Rushford’s Ardis Wilcox has ties to the Orphan Train

Ardis Wilcox spoke of her mother-in-law’s experience on the Orphan Train, which carried orphan children to states in the West/Midwest between 1854 and 1927.
By : 
Scott Bestul
Tri-County Record

From the mid-1800’s through the early 20th century, millions of children joined their parents as they emigrated from the Eastern seaboard to settle in the Midwest and West. But thousands of other children traveled West in an entirely different mode of transportation; trains packed with homeless, and parent-less children. These “Orphan Trains” were the topic of discussion at this month’s meeting of the Rushford Area Historical Society. 

“Orphan Trains were started by several charitable foundations in the East, led by Charles Loring Brace, who were concerned for the welfare of thousands of homeless children and orphans,” said Anne Spartz, RAHS president. Spartz noted that populations of eastern cities, especially New York City, swelled with new immigrants. “Many of the adults worked at very low-paying jobs and couldn’t support the children they had, and the streets were often full of basically homeless kids. The intention of these Orphan Trains was to send kids to Western and Midwestern states like Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas, where they would hopefully find new homes with good families and enjoy a better life.

“Some estimates place the number of orphans adopted from these trains as high as 250,000, between 1854 through 1927. Towns along the train route were sent advanced notice that the train would be stopping there, so people would show up to examine the children and possibly adopt one.” Spartz said that, because of the largely rural/farm economy, boys were usually selected first as they could help with the endless chores that needed to be done on a farm. At stops along the route, orphans were displayed on a stage or public gathering place, where potential adoptees would feel the young men for the muscle needed to do farm work. 

Attending Monday’s meeting was Rushford’s Ardis Wilcox, whose mother-in-law was adopted from just such a train. Wilcox spoke to Historical Society members about her memories of Angelique (Ann) Wilde, who rode an Orphan Train with her two sisters. “Ann was born in Naples, Italy, to an Italian family named DelVecchio,” Wilcox recalled. “The family, which included two other sisters, emigrated to the U.S., and lived in New York City. When the girls were still children, their mother died. Ann’s father didn’t feel like he could work and give proper care to his daughters, so he took them to a Children’s Aid Society home in Buffalo, New York, when Ann was about 10 years old. Though her father said he would be back for the girls, they were placed on an Orphan Train. He would later return, but by then the girls were gone.”

The DelVecchio girls were finally adopted when their train stopped in Iowa. “By the time they arrived in Iowa, there were hardly any boys left,” Wilcox said. “Ann was adopted by a family, and her two sisters were chosen by others in the town. Ann was very tiny – I think she was only five feet tall – and she told me she was very bow-legged from rickets, because she had almost no milk to drink as a child.”

Since their adoptive families lived in or near the same town, the girls went to the same school and saw each other at church on Sundays. But their circumstances were very different, Wilcox said. “Ann’s sisters were Philomena and Marie, and one of them was adopted by a wealthy family and she had a good life. Ann’s [adoptive] family was poor, and they eventually had to give her up and she was adopted by another family. Still, when Ann was married as a young woman, her first family did buy her a wedding dress.”

While there’s no telling what her world might have been had she not been adopted, Ann endured her share of trials in her new life in the Midwest. “By the time she was 34, she had {buried] two husbands and three children,” Wilcox said, noting that disease and sickness took a terrible toll on Americans of that era. Still, Ann would go on to find happiness, eventually marrying the man that would be Wilcox’s father-in-law. 

Spartz, who has been fascinated by the Orphan Train history, brought five books on the topic to the meeting and has been to the National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kans. “It’s not a big museum, but it’s just full of information,” Spartz said. 

As of 2007, there were only 200 living orphans who had been on the Orphan Train.

For more information on the Orphan Train era, Spartz said there is at least one book at the Rushford Public Library, and others can be obtained from online vendors.