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‘Remembering the orphans’

Gibson Memorial Library hosts program on the orphan train movement

Lori Vicker presents "Remembering the Orphans" to members of PEO in March. Remembering the Orphans is Vicker's presentation on the orphan train movement, which she will deliver 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Gibson Memorial Library.
Lori Vicker presents "Remembering the Orphans" to members of PEO in March. Remembering the Orphans is Vicker's presentation on the orphan train movement, which she will deliver 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Gibson Memorial Library.

Lori Vicker, a retired Iowa educator of 30 years, began following a compelling interest this past March – the Orphan Train movement.

Vicker’s interest in this topic began while teaching children’s and adolescent literature for Viterbo University.

As a reading specialist, Vicker casually asked her students, ‘What are you reading about?” Her students shared with her that they were reading a book called, “A Family Apart.”

“That’s the first time I had every heard about the orphan train. At that point, I hate to admit this, but I thought, ‘This must be all fictional. How creative are these authors to come up with this idea to write about.’”

Shortly after learning about the book, Vicker’s husband came home from a breakfast club and raved about a speaker, Mary McClaren, who spoke to the club that morning about the movement.

“I go, you’re kidding me?” said Vicker.

Vicker began researching the topic and became fast friends with McClaren, an orphan train rider descendant who shared her mother’s experience with teachers in Vicker’s classes.

The movement

According to Vicker, the orphan train movement began in 1853 and are the first organized efforts in the United States at a foster care system. Reverend Charles Loring Brace first organized the effort of the orphan trains in an effort to relieve the streets of New York City of orphaned children. His organization became known as “Children’s Aid Society.”

“They were abandoned and left to survive on their own,” said Vicker. “There were various reasons for that.”

The time frame for this social services development was in the 1850s. At that time, the population of New York City was about 500,000. The number of homeless children was estimated to be near 20,000.

Vicker said many of the orphans arrived as a result of immigration and migration by families seeking political and religious asylum in the United States, with most immigrants arriving from Germany and Ireland.

Other orphans were abandoned by extremely poor families, or who lost their fathers in war.

Immigrants who did manage to arrive to the United States were largely poor, uneducated with no job or job skills, and the country was barely equipped to shelter or feed the influx of those arriving – up to 1,000 a day.

“During this time there was no birth control or safe abortions,” said Vicker.

This time in U.S. history is also the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and it was the beginning of westward movement.

As all of this unfolded, Brace looked to help.

“He determined that Christian farmers were the best placement for the orphaned children, because they were short on labor,” said Vicker.

Brace developed a program of campaigning and fundraising. He used the funds he collected to purchase nice clothing and train tickets.

Announcements were made in western towns that children were coming. Each child was provided with a suitcase, a Bible and three sets of clothing. Upon arrival, potential parents would gather at the train station and the children would be paraded like merchandise and adopted.

Remembering the Orphans

Vicker will present her program, “Remembering the Orphans” 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Gibson Memorial Library. This presentation will summarize the historical era known as the Orphan Train Movement that took place in the United States during 1854 and 1929.

Her presentation includes vintage clothing similar to that worn by westward orphans and a bibliography that highlights non-fiction and historical fiction about orphan trains.

This program is free and open to the public. For assistance related to disability, contact David Hargrove at 641-782-2277 or

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