Dowagiac’s Orphan Train: Michiana’s role in founding foster care

DOWAGIAC, Mich. -- You may not have known this, but Dowagiac “is the birthplace of something that changed 250,000 people’s lives and 4 million descendants’ lives.”

It’s a history lesson of epic proportions that was brought to life right here in Michiana.

If you don’t know what the “Orphan Train” is, you’re not alone. But the city of Dowagiac has spent the last year and a half working to bring its story back to life.

The mural

“This is a unique story about something that happened specifically in Dowagiac,” said Ruth Andrews, as she sat atop a set of scaffolding positioned next to a massive mural.

Since June 1st, Andrews has called a large concrete wall on Pennsylvania Street in Dowagiac her office.

“These little holes in the wall drive you crazy sometimes,” she said, as she painted under the September sun.

Stroke by stroke, the lifelong painter and Cass County resident of 20 years has gradually been putting together a tribute she first drew up in April 2016.

“It was the bare minimum to present to someone to convince them to trust me enough to let me have this wall in this town,” Andrews said, laughing.

She enlisted the help of the Dowagiac Area History Museum, which is curated by Steve Arseneau.

“It sometimes is a bit of a forgotten story,” Arseneau said. “And it’s one of those pieces where Dowagiac fits into a national narrative. And so this was something that could appeal to a national audience and bring people to Dowagiac.”

The two applied for a grant to tell the story of the Orphan Train – and they got it.

Before long, Andrews’ canvas went from paper to concrete.

“In May, the wall got cleaned with a rotating head,” she said. “And then we put putty in all the divots. And then we put a marine sealant over the entire wall. And then we primed the whole wall. Then we gritted the whole wall, taped my patterned pieces in place, pounded the patterns, drew in crayon over the charcoal lines – we did all that before we started painting June 1.”

These were the first steps taken to engrave the story of the Orphan Train literally into downtown Dowagiac.

Andrews called for volunteers to help her throughout the summer.

Drop by drop, the mural took shape.

The Orphan Train

“I’m always on the verge of tears at this point today, thinking about them and how proud they would be of your community and of the special attention that you’re showing to them,” said Shaley George. “And I hope people realize how impactful that is and how many family members are going to be thankful for that.”

George is the curator of the National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas.

She was in Dowagiac in late September to deliver the keynote speech about the history of the train to a crowd of more than 100.

“This first train led to thousands of trains,” George told the audience. “It led to the founding of foster care. And it leads to 4 million descendants having different lives than they would have.”

The first Orphan Train pulled up to Dowagiac’s original train depot in the early morning hours of October 1, 1854.

At the time, Dowagiac was only 5-years-old.

Inside the train were 45 orphaned children, between the ages of 7 and 15, who came from New York City in search of a brighter future.

Philanthropist Charles Loring Brace had recently founded the Children’s Aid Society, which had a goal of caring for the growing number of kids left homeless and abandoned in New York because of overpopulation, poverty, and disease.

He wanted to get the kids out of the city and into the country, where new families could adopt them.

Dowagiac became stop number one because a family Brace knew in Connecticut happened to have relatives in Cass County.

“There were a lot of Olmstead’s and one was a reverend in the Cassopolis area,” said Arseneau, the curator of Dowagiac’s history museum. “And that is likely the connection. That Olmstead probably moved here from Connecticut and was friends with Brace. And that’s probably why we’re selected as the first stop; and Dowagiac being the nearest train station.”

Over the next 75 years, 250,000 children rode Orphan Trains to Dowagiac and communities all over the country for a new beginning.

“The Orphan Train changed everything,” George said. “[It] changed how we cared for kids; changed how we fought for them and fought for a life for them, to treat them like children. And so, think about how childhood is so different from 1854. This is the footprint that made it different. This town affects, like I said, 250,000 Orphan Train riders, but 4 million descendants. It changed the narrative in America and it changes it now.”

The descendants

And in Dowagiac on September 23 of this year, some of those 4 million descendants were in the audience for George’s presentation.

Bonnie Schmidtendorff and her best friend Bobbie Labar have grown up together in Cassopolis.

Schmidtendorff’s father and his three brothers rode the Orphan Train to Dowagiac in 1928.

“They lost their mother, she died,” Schmidtendorff said. “And their dad remarried and the stepmother didn’t want them, so they were put on an Orphan Train.”

And Labar’s great-grandfather rode the train.

The two said George’s presentation was more than they ever expected.

“I came here to seek more information cause, actually, I will be the last descendant – I have no children, so it ends with me,” Labar said. “So, as I got older, I decided maybe I want to just look back and see what was what.”

Wayne Falda’s grandmother took an Orphan Train to South Bend in 1896.

“She had a little tag saying that she was Agnus McGuire and she was born on March 20, 1894,” he said.

Falda added, “She was met there at Union Station by this Polish couple and overnight she went from totally Irish to totally Polish.”

The Edwardsburg resident not only came to see George speak. He was one of the dozens of volunteers who joined Andrews to paint the mural throughout the summer.

A little girl wearing a hat and waving in the mural is Falda’s grandmother.

He and his wife painted her and say the mural represents a lot.

“[It represents] her rebirth,” Falda said. “She passed away in 1979. And this was another way of honoring her.”

The mural tells the story of the Orphan Train in four sections: the rough beginnings in New York; the preparation (inspired by local students who modeled for Andrews); the journey itself; and the happy ending.

“So, it will be interesting to see if anybody actually recognizes that I’ve painted myself into the mural,” Andrews said, as she put the finishing touches on the mural. “I am not going to say anything,” she joked.

After a year and a half of planning – and 163 years in the making – the story of the Orphan Train will now be on full display in its first footprint, Dowagiac.

“It’s a wonderful story that I’m so grateful I got a chance to tell,” Andrews said.

The first group of kids that came to Dowagiac in 1854 had to take two boats and two trains over several days from New York to get here.

At the event on September 23, the Dowagiac Area History Museum was presented with a list of names of almost every rider that was on that original train.

The mural, which is right outside the Dowagiac Post Office, is complete and ready to be seen.

There is a dedication ceremony scheduled for Saturday, October 14 at 1 p.m.

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