The Larsons had two sons other than Teddy. My new Papa was a big man with a moustache and a kind face. The Larsons were of the upper class in that area. They had a lady that came and washed the clothes on a wash board. Another lady made all of our clothes except for our underwear. Mrs. Larson (Mama) would make all of our underwear.
My new home was a big two story house with 10 rooms, but we didn’t have any electricity. The house was beautiful inside. I didn’t have a bedroom of my own; I slept on the couch in the front room on a feather mattress Mama would take out of her closet every night. After a few weeks, she said I could do it myself. The boys had bedrooms upstairs. Teddy and I were not permitted to use the bathroom. We had to use the outside toilet, and on Saturday we would drag a galvanized bathtub from the back porch and put it by the cook stove.
Mama didn’t like my New York accent at all. She wanted me to talk like they did, so I was slapped quite often in the mouth. Sometimes I would wonder what I had done wrong. I had only been there a few weeks when Teddy brought out a china doll to play with. He said it was his and I couldn’t play with it. Well one day I found it and took outside and broke it. I got my first whipping.
They rented out three of the bedrooms to salesmen. When I was six, Teddy and I started school. When we came home from school, we had to wash the dinner dishes from noon. Then we had to go upstairs and make the beds, dust mop the floors and clean the bathroom. We didn’t dare use the toilet, she said it took too much water. By the time we got through with that, it was time to set the table for supper. I always only had one helping put on my plate. Teddy and Charles always had milk to drink with their dinner, but she said I couldn’t have any.
They had two cows and a lot of milk, and Teddy and I would deliver it both morning and night. Charles (age 14) went with us a few times until we could do it on our own. Sometimes I went by myself, especially if it was cold. One morning on my way to school, it was so cold that the sidewalks were very icy, and I slipped and fell. One bucket of milk hit the sidewalk, the lid blew off, and half of the milk spilled out. Well, I got up, put the lid back on, and set it on the porch where it was supposed to go. The lady called my foster mother and wanted to know why she didn’t get a full quart of milk. When I went home at noon, my foster mother told me about it and wanted to know if I drank some of it. I told her what had happened, and she said I was lying. Then she got the rawhide whip and didn’t even care where she hit me.
Between the ages of six and eleven I got many whippings. I can truthfully say I never got enough to eat. When I would come home from school and go to the pantry to get a piece of bread and butter, she said I was stealing it, because I didn’t ask for it.
Once a year, Mr. McPhealy would come from the New York Foundling Home to see how I was getting along. I had to tell him fine. I would have to speak a piece for him, or poetry as it is called now. The name of it was "Looking on the Bright Side." Then I had to dance the Irish jig for him, and when I was through, I was excused. I would go outside and cry and wish he would take me back with him. I wanted to tell him the truth about how I was treated, but I couldn’t. Still, she would whip me if she thought I was lying. I often wondered why Papa Larson didn’t ever have anything to say about the way she treated me, but it seemed to me like she ruled the house.”
Mary Jane Baade
The 14-year old boy told his long widowed mother he wanted a little sister with "blue eyes and brown hair." One month later Frank Kemper had his baby sister. Mary Jane Baade, age 2 years, 2 months, came to Grand Island on the orphan train to meet her new family.
Of the nine traveling west that summer of 1912, Mary Jane was the "littlest one of the whole bunch," she says. She remembers bits of the journey. It was the first time she had ever been outside.
Placed in a New York orphanage when she was two weeks old she lived inside the walls of the Catholic institution for the first 26 months of her life. The nuns there stitched the children's clothing from old bed-sheets.
Mary Jane left the orphanage to travel thousands of miles to a new home. After the 2 1/2-day train journey, Mary Jane was anxious. The other children pushed her to the back as they scrambled outside at their final stop.
Agents who traveled west to arrange placements had selected the Kemper home for Mary Jane. Many of the orphan train children had to line up for inspection when they got off the trains. Farmers would check their teeth and overall health before choosing them.
"I was spoken for before I got to Nebraska. They didn't line me up," she says.
"When I got off the train, my brother was looking for me," she says. "There she is!," she heard Frank yell. And from that day forward she was, at last, part of a family.
Frank carried his little sister everywhere. "They were such wonderful times," she says. Indeed she was lucky. Mary Jane had been chosen.
