Local history: The orphans down the street

Two doors down from the house in which I grew up sat a big, unusually imposing Victorian house on a huge lot.

“House” doesn’t do it justice; it wasn’t what you’d call a Victorian charmer. It was subdivided into five apartments, but truthfully, it was hard to imagine a single family rattling around in that big barn. It also had the  widest, flattest driveway in the east end of town, where every kid on my street learned to ride a bicycle, provided the landlord wasn’t looking.

This never looked like a "regular" sort of house. But was it really an orphanage?

The grownups called it “the orphanage,” a description I didn’t take 100 percent seriously. It sounded made up. Why would an orphanage be sitting in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, anyway? The grownups also said that our property, and our neighbor’s, too, once belonged to the orphanage.  This was interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the odd objects we found now and then, digging around in our backyard — patent medicine bottles,  bits of crockery and once,  something that looked like a toy doll’s bottle. We thought they were buried treasure. The grownups said they were from the orphanage. We rolled our eyes.

A few months ago I was doing census searches on Ancestry.com, trying and failing to break through one of my brick walls. To give myself a break, I decided to browse the 1910 census for my hometown. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the big Victorian barn really was in the olden days? Answer: The Children’s Home. In residence were a superintendent, an assistant superintendent and a female domestic servant, plus 11 girls and 10 boys.

The grownups had it right, after all.

How strange that I’d grown up practically next door to an orphanage — a real Victorian orphanage. How long was it an orphanage? How many children passed through its doors?

Since I  have at least one adopted relative in my family tree, the topic of orphanages and adoptions in the 19th and early 20th centuries has always interested me. I was mainly interested in the history behind the landmark of my childhood, but I also hoped that studying it might give me insight into my own family’s encounters with adoption.

My curiosity led me to look at more census records, some old news clippings and, eventually, at a detailed register of the children  who passed through the home in its first few years of existence. The orphanage’s story is the story of children whose families fell through the cracks in a time of no safety nets. Sometimes the fall was broken, sometimes not. I will share more of what I learned in my next post.

Next: Why did children go to the orphanage? Not always for the reasons you’d think.


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