Thursday, January 31, 2013

Orphan Trains

                Orphan Train Museum, Concordia, KS
Between 1841 and 1860, America became home to 4,311,465 immigrants in search of a better life.  Some of them found exactly what they had hoped, but others found disease, over-crowding, unsafe working conditions, and lack of sanitation, especially in the cities where many of the immigrants remained.
The result was that many died or faced extreme poverty.  Older parents and siblings had not always immigrated with them, so when immigrants with children faced difficulties, there were no family members to help.  Children were orphaned or were placed in orphanages by desperate parents who could pay weekly or monthly for their children's care.  When the parents failed to make payments, the children became wards of the state.  Other children were left with no adult to care for them, and they roamed the streets, begging, stealing, and surviving however they could.  Some of the boys survived by selling newspapers. 
Donated Clock at Museum
After the Civil War many infants were abandoned along streets and in tenement hallways.  Mothers hoping to entrust their infants to others able to care for them often left their babies on the door steps of the wealthy and of churches.  Because of the need, foundling hospitals were created.
As cities became overwhelmed with the number of these abandoned and orphaned children, the idea of sending them West, to towns and farms with fresh air, was coupled with the expansion of railroads.  The Orphan Train movement began.  Between 1854 and 1929, it is estimated that 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children were placed throughout the United States and Canada.  Research indicates that 1 in every 25 Americans is somehow connected to an Orphan Train rider.
The research building at the Orphan Train Museum

In doing my research about Isaac Werner and his community, I never found a mention of an Orphan Train arriving in any of the nearby towns, nor did I find any mention of an adoption; however, there were many such children placed in Kansas.
Imagine being a child, perhaps as young as three or as old as sixteen.  You joined a group of from ten to forty other children of all ages, entrusted to an adult you probably did not know, called a "western agent," responsible for transporting you and the other children to a location in the West where you would know no one.
Partial view of plaque beneath clock
If you were such a child, you would eventually reach a town where you and some of the other children would be lined up in a row on the platform of the train depot.  Flyers would have been sent to the towns along the way of the planned stops of the train.  A screening committee would have been formed to assist the western agent in selecting who among the people gathered to obtain a child were suitable prospective guardians.  The screening committee was probably composed entirely of men, typically the town doctor, a clergyman, the newspaper editor, a store owner or a teacher.  You might be too young to remember many details about yourself, so your name and age might be embroidered in your dress, if you were a girl, or your jacket, if you were a boy.  If your birthdate were known, it might be included.
The prospective guardians might be a loving couple unable to have children, or they might be a couple needing a helper for their farm work.  You would have no say in the selection process.  If you were chosen, your parent guardians were required to sign a contract regarding your schooling and your care, and if you were one of the older children, your guardian would be required to provide certain clothing and cash to give you a start when you reached the age to be on your own.  Whether the requirements of the contracts were fully kept was difficult to insure, since the western agent would continue on his or her journey with those children not selected.

Some of these children were ill treated, chosen primarily for their labor, but even those were taken from the hard lives they were living in the cities.  Many of these children were adopted, formally or informally, and became a part of loving families.
You may visit the museum website to read more about the history, as well as letters of some of the children and newspaper articles from the period at
You may also request research if you think you might have a family member who was one of the riders.  Consider a visit to Concordia to see the museum and other local sites.  The 2013 Annual Orphan Train Riders' Celebration & Depot Days will be held June 7, 8 & 9.
Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.  If you have a family story about the Orphan Trains, please share it in a comment.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Music on the Prairie