Of the nine children sent to St. Libory, two asked to return to New York. One family "worked the sam hill out of their adopted boy," Mary Jane says.
Fortunately, the orphanage kept close tabs on the children it placed in homes. At that time, widows were allowed to adopt children. Once a year, each July, "they would visit, to check on us," she says.
"The sisters and Grandpa, who was really a priest, would always come to my house first. I'd sit on his lap, and he'd ask me where all the other children are living-as if he didn't know! He would always give me a dollar bill before leaving. That was big money.”
Frank and his mother, Adelaide, took the little girl home to St. Libory. The official town population was then 110 people. "But when I arrived, they changed it to 110 and a half," she says, smiling.
Scared in her new surroundings, Jane didn't say a word for two weeks. Soon her mother grew worried. Perhaps the little girl could not hear or speak. She resolved to take Mary Jane to the doctor the following week. That Sunday, Adelaide asked her son, "Do you have a clean handkerchief for church?"
"TAHASAKEE!" yelled little Mary Jane.
"What did you say?" asked her mother.
"TAHASAKEE!" she replied.
Her mother, relieved, corrected her, "Handkerchief, Mary." "And from that day on, I never, shut my mouth," Mary Jane says. In childhood, "I counted myself very happy."
"I had 14 curls, and Mother wouldn't let me cut my hair until I was 14," she says fondly.
Her mother and brother told her they always wanted a little girl to love. "My mother always made me promise not to search for my birth mother while she was still alive. I never did," says Mary Jane.
At 19, Mary Jane needed identification to get married. She sent to the orphanage for her papers. She received her original baptism certificate, which bypassed the orphanage.
"It was a big sour mistake - it should have come directly from the orphanage," she says. For the first time in her life, Mary Jane knew the town she was born, Waterbury, Connecticut, and the name of her mother, Mabel Collins.
When she told the others who had come from the orphanage, they were angry and jealous, asking, "Why can't we find out where we're from?" Mary couldn't answer that.
Six years later, Mary Jane was married with two young sons. As she was listening to the radio, a winner was announced in a "Why do you like Tide?" contest. The woman's name was Etta Collins from Waterbury, Connecticut. Mary Jane jotted down Collins' address. On a whim, she contacted her. "Are you one of my relatives?" Mary Jane wrote.
"No, but I know your relatives and the doctor who delivered you," Collins wrote back. Their correspondence might have ended there, but fate intervened.
Two years after that, Mary Jane was renting out the family basement to a GI's pregnant wife and child. One day, the renter, nicknamed "Slugger" for her large frame, approached Mary with the chance of a lifetime. "I need a companion to travel back East. My husband will pay for your ticket if you'll come with me," she said.
Mary Jane hesitated. "I had always wanted to go back to New York," she says. But she wasn't sure she could handle the emotional trip. Her husband settled the matter. "You're going," he said.
When she arrived in New York, she was thinking, "What am I doing in this ungodly big town all alone? I am so sorry I've come."
Mary Jane's radio friend, Etta Collins, insisted she stay at her home. Etta and her husband arranged for Mary Jane to meet the doctor who delivered her 37 years before. "I can only hurt myself now," she thought.
When she arrived for her 10 o'clock appointment, the doctor, "a big, fat man with bushy beautiful gray hair," greeted her. "What brought you here? After all these years, why would you stir up all this trouble?"
"'The doctor kept digging me about coming," she says. Finally she could take no more abuse. "Did you ever have a mother?" she asked the doctor. He smiled. She knew she had gotten through to him.
"The doctor gave me all the dope. He as much as told me Mabel Collins was my mother," she says.
Later that day, the doctor called to give Mary Jane the address of her half brother, Joseph. The Collinses drove her to his home, a huge mansion with a Cadillac parked out front. "All this beauty and they put me in an orphanage?" she remembers thinking.
Mary Jane gathered her courage. She walked to the door, picked up the door knocker, and let it fall loudly.
A woman in her fifties answered. "She looked at me. I looked at her," she says. Finally, the younger woman spoke. "Is Joseph home?" she asked. "No he's not. I'm here taking care of my grandchild. I'm Joseph's mother. May I help you?" the older woman asked.
