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Orphan Train Riders to Iowa  Orphan Train Riders

~ Agents ~   

Clara Comstock
Clara B. Comstock Clara Comstock, a placing agent for The Children's Aid Society, was mentioned prominently in many articles in Iowa newspapers describing the "distribution" of children. Clara worked for The Children's Aid Society from 1903 to after 1940. From 1911 to 1928, she made 74 trips to Iowa and other states with groups of children. She took care of the children during the trip and got them ready to be placed out. Usually, children who were selected went to their new home right away. Clara would spend a few days resting and then begin visiting the children in their new homes and writing up reports.

~ Source: The Goldfinch, Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring 2000 pgs 14-15)
The following was written by Clara B. Comstock.
"As many of you know the life of the Children’s Aid Society extends over a period of nearly 80 years. Mr. C. L. Brace, the founder, was the pioneer in this country in the placing of dependent children in family homes. This part of the Societies’ activities was known in the early years as the Emigration Department, a name it kept until recently. For at least 70 years, children were placed in western states: the plan was to find homes and new environment, family ties were preserved among the brothers and sisters taken. While no children are now placed outside of New York State, a considerable number are still under supervision in Western homes, and a number of those thus looked after were placed by me. I must therefore crave your indulgence in being personal in this description of the western work as I knew it from fifteen to twenty-five years ago.

First came the assembling of children in New York. They were gathered up from various places, (as the charter of the Society gave it the right to thus take them,) some came from the Children’s Homes and Counties of Western and Northern New York State, some from institutions in Brooklyn and New York City, and others from the homes of the Society; The Brace Farm School and the Girl’s Home, now the Goodhue Home on Staten Island.

The usual procedure was for an agent to visit the Institution to see the children, and get some idea of their health, mentality and personality. Some children were rejected then, later, the children were brought to the Society before the party started west. The boys were sent to the Farm School overnight, the girls to their home. The girls and younger children were out-fitted the day before the trip and were given two changes of clothing throughout with a nice silk or wool dress, hat, coat and gloves. The boys were dressed in the basement of the Children’s Aid Society, as at present, and were given an outfit similar to that of the girls. Many comments were made on how nicely they were dressed. The thought was that the children must look as well groomed as those of the children of the in the community where they were to go.

The children were very happy about their clothing and admired themselves all the way west, and often insisted on wearing their gloves the entire distance.

I well remember going with our agent, Mr. D. W. Tice (dead these 20 years,) to the Eastern District Industrial School in the Sterling Place Home in Brooklyn. Mr. Tice had the “open sesame” of these homes and many others, and could have carried off their whole number of children if he were so disposed. Would be given from 10 to 12 children, see others, planning to take them later, then bring the ones selected to New York. The Brooklyn children were then dressed in gingham dresses and wore aprons, their heads were cropped.

Mr. Tice had advanced ideas concerning charitable work, he had been chosen for the work by Mr. C. L. Brace, the founder of the society and no modern worker can accomplish anything finer than the work of Mr. Tice in the west. I went west with him several times and am grateful to him for the high standards he set, and insisted that others should follow.

To have known Mr. C. L. Brace was a rare privilege, and Mr. Tice often spoke of him. Then to have served under his son, Mr. Robert Tice, who preserved his father’s humane and kindly outlook, and rare knowledge of human nature and children, made up for the lack of technical training which is available to the modern Social Worker thru the Schools of Philanthropy. Even today, Mr. C. L. Brace’s book “The Dangerous Classes of New York”, is considered a classic, his was the master mind and one can get a glimpse of the unselfish and noble spirit from his life and letters.

The number of children in the parties varied, from ten to thirty would be the usual number. Mr. R. M. Brace thought nothing of taking a party of from 20 to 30 boys to Texas where the local worker had secured homes for most of them before they started from New York. There were local worker in Mo., Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Texas.

The children were of all ages, from babies in arms to boys and girls of 16. Brothers and sisters were placed together, or in the same neighborhood so that they saw each other frequently. This policy still continues. At Canton, S. D., we placed a family of seven brothers and sisters. In looking back, the children seemed equally as lovely as the ones we now have and all the workers enjoyed caring for them. We grew much attached to the children and to the small babies, but understood that the foster parents should come first in the mind of the child. The babies always called forth the most interest and this interest helped t place the older children, so that we tried to take a baby with each party.

The trips were planned so as to arrive on Friday, usually leaving New York Tuesday noon. No one used a pullman coach, a day coach served us. The children would curl up on the seats at night and sleep sweetly, they made the trip but once. The attendants had for at least two days and nights of sleepless and four if Texas, West Kansas or Nebraska, was the destination.

