The Season of the Orphanages

Story by George Hanusa

Long before government programs oversaw the care of parentless children, Lutheran congregations across the state developed a caring program for their development. The three children's homes are gone now, but the people who grew up in them have fond memories of their formative years.

That's how Lois Jessen summed up her recollection of life as a child at Elim Lutheran Children's Home in Elk Horn. The orphanage had been established by Danish Lutherans in 1890.

The season of the orphanages was a long one in Iowa, stretching from 1854 to the mid-1960s. The experiences of the children who lived there were like the moods of seasons and the changes in weather-warm and sunny, cloudy, cold and stormy.

One resident wrote, "Mother was sick most of her life. She had Tuberculosis. We moved a lot trying to find a dry climate for her. The last place we lived was near Mason City. Mother became so bad she was bedridden. I'll never forget the last time we saw her, so sick; she hugged us all. We were taken to Beloit [Orphanage] and later she died. We were, I remember, a sad and lonely four kids for some time. Dad came to see us maybe three times..."

Laverne Hoveland remembers looking down the road leading to the Beloit Orphanage to see if someone would be coming to get him.

In 1936, Hoveland had been placed at age five at the orphanage, which was established in 1890 by Norwegian Lutherans at Beloit, in the northwestern corner of Iowa. His first memory of the place? "Crying." His father had died when Hoveland was 14 months old: then, when he was three, his mother abandoned him and his siblings.

But he remembers the good times. Looking back, he said, being there was the best thing that could have happened. The children were among caring people who provided discipline, taught them life skills, and right from wrong. There was a sense of family in the midst of daily chores, "spare not the rod" style of discipline, and a spiritual upbringing.

The make-shift families were big, from 30 in the smaller orphanage at Elk Horn, to larger ones at Muscatine and Stanton, and up to 170 at Beloit. Age spans ran from six months to 18 years, with all ages in between.

The children's homes really shouldn't have been called orphanages because most of the children who lived there were not orphans. Indeed, many of them wished they had been orphans to endure the pain of feeling abandoned by their parents, who often had neither economic nor emotional means to take care of them.

Even at that, the former residents say life was good in the children's homes for the most part, although not always easy.

Sometimes they ran away. Viola Sanders, who had been both a resident and matron at Elim Lutheran Children's Home in Elk Horn, recalls the time her brother and two other boys decided to run away.

After everyone was in bed one evening, they slid down the tubular metal fire escape and walked 13 miles to Hamlin. A man who ran across them asked who they were and where they were from. He drove them back to the children's home. They made their way back up the fire escape and crawled into bed, no one knowing they had been gone.

Viola and her brother entered Elim in 1937 when she was 13. Her mother had died three years earlier, and when her father suffered a stroke, he could no longer care for them. When the assistant matron at Elim died in 1950, Viola took her place, helping the head matron, Palma Peterson, until Elim closed in 1962.

Everyone at the homes had work to do. The younger children helped in the kitchen; the older boys took care of the livestock. At Beloit, some of them were assigned four cows to milk each day, a necessity with a herd of more than 50 dairy cows.

Lois Jessen wrote about life at Elim during the four seasons: "Spring," she wrote, "always found Elim a beehive of activity. Some of the boys would be out watching cows graze along the side of the road. New calves were tied out on the front lawn. Other boys were cleaning, scrubbing, and whitewashing the milking parlors, while others scrubbed and whitewashed the basement walls. The girls were busy housecleaning...maybe doing some varnishing or painting or scrubbing windows and walls.

"Summer meant baseball, supper outside every night, except when it rained, hay making, tending to a big garden, canning, raising chickens, and mowing lawn.

"Fall meant butchering chickens and with our assembly line, it didn't take long to butcher 50 in a day. Picking the corn was done by hand. Our heroes, Dick and Shorty, would pull the wagon and the kids were evened out on each side of the wagon. If you were smart, you'd soon learn to throw from quite a distance and with accuracy, since the boys generally took the outside rows. Their aim always fell short of the wagon and got you.

"An average winter evening would find the TV on in the living room, the record player going, one or two bookworms reading in the office, in the kitchen the radio was going with some hillbilly music and someone was usually making fudge or popcorn. Upstairs; a radio going, someone practicing a horn, in the basement a ping pong game or roller skating; in the dining room one or two girls sewing, a couple of kids playing tag, two three and four -years old, wrestling in the middle of the floor, a couple of kids doing homework at the table.

"And then there was Palma, sitting at one of the tables soaking her feet in a pan of hot water and leaning back in her chair sound asleep."