St. John Band
Isaac Werner loved music.  When he was a young druggist in Rossville, Illinois, the only day of the week that his store was closed was Sunday.  His younger cousin, Ezra Werner, had come to Rossville following Isaac's arrival, bringing with him an accordion.  During the week on winter evenings, Isaac loved to sit by the fire and listen to Ezra play the accordion, but what he especially enjoyed were outdoor concerts.  Isaac, Ezra, and another friend named Frederick often enjoyed their Sundays with a walk to a shady grove to sit on a log or a soft patch of grass to be entertained by Ezra.  When the birds joined in with their singing, Isaac was convinced that no concert hall in the city could have provided finer music.
When he came to Kansas, Isaac treasured opportunities to hear music.  A few evenings he enjoyed visiting the Eggleston family, who had brought musical instruments with them when they homesteaded.  There were also some fine singers in Isaac's community, and in the Clear Creek community, William Wilson was known for his beautiful singing voice.  In fact, Wilson offered a singing school during the winter evenings when he was not busy in the fields.
Isaac described an evening at the Emerson School House when Wilson and some other men visited a Farmers' Alliance meeting.  The Albano membership attendance was small that night, so the meeting was quickly adjourned, and the men enjoyed singing until midnight.
About his own musical talent Isaac never commented, although his personal library included a book on organ stops.
       St. John Town Square with Band Shell at far left
The reputation of the St. John Town Band was so impressive that they were often called upon to play in other towns.  When the Pratt County People's Party held it first political rally parading down Main Street, it was the St. John band that furnished the music for the parade.  The band was often asked to play for political events, organizers knowing that the band would draw a larger crowd.
So highly regarded were these musicians that a band shelter was built in the St. John Square, although the rest of the town square was nothing more than a muddy eyesore in wet weather and a source of dust blowing through the town when the season was dry.  (The first photograph of the St. John Band was taken in front of the City Stable, where Isaac often slept  with his horses when he needed to stay in St. John overnight.  The second photograph shows the band shell at the far left with the rain soaked bare town square in the foreground.  Remember, the photographs can be viewed larger by clicking on them.)
The opportunity to enjoy music with friends was one of Isaac's greatest pleasures!  Those of us living in a time when music is available in our homes, our cars, and while we go for a jog, as well as the many places where we can enjoy live performances, need to be reminded what a special treat hearing music was for those living in earlier times. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Females & Finance in the late 1800s

Image from the County Capital, the newspaper to which Isaac subscribed
Two of homesteader Isaac Werner's closest neighbors were single women with claims of their own.  He was friendly and supportive of both his unmarried "spinster" neighbor Persis Vosburgh and his divorced mother of four neighbor Isabel Ross.  I will write more about the surprising number of single, female homesteaders in a later post, but this week's post is about Women and Wall street.  While doing research in the actual copies of the County Capital available at the Stafford County Historical Society, I discovered the wonderful image and story shown above.  Isaac would certainly have seen this story, and one of the things about which he was most certain was women's rights, something the Populist Movement supported more than the other political parties of that time, Republican or Democrat. 
Ironically, among the individuals Isaac and the People's Party most disliked were speculators and Wall Streeters.  Therefore, while Isaac would have had no problem with the general idea of women being capable of doing whatever they chose to do, because he disliked the entire class of speculators and Wall Streeters, it would have been interesting to have seen his reaction to this story.
The story reads in part, "The fever of Wall street speculation has reached the women of New York.  There are at present enough women gamblers in stocks to make it profitable to run a stock broker's office exclusively for women."  (Remember, you can click on the image to enlarge it in order to read more of the story.)  This story, published in a Populist newspaper, used the derogatory term "gamblers" rather than "stock investors."  The image is from an 1890 newspaper.
The history of the New York Stock Exchange goes back to May 17, 1792, when 24 stockbrokers gathered under a buttonwood tree and signed an agreement to establish rules for buying and selling bonds and shares of companies.  The name by which it is currently known was shortened from the original name in 1863.  You can read more about the history of the NYSE at      
The exact location of the "cozy room made attractive to the feminine eye and equiped with all the accessories usually found in the downtown broker's office" is not identified in the story.  According to a Bloomberg article by Kristin Aguilera, the first women to own a Wall Street brokerage were sisters, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, whose firm was known as Woodhull, Claflin & Co.  A New York Times story published in 1870 about the opening of their business predicted "a short, speedy winding up of the firm."
Aguilera's article cites Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010 stating that "women held 53.2 % of the financial management positions in the U.S. and 37.7 % of the financial analyst positions."   At the time of writing the article, Kristin Aguilera was the deputy director of the Museum of American Finance and the editor of Financial History magazine.  You can read the full article at
While it may surprise many that women were active traders on Wall Street so early, full acceptance of women did not come for decades.  The first woman to own a seat on the NYSE was Muriel "Mickie" Siebert who joined 1,365 men at the exchange as the sole woman on December 28, 1967.  Two endorsements are required on the application to become a member, and Siebert was turned down by nine prospective sponsors before finding two men willing to sign for her.
The anomosity Isaac felt toward speculators and Wall Streeters was caused largely by his beliefs about two things:  manipulation of commodity prices to keep famers from receiving a fair price for the crops and livestock they raised and political power that enabled the wealthy to control Senators and Congressmen, both state and federal, to enact laws that favored the wealthy.  Today, many farmers use commodity markets to protect themselves from wide price fluctuations for the crops they raise, and agri-business controls powerful lobbying of politicians.  Neither of the present political parties has exculsively attracted the laborers, miners, and farmers that comprised the old People's Party of Isaac's day, but the perception of the wealthy exerting disproportionate political power remains.  We are left to wonder what Isaac would have thought of today's voter alignment and of women on Wall Street.  





Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Isaac Werner's Personality

As I was reading The Forgotten Founding Father, Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall, I could not help noticing how many of Webster's traits seemed present in Isaac Werner.  Like Webster, Isaac was insistent on doing things right and disgusted with others who seemed content with doing only what was necessary to get by.  Isaac was constantly buying equipment that he modified with improvements before he would be satisfied with its performance.  His journal entry of February 19, 1888 is one example:  "Over-hauled fanning mill mostly all over to get same into working order, never put together right."
In addition to striving to make things right for his own farming equipment and methods, Isaac expended ongoing efforts to assist others.  His January 29, 1888 journal entry is a good example of Isaac's desire to reach out to improve things for others:  "While eating my breakfast conceived the idea of some competent man to go through the country and inspect each 1/4 section of land, its Surface Soil & its subsoil and classify them by number or letters according to the predominating elements of soil.  Then implements could be devised to work most satisfactory just those different soils and that would afford a basis to work on and continue improving thereby soon elevate the standard of agriculture and saving large sums of money from being expended in useless tools."
Isaac was active in farming organizations, hoping that farmers could share their experiences, successes and failures, to improve farming techniques for everyone.  He became disgusted, however, with meetings that neglected the educational portion of the gathering to become merely social.  He was even more impatient when members failed to study the educational material made available to them.  He observed which farmers seemed willing to implement progressive ideas and invited them to join with him in a separate group.  His December 6, 1889 journal entry described:  "...first meeting, 4 of us, [Wm] Campbell, Frank Stimatze, Ferguson & I organized Albano Reform afford more privilege to discuss political matter outside Alliance." 

Isaac also initiated the formation of a County Reform Club, of which he was chosen President at the first meeting, but so little interest was shown by those attending the initial meeting and by others Isaac attempted to recruit that a second meeting was never held.  Isaac had more success in founding the Stafford County Agricultural Society, of which he served as the secretary.  Inevitably, Isaac was disappointed with the commitment of other members who failed to dependably attend meetings or to diligently work toward the goals of the organizations. 
Reading about Noah Webster and his failed newspapers and poorly attended lectures, but also his unflagging efforts to advance his political ideals and to create an American culture through common spelling, pronunciation and grammar could not help but make me think of Isaac.  When I shared my observations about Isaac with author Joshua Kendall through e-mail exchanges, he replied, "Isaac fits the type."  See Kendall's website at  
For a time, Noah Webster favored the idea of adopting phonetic spelling for the new American nation, an idea he later abandoned.  Isaac also flirted with the idea of phonetic spelling for the farmers' movement, believing it would make it easier for immigrants who were just learning English as their second language, as well as for English-speaking farmers who had never learned to read or write, to acquire the ability to read progressive newspapers and educational material.  In Isaac's January 30, 1891 journal entry he wrote:  "I most the day reviewing books and Shakespeare, where several publishers combined in London to issue first complete edition, and what reading that 1623 edition now is to us and our present mode of spelling obominable [sic] to what it may be in the near future with some proper effort."  (See 1-3-2013 blog, "The Spelling Bee" about irregular spelling.)
So, paraphrasing author Kendall's book subtitle, I asked myself, "Did Isaac Werner have an Obsession to Create a Superior American Farmer?"
A recent article in includes an interview with Joshua Kendall about not only Noah Webster but also about his new book, American Obsessives:  The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation, due to be released this summer.  Kendall told the interviewer, "The job of a biographer is to get inside of a subject's head.  I guess what fascinates me about obsessional types is that they are always pretty clear about what is on their minds."  You can read more about Kendall's new book at
My manuscript is both biography and history, Isaac at the center of the story of his community and the Progressive movement of the late 1800s.  Isaac's daily journal entrys from 1884-1891 certainly helped get me inside his head.
Webster's handwritten drafts of dictionary entries
The article in Psychnews explains that most of us have a mix of personality traits which vary in intensity.  Among those traits, a trait that is moderated can be useful, but if carried to the extreme may be disabling.  The very traits that led some to consider Noah Webster vain, arrogant, and self-promoting are the same traits that allowed him to undertake writing a speller that was used by American school children for nearly a century and produce a dictionary that took three decades to complete.  Webster's personality demanded sacrifices from his family and caused offence among his friends as he devoted his attention to the job at hand, neglecting most other things and the needs of others. 
One of the professionals Kendall consulted for his new book was John Oldham, M.D., co-author of The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love and Act the Way You Do, which explores ways traits that can be disabling in extreme cases can also be what makes a person successful when moderated.
To answer my own question, "Did Isaac show traits of obsessive-compulsive personality?" as a layman I believe he probably did.  But, more importantly, did he moderate those traits sufficiently to have a successful life?  Absolutely!  While the fact that he never married may have related to his personality, and he spent many days and nights alone with his reading and his projects, he also had some genuinely good friends.  He managed to create one of the most beautiful farms in the area and to free himself from indebtedness in difficult times, and he did a great many good things for his community that no one else would have had the drive to do.  Quoting Joshua Kendall's concluding words from the Psychnews interview, "Biographers are tempted to either slime their subjects or idealize them.  But people are so much more complex."  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Spelling Bee