Mary Jane knew then she was looking into the eyes of her mother. She froze. What could she say to the woman who had given her away nearly four decades earlier? Mary Jane turned to leave, but thought better of it.
"Yes, maybe you can help me," she said. The two women went inside to talk. Mary Jane got right to the point, "Does Joseph know he has a half sister'?" she asked.
"Oh no, Joseph never had a half sister," the woman replied. Mary Jane paused. "Yes he did, and I am that half sister," she said. The older woman began crying slowly and softly. Mary Jane began crying, too. But neither said anything.
Mary Jane kept thinking,"Why doesn't she tell me she's my mother?" It was a question Mary Jane would ask herself for 30 years. Mabel Collins never admitted Mary Jane was her daughter; she wouldn't admit she'd had an illegitimate child.
Before returning home to her family, Mary Jane called her mother. “I know who you are. Here is my address. Maybe someday you'll wish you had it."
She boarded the same train she had ridden as an orphan and "cried all the way home to Grand Island." When she got home, a letter from her mother was waiting. The two corresponded for 30 years until Mabel's death in 1978.
Today, at age 85, Mary Jane still gets emotional talking about the woman "who looked just like me, and "never admitted she was my mother."
Mary Jane has saved each of her 70 letters, now yellowed with age. The letters all begin "My dear Mary" and are full of newsy, everyday happenings. They are her only connection to the woman who refused to claim her. A few letters contain various claims and excuses why Mabel is not Mary Jane's mother; a few hint at the truth of their relationship. But never did Mabel write the words Mary Jane longed to see, "Mary Jane, I am your mother."
In August of 1986, I first came to realize that, perhaps, I was a survivor of the Orphan Train Program.
At that time, I was subscribing to the Smithsonian magazine, when I came across an eight page article written by Donald Dale Jackson.
Mr. Jackson wrote in detail about the 150,000 orphans who were shipped by rail from cities here in the east to foster homes in the mid-west. The article stated that Orphan Trains were operated from 1854 to 1929, by the Children's Aid Society, the New York Foundling Hospital, and other pioneering child welfare agencies here in the east. I became very interested in the article, and held on to it. I read the story many times, and each time I was so impressed and happy to learn that most of the orphan kids had been successful in life. One has to be orphaned to really appreciate how difficult it can be to achieve your dreams in life. In the Smithsonian article, it mentioned that most of the orphans did well in their adult life. In one survey, 87 percent of the children had been successful, and the divorce rate in marriage was very low. For example, two boys became Governors, while other alumni included a Supreme Court Justice, two Congressmen, 35 Lawyers and 19 Doctors. When I read this report, tears of joy came into my eyes.
In 1941, I visited the New York Foundling Hospital in New York City. At that time, I received a brief report about my sister and me being placed int he Foundling Hospital in April, 1923 by our mother, after our father had died in January, of that same year. She herself was very ill. I was 15 months old, and my sister was 4 years old. Mom had given our names as William and Margaret Nash, her maiden name. I remained under this name for the first 20 years of my life, and then learned my father's name had been Frank Oser. After I read the article in the Smithsonian, I decided I would visit the Foundling Hospital again, and try to obtain a more detailed report.
I went there in April of 1987, and learned that my sister and i had been on one of the Orphan Trains. I learned that on May 18, 1925, my sister and I left on a Orphan Train to the State of Michigan. Marge was 5 1/2 and recalls very little. The records at the foundling Hospital show that we were adopted by a Mr. and Mrs. Pallizzo who lived in Wayne County, Michigan. However, due to poor living conditions, and other unfortunate circumstances, our foster parents were unable to continue to care for us. Subsequently, on June 25, 1927 we were both returned to the New York Foundling Hospital. We remained there until Jun 8, 1928, at which time we were transferred to St. Dominic's Orphanage in B Blauvelt, Rockland County, N.Y. While in the orphanage, Marge and I were separated. At that time I was about 11 years old.