We took a streetcar from the office with the children, their lunch, and the smaller children’s bundles. The older children’s clothing was carried in the Society trunk. The lunch was put up in 6 or 8 enormous boxes and the agents assisted in doing this. It was carried with us to the train. Storing this and the wraps of the children was a feat after we reached the train. We were let on before the rest of the passengers and had everything in order when they came in. We filled one end of the car, or if the party was large enough, a coach was put on for us.

A varied amount of food was carried, loaves of graham and white bread & all sorts of sandwich filling, ham, cheese, peanut butter, lettuce, celery and mayonnaise dressing, figs, dates, and raisins, apples, oranges and bananas, cakes and cookies, and cans of condensed milk for the younger children and babies.

Many of the children were carsick, due to the fact that most institution children then were malnutrition cases. Later as the children were given a balanced diet, this trouble was rare. Our own homes fed their children well and they nearly always were in good physical condition. Physicians examined them in the homes, but there were no mental clinics.

At the station in New York, the Societies’ hug trunk was checked and the emergency bag was taken out for the trip. We were always in fear that the clothing of the children might not arrive with us. The emergency bag contained knives, forks, and spoons, bibs, towels, washcloths and soap, tooth paste, sewing kit, sterno burner to heat the milk for the babies, blankets and knitted shawls for the babies, medicine for colds, and coughs, burns, etc., and larkspur, in case of vermin should escape the vigilant eye of the caretaker at the different homes. The agents took their personal trunks, as they might be in the west for six months, or might come back in a week. One had to be ready to travel at a minutes notice.

When the children were safely on the train and their wraps and the lunch stored, the agents put the gingham dresses and older clothing, saving their best for them on arrival.

A change of trains was usually made in either Chicago or St. Louis, and sometimes a change of stations also. Of two agents were along this was not hard, for one would go ahead and the other follow with the children between, each agent had a baby in her arms, usually and the baggage was distributed among the older children if no porters were available. The older children were always helpful on the train. The trainmen gave willing and eager assistance, and the passengers were intensely interested and helpful. Often they gave contributions of money which were sent to the Main office, but more often gave of candy, chocolate and we were kept busy washing hands and faces. At mealtime the rest of the food was apportioned. A drink of milk finished the meal. The children arrived in good condition.

Before the children were sent out they were told about this trip and that they were to receive a real home, with a father and mother, and the kinds of homes were described to them. They were made to believe, before leaving New York, that a real home was the nicest possible thing they could have, and so they were happy about going. The would often ask when I visited the Farm School, “Take me with you, Miss Comstock, I have been a good boy.” Then, the children in the west would write back telling how happy they were and of the good times they had. They rarely showed any desire to return to New York and soon forgot they had ever lived there. I do not remember but one boy who wished to return, he was a boy of 12 and wanted to become a farmer in New York.

In arrival at our destination; the party went to the hotel where the children were fed, washed and dressed in their best, and if there was time, given a nap. At two o’clock there was a meeting, sometimes called a distribution or reception, of the Committee and the Agents, with anyone interested. These meetings were held in a church, court house or perhaps in the opera house. While this was going on the children were kept in a group by themselves, and the agent spoke to the people assembled, giving terms of placement and describing the activities of the Society. I have known of at least 1500 persons being present. Occasionally there was a mistake in the arrangements, and no one came. This meant rearranging the distribution, and caring for the children while doing it.

The coming of the children to a Community was carefully planned. A town was selected in which no children from our society had been placed by parties for 20 years. This gave a chance for the first ones placed to have grown up. We often came across older boys and girls who were married and doing well, and seldom heard of a failure. The record of these older children was of great assistance.

At Chanute, Kansas, where Mrs. Baxter accompanied us, we placed a brother and two sisters with a doctor who had been a foster brother of Dan Brummit, -- Mr. Brummit is a national figure in young people’s work in the Methodist Church. Then we could point with pride to Governor Burke of North Dakota. Gov. Brady, Mayor Yost of Kansas City, all former wards of the Society.

The town selected must have a high grade of citizenship, good schools, and we favored college towns, a fertile and prosperous agricultural community, and be of the same religious faith as the children. Nationality, also was considered. In the middle west, whole communities were of German, Danish, bohemian, Holland, Norweigen or Swedish descent. Many of these were superior, and the children placed with them prospered, but in the main, we preferred the descendents of the settlers from the eastern states. Children were placed in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, with occasional parties to North Dakota, south Dakota and Arkansas. We visited children in Colorado and Montana, and other states where foster families had moved. In the earlier days parties were placed in Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana, no children were taken over the Rocky Mountains.

