Session Descriptions

Session 1

"The Orphan Train Riders: An American Saga"

John Shontz, JD - Keynote Speaker
Project Coordinator of Orphan Train Project: Making a Difference, Helena, MT
Tuesday, October 2: 11 am - 12 pm

Young Orphan Train riders traveled over three million miles on trains from New York City and Boston to their new homes across America. What caused these particular children to be swept off the streets of New York City and Boston? We will examine how these children were selected by both the New York agencies that sent them west and their new parents. How did these children travel to their new homes? We will look at the American railroads’ roles in this saga. Why were these children indentured to work as young as three years old? Happy outcomes for these children; perhaps, perhaps not.

Session 2

"Sacred Duties: The Roles of the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital in the Orphan Train Movement"

Denise Bailey, PhD
Assistant Professor of Social Work,
Northwestern State University of Louisiana
Tuesday, October 2: 12:10 - 12:35 pm

This session focuses on the specific roles that Charles Loring Brace and Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbons had in establishing and managing their respective orphan trains. This comparison and contrast will identify each entity’s criteria for the children needing placement and that of the receiving parents, as well as matching and placement processes.

"The Orphan Trains as Example: Setting the Stage for Placing Out"

Megan Birk, PhD
Associate Professor of History,
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Tuesday, October 2: 12:40 - 1:05 pm

During the early decades of the orphan train movement, a system for child welfare in the Midwest scarcely existed. Children were wards of counties that used township trustees or other county officials to place children in homes using indentures and apprenticeships. It was not until the system of orphan trains began bringing thousands of children to the region that municipalities gave serious consideration to their own child welfare practices. They were able to correct some of the problems associated with train practices, but local children came with stigmas of their own. This presentation examines how orphan train practices influenced regional child welfare and compares them to placement practices used by local county placement services.

"A Steer You'd Have to Pay for, but a Boy You Could Adopt for Free: Portrayals of Orphan Train Experiences in Children’s Historical Fiction"

Martha Kruse, PhD
Associate Professor of English, UNK
Tuesday, October 2: 1:10 - 1:35 pm

The scenario of 250,000 children being displaced from their homes and put on trains to be adopted by strangers is not only historical fact but also the stuff that plots are made of. Authors of historical fiction for children and young adults have drawn upon the Orphan Train movement (1854-1929) to create compelling stories of young characters experiencing the trauma of displacement and the certainty of indeterminate futures. This session features three subgenres in literature of the Orphan Train years: landmark texts in the genre, series books documenting the experiences of siblings, and young adult novels that use the Orphan Train as a backdrop for historical romances. This inherently compelling period of American history provides contemporary readers the opportunity to accompany young characters riding the rails of vulnerability and resilience.

Session 3

"The Role of Social Work with Homeless Youth in the Progressive Era: Ending Youth Homelessness"

Cheryl Pooler, MSW
Lecturer, Baylor University
Tuesday, October 2: 1:45 - 2:10 pm

This session will examine the role of social work with homeless youth and foster children who were part of the Orphan Train Movement. The profession of social work has deep roots in providing assistance and support to children who were identified as homeless, orphaned or in need of foster care. Children who were homeless or orphaned were at the mercy of a society that was not fully prepared to deal with all of the needs of the children. Many of the children had been victims of “white slavery,” eugenics and denied a proper education. How did social workers address these issues? What is the impact of the past on our present issues with homeless and foster youth? The profession of social work has embraced the Grand Challenge of Ending Youth Homelessness. This grand challenge cannot be realized without understanding the past. What were the lessons learned? How does this period in time impact the role of social work today? Were social workers helpful? The answers to these questions can help facilitate conversations that inform the role of social work with at risk youth today.

"The Failures: Looking at the Orphan Train through the Lens of the Adoptees"

Karyn L. Hixson, MA
Adjunct Faculty, Department of English, UNK
Tuesday, October 2: 2:15 - 2:40 pm

This paper investigates the effectiveness of the “orphan train” program from the viewpoint of the adoptees. The “orphan train” concept failed in its efforts to relocate vulnerable youths by exploiting dependent children who unknowingly were cast into subjugation of others, treated as laborers which proved futile and insufficient preparation for the children to become independent with the capability and competence to live as productive citizens after their tenure in the program ended.

"The History of the Genoa Indian Industrial School"

Chris Steinke, PhD
Assistant Professor of History, UNK
Tuesday, October 2: 2:45 - 3:10 pm

This paper addresses the history of the Genoa Indian Industrial School in Nance County, Nebraska. Established in 1884, the boarding school operated into the 1930s, a period that coincided with the Orphan Trains. Its students came from reservations across the central and northern Great Plains. The paper will discuss the origins of the school, its connections to the Orphan Train movement, and resources for learning more about its history.

