town of Dowagiac being the first stop in minister Charles Loring Brace’s plan to find homes for children who, through a variety of circumstances, were without families to care for them.
“Why did he pick Dowagiac?” asked Al Eicher. “Because when you are a preacher or in school to be one, you have fellow classmates who are going to be preachers and Congress was promoting the northwest territory. Michigan was a relatively new state…Brace had preacher friends and one in Dowagiac, and he let him know, I have some children.”
Eicher, who along with his son became intrigued by the orphan trains while researching the history of Oxford, said many of the children who rode the trains had been picked up off the street, having lost both parents to illnesses such as diptheria, typhoid or influenza or by accidents, but some children were not orphans and were given up by parents who couldn’t support them, having lost a spouse or fallen on hard times through other means. Single parents would sometimes also meet a new partner to marry who didn’t want the children, Eicher added.
When Brace saw these homeless city children, he made it his new mission to save them from a life of destitution, striking on the idea of placing them with rural families. At the midwest stops, children of all ages were often promoted as someone who could help on the farm or with housework. In exchange, families were expected to provide the child with food, shelter, clothing, and a “common” education.
Bulletins were posted in towns where the trains stopped, advertising that there would be a showing of children at a train depot or city hall or church. Children were often given away to parents who were allowed to take them home for a day to decide if they wanted to keep them. Some children were fortunate and truly accepted as one of the family, while others did not get a good deal, said Eicher, and many children ran away from their new homes.
In all, more than 200,000 children rode the orphan trains from that first stop in Michigan until the end of the line in 1929, with organized foster care systems taking over. Through the years, there were 43 towns in Michigan in which the trains stopped.
Only about 121 orphan train riders have been identified in the state of Michigan, out of 12,500.
“Most riders felt they were second class citizens and never wanted to talk about it because they would be identified as poor people,” said Eicher. “In the program, we will talk about what life was like before and after the Civil War… The orphan train was a good thing. Books have been written negatively about Brace, because not everyone got a good deal, but he was trying to help them. Where else could you put the children? It’s a fascinating piece of history.”
For more information or to register for this free program sponsored by the library and the Ortonville Community Historical Society, call 248-627-1461 or visit www.brandonlibrary.org