8th Grade Graduates of Stafford County, Kansas, abt. 1915
As I polished this draft before posting it, my first act was to click on "Spell Check."  In a world where entire phrases are reduced to letters, like BFF and LOL, and where the ease of using Spell Check corrects most errors, being the best speller in the class holds less  prestige. 
However, in Isaac Werner's day, pride in winning the spelling bee meant something!  When classes were finally conducted in the new Emerson School (#33) that Isaac helped build, a few days after classes began Isaac recorded in his journal:  "Jan. 14, 1886.  Evening was to be 1st spelling bee in new school house."
Standardized spelling did not always exist.  Reading old documents with irregular spelling might mislead you to think the author was poorly educated; however, for Americans, it was not until Noah Webster published his book, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783, later called The American Spelling Book, that American spelling, pronunciation, and grammar gained an effective champion for standardization.  By the year of Webster's death in 1843, nearly 13 million copies of his spelling book in various editions had been sold, (many of which had blue covers for which his speller became known).  Sales following his death continued at a rate of about a million copies per year, remaining the favorite spelling book for nearly a century.  Of course, most of us know him because of his life's labor producing Webster's Dictionary.
As a result of spelling standardization, a new entertainment arose.  Spelling bees involved not only school children but also adults.  In his 2012 book The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall quoted  an unnamed historian who described an adult spelling bee in which the community watched "a school trustee standing with a blue backed Webster open in his hand while gray-haired men and women, one row being captained by the schoolmaster and the other team by the minister, spelled each other down."  You may visit Joshua Kendall's website at .

Competitive spelling matches continue, including the Scripps National Spelling Bee established in 1925.  Webster's (now Merriam-Webster) remains the dictionary used for the competition.  The 2012 winner was Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego, California, and the winning word was guetepens.  You may visit to read more about this competition.

The Scripps website shows that in 1925 the winning word was gladiolus, in 1935 intelligible, in 1975 incisor, all words familiar to most of us.  The goals of Scripps include not only improving students' spelling but also improving vocabulary, and the winning words beginning in 2001 would certainly increase most of our vocabularies, including such words as succedaneum, autochtonous, and cymotrichous! Competitors must not be beyond 8th graders, and the 2012 national competition included the youngest ever--six year old Lori Anne Madison.  With Snigdha Nandipati's victory, she became the fifth winner of Indian descent in a row and the tenth out of the past fourteen years.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee inspired a popular movie, Akeelah and the Bee.  Teachers wishing to motivate student participation in the local preliminary spelling bees leading to qualification for the national spelling bee are encouraged to show their classes this movie, which is still readily available online and is sometimes shown on television movie channels. 

While most of us rely today on Spell Check to support our atrophied spelling skills, it is still Noah Webster and his intellectual descendants upon whom the programers of the electronic spell checker rely to make sure we spell our words in the American standardized way.

(The girl pictured in the 3rd row, 3rd from the left, among the County Graduates pictured above is my father's oldest sister, Verna Pauline Beck, 1902-1926.  Verna became a teacher and probably contracted tuberculosis from one of her students.  She was only 23 years old when the disease took her life.)