As a boy in St. Dominic's orphanage, I can remember lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling talking to my mother. I would ask her, "Why did you leave me? I miss you so much! Why hasn't anyone in our family come to visit us? I thank God for the good nuns, my sister and my friends here. Marge looks out after me every day. The winters are very cold here at Blauvelt. Marge will come over by the high metal fence that separates the boys from the girls tomorrow. She will make sure my jacket is all buttoned up and I'm wearing my knit hat and gloves. Sometimes, she is able to obtain an extra sandwich, and throws it over the fence. She makes me stand by the fence to eat the sandwich, Marge is afraid on of the older boys might take it from me. Mom, you should be very proud of her. Marge also helps the nuns to take care of the little babies in one of the dormitories."
I remained at St. Dominic's until he summer of 1938. I was then transferred to Mount Loretto, in order to complete my high school and learn one of the trades available. I chose electricity as my trade to learn at this orphanage. Mount Loretto was located on Staten Island, N.Y. and is till in operation.
I left the "Mount" as we use to call it when I was 18 years old, to live in New York City. I tried to survive by working at various jobs that did not pay more than $12.99 per week, but found it very difficult trying to make ends meet in the big city.
At eighteen, I was a very skinny young man with red hair, also an introvert, being shy did not help me in New York City. In those days it was hard for a young man attempting to go it alone, to say the least.
At times I would visit the Catholic Guardian Society on Madison Ave. in New York City for advice and counseling. The priest and the people who worked there were a great help to me.
Times were tough and since i was just about existing, I decided to take my chances and joining the C.C.C.'s (Civilian Conservation Corp.) as thousands of other young men did at that time. This program was sponsored by the U.S. Government. The work was all outdoors (which I enjoyed), and it consisted of helping to put out forest fires, planting and cutting down tress, and installing farm fences. In the C's a young man had three meals a day and a place to sleep. We wore green uniforms, made of material that was similar to the U.S. Army uniforms. Our pay was $30.00 per month, of which the Government took part out and deposited the money in the bank in a savings account. I personally thought the C's was a good program, most of the young men ended up in the armed forces when W.W. II broke out.
Just prior to my entering the C's my prayers were answered and I finally located my sister again. Marge was married and had a baby daughter named Barbara. (They were living on 119th Street and Lexington Ave. in New York City).
It was a great reunion. I will never forget that evening. My new brother-in-law, George, and I got along very good, right from the start.
At the time, I had already signed up for the C's, so there was no backing out now. After spending one year in the C's I had an opportunity to work for the old New York Central Railroad. I didn't hesitate to take advantage of the offer, especially after I learned my weekly salary would be approximately $30.00. World War II had started for the U.S. in 1941, and I joined the Army. In 1942, I returned to my job on the railroad. After working 42 years in the railroad industry, I retired on May 1, 1983. When I retired I was General Supervisor in the Mechanical Department for Amtrak Corp. at Grand Central Terminal, New York City.
Today, my present wife and I try to enjoy our retirement with our family and many friends. God has been good to us, in that we both have good health and a modest retirement pension to enjoy out twilight years. Life has not always been so good. For example, in 1971, my first wife passed away, and I was left with 3 sons to care for. The youngest was Billy, who was ten years old, John who was eighteen (he had just joined the Marines and was waiting to be called into service), and Larry who was twenty one and had just finished college in Kentucky. The years 1971 to 1976 were difficult ones, however, on August 1, 1976, I remarried a widow, named Anne, who had one daughter Lynn, who was twenty-six at the time and working as a nurse. The new family consisted of four grown children. They are all married today except for Billy. They have given us five beautiful grand-children, ages ten to seventeen. As I await my 70th birthday, I can thank God for keeping an eye on me. As I look back and think of the many low points in my life, I sometimes wonder how did I make it? Then I look up to the sky and say, thank you Lord!
Also, I guess we orphan kids are a special breed of individuals. As orphan we asked for just the basic things in life, along with someone to guide us, so when the time came to go out into the world we had a chance to survive and eventually make it. We asked for little, and when the hour approached to start the race through life, the record shows, there was no stopping us and no limits to our dreams of success.
Today, I still talk to my mother, usually at night when it is quiet and peaceful in the house. I still have a problem not sleeping sound and waking up early in the morning. Now, when I talk to Mom, if tears appear in my tired eyes, they are tears of joy and a fee ling of accomplishment, not of sorrow and despair.
Anna Miller Basset
Those were the days when Whitewright had seven grocers, two cotton gins, three drug stores, two banks and two train depots - the Katy and the Cotton Belt.