One of the workers went ahead to the town selected and made the arrangements. This consisted of getting a place for the meeting or reception, arranging for the printing to be sent through the mails, and securing a committee. This committee helped secure homes and acted as an advisory board, also looked after the children when the agent was in other places. We were faithful about this and as the agent’s supervision consisted of but one visit a year, unless called to the town by demand for replacement, were necessary.

To the everlasting credit of the fine western men, we were rarely, if ever, refused and we asked the most represenative men for instance the present Senator of Iowa, Mr. Dickinson, who served with me at Algona, Congressman Haughen of Northwood, Iowa, present Dean of the House of Represenatives, and Senator Thorson of Canton, S. D., who took a boy from our Society, and dozens of equally important men. In December, I visited Senator Dickinson in Washington, and found that he had followed the children we had placed. He gave me an account of their present conditions, and he complimented the society on the work done in Algona.

The time and place of distribution was announced in the local papers and letters were sent through the mails, inviting folks to come to the reception, if interested. The local committee’s names were given, and it was made plain that they would take applications before the arrival of the children. Many applications usually awaited us.

After the reception the committee and the agents met, and selected the families who qualified. The qualifications for homes were exactly the same as those demanded today. The family was interviewed and the child selected was sent out with them, with the understanding that this was not a placement, but that the agent must come and see the home and talk to the child, before the contract could be signed. Nearly all the children were thus sent out on the day of arrival, and if any were left, the committee arranged for them temporarily in their own homes. (They went willingly and were happily entertained.) thus the agents had Saturday and Sunday to receive callers, secure more information about the homes and rest. We were often entertained, and made many delightful friends.

On Monday, following, a livery team was secured and we started out and drove steadily for some of the children, removing others, and securing homes. After all the children were placed, reports were written up and sent in, before leaving the town. It took from one to two weeks to complete the placement of the party. If sufficient applications were secured a second party was brought to this locality; this occurred quite frequently. After the party was placed the agent started the annual visiting and this meant continual traveling, sometimes we made as many as 12 trips to New York for children in a year. I had charge of the work in the State of Iowa, and when I left the State eight years ago, there were 320 children under supervision. I also made frequent trips to other states, assisting with the placement of parties. In all, I made 73 trips west with the children. Several times I took children out entirely alone, but after being in a railroad wreck with 10 children, I decided I needed assistance.

There were no autos then, a trip behind a livery team meant riding behind a team of mustangs with a driver whose vocabulary consisted of seven words—“yes-mam” and “No-Mam”, and “I don’t know” and 45 miles was a good days work. We had a charcoal burner under the robes for our feet, and we sat up in the wind and storm under a top buggy, the thermometer ranging from 36 degrees below zero to 114 degrees above. The mud in Missouri used to be so gummy that the driver carried a knife to cut it away, because it would roll up on the wheel. Sometimes each wheel would weigh a hundred pounds or more. There were a few bridges, and if floods came, we forded the streams or stayed where we were. The hotels were poor, the food inedible. Women were received with suspicion of they traveled alone at night and some hotels refused them admission. In Western Nevada and Kansas, the sand sifted in piles around your closed windows. There was no heat in the bedrooms and the hotel lobby, with it’s huge stove, was the only place to get warm. In the wild hay country of northern Nebraska, there were no roads, you angled across the prairie. (Once I was lost 20 miles south of Atkinson, Nebraska, on the prairie on a cold November night, and we got in at 2 p. m. The driver was a one-eyed man and could not see the trail, and I was too much of tenderfoot to know it.

Any conveyance at all was used to reach the home, lumber wagons, caboose or freight trains, top buggies, sleighs, and later, trucks and Fords. Autos did not come to be until about 10 years after I started work. They were to expensive, and a Pullman car was only used within the last ten or twelve years. If children were ill, we nursed them. I was quarantined for three weeks in a dreary hotel room with a five year old boy, ill with diptheria.

My first trip with a party of children to West Point, Nebraska, I thought it the most incredible to expect people to take children they had never seen and to give them a home, but we placed them and never failed to accomplish it. The work was a great adventure in Faith, we were always helped and grew to expect kindness, deep interest and assistance everywhere. A sense of responsibility was keenly felt by all the workers.

My life has been greatly enriched by the varied experiences found in everything the Children’s Aid Society and the contacts made. It is an honor to have followed from afar, the founder of this work.


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