Session 4

"Children, Work, and the Shape of the 19th Century Farm Family, or Why Orphan Trains Made Sense in the Context of their Times"

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, PhD – Plenary Speaker
Professor of History, Iowa State University
Tuesday, October 2: 3:30 - 4:45 pm

What was it like to be a farm child in 1890 or 1910? It was hardly the childhood that we expect today. Children, first and foremost, worked hard. Their parents sometimes sent them to school, but sometimes didn’t, and most children finished school by the time they were fourteen. Play was a well loved but limited experience. Put in this context, how should the lives of the Orphan Train children be evaluated? This talk will put these young lives in the context of their place and time, and the expectations adults placed on their lives.

Session 5

"Equality Before the Land"

Derrick Burbul, MFA
Professor of Art, UNK
Tuesday, October 2: 7 - 8 pm

The Orphan Train is a great point of departure to explore our Nebraska landscape and the forces that have shaped it. How did it look before European settlers? How have they affected the landscape? Are there places we get a sense of the relationship between decisions from the past and our contemporary landscape? I will use images from the past and my own explorations of the Nebraska landscape to share what I have learned.

"The Young Folk: The Orphan Train in Song"

Kate Benzel, PhD
Professor Emerita of English, UNK
Terry Sinnard and Mick Johnson, musicians
Tuesday, October 2: 8 - 9 pm

Folk music emerges from the breath and bones of people; it doesn’t have distinct origins. It arises from people and speaks of their traditions and histories, wherever and whenever. The Orphan Train movement (1854-1929) provides a fruitful topic for exploring such American folk music. These Orphan Trains relocated abandoned and orphaned children from overcrowded, poverty-stricken cities to new life in the American “heartland.” Their songs provide insight into children’s place in American history and recognize the significance of their displacement, the difficulties of their travels and lives.

Musicians Terry Sinnard and Mick Johnson provide the musical support for this interdisciplinary presentation that explores the legacy and legend of the children of the Orphan Trains.

Session 6

"All the World's a Classroom: Using Theatre to Teach Basic Curriculum"

L.E. McCullough, PhD
Wednesday, October 3: 9:30 - 10:15 am

With increasing success, growing numbers of K-12 teachers across the U.S. are employing theatre and creative drama methods in the classroom to help students grasp basic math, English, science and social studies curriculum. This workshop offers guidelines on identifying the elements of your curriculum most likely to be enhanced by dramatic presentations and then adapting it to your unique classroom environment.

Session 7

"An Orphaned History? Investigating the Emerging Public Memory of Orphan Trains"

Jinny Turman, PhD
Associate Professor of History, UNK
Wednesday, October 3: 10:30 - 11:15 am

This presentation will discuss the recent emergence of a public memory of orphan trains in America. It will analyze the way that genealogical websites, historical markers, museums, theater, and the media have helped to craft a popular memory about the migration and will consider dominant themes that have emerged in the public’s mind about this episode in American history.

Session 8

"From Country Life to Rural Poverty: Conceptions of Rural Space in American Thought"

Thomas Kiffmeyer, PhD
Associate Professor of History, Morehead State University (KY)
Wednesday, October 3: 11:15 am - 12:00 pm

The unprecedented urban, industrial growth that the United States experienced after the Civil War, threatened the way that many Americans saw themselves and their country. According to this image, the United States was a nation of small towns governed by the ubiquitous “town meeting.” Concerned that an urban nation would undermine the very fabric of America, Theodore Roosevelt created the “Country Life Commission.” Its charge was to save Roosevelt’s America—a rural America.

In the 1960s, as the nation experienced unprecedented urban violence, Lyndon Johnson also felt as though the very fabric of the country was in danger. In response, he created the National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty. While it too investigated rural America, Johnson hoped that his commission, by saving rural America, would ultimately save his America—an urban America.

Session 9

"Orphan Train Riders to Nebraska: A Look at Life Experiences"

Sandy Cook-Fong, PhD
Assistant Professor of Social Work, UNO
Wednesday, October 3: 1:30 - 2:15 pm

The orphan train movement was the beginning of foster care in the United States and is a very important part of child welfare history. This presentation will describe first-hand accounts from the riders. Orphan train riders and/or their family members were interviewed to collect data regarding their personal experiences. Information regarding the interactions between the agency personnel and the riders, assessment processes for determining family placement, advertising for potential receiving families, and newspaper accounts of the process will be detailed. Through the interviews the riders detail their own lives and the impact the Orphan Train has made on them. The resiliency of the riders will be emphasized.

Session 10

Orphan Train Riders and their Legacy – Featured Panel
John Shontz, Project Coordinator of Orphan Train Project: Making a Difference, Helena, MT
Mickey Creager, Daughter of Orphan Train Rider, Agnes Widhalm
Lloyd Castner, Son of Orphan Train Rider, Clarence Castner

Moderator: Shaley George, Director
National Orphan Train Complex
Wednesday, October 3: 2:30 - 3:15 pm

Session 11

Creating The Orphan Train Musical – Featured Panel
Panelists: Patricia Birch, Director; Doug Katsaros, Composer; L.E. McCullough, Librettist
Moderator: Janice Fronczak, Professor of Theatre, UNK
Wednesday, October 3: 3:30 - 4:15 pm