"When the train stopped in Whitewright, there were 21 little faces anxiously looking out the windows," said Anna Bassett of Whitewright.
For 75 years, approximately 150,000 orphaned, abandoned, homeless children and a few poor families were brought to the South and Midwest in hopes of finding a fresh start. This era from 1854 to 1929 was known as the Orphans Train Era.
In 1918 and again in 1920, an orphan train stopped in Whitewright, bringing children ready for adoption and eager for a new life.
"I think I was taken to the orphanage by a relative when I was three - I have never wanted to know more," said Mrs. Bassett, who has no brothers or sisters. "The orphanage I lived at was in New York City. I was well-treated. I remember a room with 25 or 30 little white, iron beds. We each had a locker. I stayed there a while and then moved upstairs to another room with half-beds for everyone," said Mrs. Bassett.
"The orphanage was sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, and we paid weekly visits to a beautiful cathedral with stain glass windows and pipe organ music," said Mrs. Bassett.
The last Christmas before leaving for Texas, we all hung stockings on the foot of our bed and waited for Santa. I got some fruit and a celluloid doll. That doll came on the orphan train with me," said Mrs. Bassett.
There were two sponsors, Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Peterson, who rode with 21 children from New York. "All I know about them is that they came down the Hudson River on a ship to Grand Central Station to ride the train with us."
Mrs. Bassett said she does not know how many days the journey took that cold January in 1918 and doesn’t remember any stops until the stop at the Katy Depot in Whitewright.
There were several children younger than Mrs. Bassett and at least one set of twins who were 2-years-old.
"We were taught manners and were well disciplined," Mrs. Bassett said. "Of course, with that many children, you have to have discipline. Yes, I had excellent manners by the time I got to Texas."
"The first night was spent in the Smith Hotel next to the Katy Depot," Mrs. Bassett said. "We each had our own suitcase with a few changes of clothes and our belongings. Early the next morning, we were up and dressed, hoping to meet our new parents. We went to the city hall, where there were quite a few people gathered to see us."
"There was one man I noticed with a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face. He kept looking at me. I wasn't shy, so soon I started talking and dancing for Mr. J.R. Pennington. Pretty soon, he said he had to go get his wife who hadn't been able to come that morning."
"No, I wasn't worried about not finding parents, there were several who showed an interest in me that day."
After Mrs. Pennington saw little Miss Anna Miller, the Penningtons went home to think about what adopting a child would mean to their lives. The Penningtons were nearly 50 and childless, but evidently, they decided Anna was the daughter for them. Mr. Pennington was a land dealer. "It seemed a little voice, was whispering to them, 'Please be my mother and father,'" Mrs. Bassett said.
The next morning, they returned to the city hall to talk with Anna’s sponsor, and that afternoon, the Penningtons proudly escorted their new 5-year-old, brown haired and brown eyed, dancing and singing daughter to their home in Whitewright.
"I was never spanked. It never dawned on me they might send me back. I just always felt I was special."
"Some people who are adopted want to go back and dig things up, but I have always been so happy and comfortable. You can understand why I never wanted to go back."
Mrs. Bassett attended high school in Whitewright and began college at East Texas State University. But as a freshman in 1932, she met Floyd Bassett, a senior and "fell madly in love, and that was the end of college." Mr. Bassett died in 1983.
The Bassetts have three children: Beverly Herrera who lives in Columbus, Ohio; Dixie Bassett of Sherman; and Jim Bassett of Corpus Christi, Texas. Mrs. Bassett, who now lives in her childhood home, said she was writing her life story for her children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
"After I developed this arthritis condition in my hands, I got where I couldn't play the piano. But I never was a quitter. I decided I’d learn to paint," said Mrs. Bassett. Mrs. Bassett's home is decorated with the results of those found artistic abilities.
Recently, the few remaining orphan train veterans had reunion in Granberry. "I had wondered where I learned to sing and dance. At the reunion there was a rider who had been in the same dormitory with me. She was older and remembered that those of us who showed some ability were taken to music lessons once a week."
"I have always felt I was special because Dick and Jenny Pennington adopted me. I only hope I brought them as much pleasure as they gave me."