It is little wonder that Lutheran Social Services of Iowa can claim that its roots are in the land, first in the 160 acres of land set aside in 1870 near Stanton, then in the other antecedent orphanages. All were dependent on the land for sustenance. From the small acreage of the original building donated in 1895 for an orphanage in Muscatine, to the 40 acres at Elk Horn, the (eventually) 240 acres at Stanton, to 642 acres at Beloit-the institutions themselves and the children and staff lived off the land.

Amelia Sorenson, whose husband was a resident at Beloit from 1913 to 1918, wrote to Beloit village historians about his memories of the home, "The younger boys and girls worked in the garden, the older boys in the field and barns caring for the animals, while the older girls worked in the house and the laundry."

"He did say, however, that they never had butter for their bread because of the butter they made they sold in the town grocery store. He did remember the syrup or sorghum, as he called it, for their bread and an oatmeal or farina that was their breakfast fare."

"They all loved it when the women of the Ladies Aid Society from the church came to visit, as they brought an abundance of sandwiches, cake, cookies, and special gelatin dishes. These kind ladies also brought clothing for them and special treats of candy and oranges at Christmas."

"He told of the many games they played together, such as Tag, Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, Run Sheep Run, Marbles, Roll the Hoop, Ante-I-Over, where they bounced a ball over the outhouses. There were two of those, one for the boys and one for the girls. Each could accommodate teen occupants at a time."

Summer festivals and picnics were an important aspect of life at the children's homes that brought many people to the orphanage grounds-some relatives, but mostly people from area churches which supported the orphanages. At Christmas time, too, people came bringing gifts of food, toys, and clothing for the children.

But former residents also recall unhappy memories of the strict rules. One child remembers being punished for stepping out of the dinner line, another for going upstairs two steps at a time. Illness was inevitable in such settings; Scarlet Fever hit 70 children at Beloit in the early 1900s, killing two.

Although memories abound among the residents still living, or via their written letters, little physically remains of the once-thriving orphanages. Lutheran Homes in Muscatine now serves as a home for the elderly and disabled, and the only reminder of the orphanage is the 76 steps leading from the lower campus up to the level where the school had been.

At Stanton, a barn remains. At Elk Horn, there are some trees, a memorial marker, and two brick entryway pillars.

"Beloit" lives on by name in Ames at the Beloit Lutheran Children's Home, an LSS treatment center for severely troubled children. But at "old" Beloit, there remain the superintendent's home-still used as a residence by the Bert Lems family who own the farm-the original flag pole, a bell tower, water tower, underground steam tunnels, woodworking shop, a huge barn (two earlier barns burned), and abandoned hog and chicken houses.

Unmarked graves at the Beloit village cemetery serve as the resting place for children who died while at Beloit, remembered by names on a shaded stone marker.

Remaining, too, are memories of the homes, which were places of refuge, memories of the children they lived with, and of the people who cared for them. Homes established by the church out of a Christian concern for the well being of children.

George Hanusa is former spokesman for Lutheran Social Services of Iowa and the author of a book about the history of the non-profit organization. This is his first....



Lutheran Social Services of Iowa has been planting hope in the lives of Iowans for more than 125 years.

The largest private not-for-private provider of services to children and families in the state, LSS has its roots in the land. It started with a 160-acre tract of land south of Stanton, in southwest Iowa. A Swedish Lutheran immigrant pastor, the Rev. Bengt. Magnus Holland, set aside that land for an orphanage in 1870, at the same time he organized Mamreland Lutheran Church in Stanton.

Other Lutheran groups also responded in the post-Civil War years to the needs of the homeless children. German Lutherans in Andrew established the first orphanage in 1864. It was moved to Waverly in 1900 and continues today as Bremwood Lutheran Children's Home, a treatment center for disturbed children.

German Lutherans in Muscatine, Danish Lutherans in Elk Horn, and Norwegian Lutherans in Beloit established the other orphanages, which, along with the Stanton children's home, were the antecedents to Lutheran Social Services of Iowa.

By the 1930s various factors combined to bring changes in childcare. The Lutheran denominations, which had established the homes, began planning toward a more effective way to care for children. They formed, in 1939, Lutheran Welfare Society of Iowa, which was renamed Lutheran Social Services of Iowa in 1963. At that time the agency became directly owned by the church bodies whose successors are the three Iowa synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Today LSS serves more than 40,000 people annually in services that range from individual and family counseling to home-centered programs for troubled families... to foster care, chaplaincy services, disaster response, refugee resettlement, and volunteer-intensive programs for young parents and isolated elderly.

... George Hanusa.

Source: The Iowan and Iowa Commerce Magazines,
Spring 1998 with written permission from Kelly Roberson, Editor.
Pioneer Communications Publications
218 6th Avenue
Fleming Building, Suite 610
Des Moines, Iowa 50309   |


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