Roma Rhodes, left, visits with Lela Newcombe who rode on the Orphan Train. Roma has preserved the Orphan Train story of her husband Robert's great, great aunt Henrietta Wiens.
It stopped at a town near you, it stopped in almost State. Over 250,000 children rode on the “Orphan Trains” that traveled all across the United States for 75 years.
It stopped in Exeter, Neb. as well. Records and family history list at least three members of the Exeter community who became residents after debarking a train from New York.
Charlotte Endorf, a Norfolk resident, has embraced a passion for the stories of the quickly disappearing riders of the Orphan Trains and shared that in Exeter.
She recently gave a presentation at the Exeter Senior Center sponsored in part by the Nebraska Humanities Council. Accompanying her to the event were one of the Orphan Train riders, Lela Newcombe, a 97 year-old who after three different stops ended up in Lincoln, Neb. at the age of 6.
Newcombe shared her experience, which was not a pleasant childhood after debarking the Orphan Train. Children were often placed on the trains because there were so many homeless and orphans in larger cities, however, the majority of the time they were not adopted by the family because of the $75 cost to adopt. Newcombe was moved several different times because of abuse observed by the agent who monitored her situation.
Audience members at the presentation were able to share the stories of their family’s members who had been on the Orphan Train and were brought to Exeter. Two came together, Thelma Bernhardt and Victoria Geyger, arrived in Exeter in September of 1901. They were claimed through New York City Foundling Home’s program through the Catholic churches.
Bernhardt became a member of the Michaely family, became a teacher and married John Leif and eventually raised her six children near Exeter. Her family members still live in the Exeter area.
Geyger was taken in by the Barkmeier family, which included seven boys and one girl. Despite health setbacks and struggles she eventually found her calling as a sister with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine of Siena in Kentucky. She taught school all over the States. Geyger, later known as Sister Mary Raphael Geyger, also has a number of relatives still living in the Exeter area.
The third Orphan Train rider, Henrietta Maynard Weins, was adopted by the Maynard family. They were an older couple and she was just five years old. They had no children of their own but had raised a niece and nephew. Weins had a wonderful childhood with them and went on to graduate from college and teach for a time. She eventually found her birth mother discovering that she herself had been born in Germany and come over on a ship with her young widowed mother. Eventually Weins’ mother lost her sister who had been caring for Henrietta and placed her in what she thought was a “Children’s Nursery for Working Mothers.” She never did see her little girl again despite an extensive search.
Weins and her husband took a trip to New York City and visited the orphanage and were shown the only records that existed for her stay. She was able to find her mother’s name and no more. However, she wrote down all of the names out of the New York City phonebook that matched her own. When she arrived back in Nebraska she wrote to all of the names eventually finding and being reunited with her mother and stepbrothers in New York.
Newcombe has made it her life’s work to record the stories of the children on the Orphan Train’s in multiple books and media presentations. She is constantly looking for more riders to interview and try to preserve their experiences on this historical journey. She enjoys sharing her program with school students as this part of the history of the United States is often overlooked.
For more information on Sister Geyger or Thelma Leif click here
you will be directed to the Creighton University website