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Husband-and-wife team spread awareness of orphan trains

By Steven James BCC Editor

Alison Moore and Phil Lancaster gave their multimAlison Moore and Phil Lancaster gave their multimedia and music presentation “Riders on the Orphan Train” Thursday night at 7 at the Bandera County Public Library to raise awareness of the topic, which is not normally taught in schools.
The Orphan Train Movement, which lasted from 1854 to 1929, involved more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned or homeless children being transported by train from eastern parts of the U.S., mainly New York City, to foster homes in central and southern parts of the country. Several charitable organizations, including the Children’s Aid Society and Children’s Village, were created to help these children. The Orphan Train Movement remained widespread until social agencies began monitoring and organizing foster parents in the 1920s.
Moore said in addition to not being taught in a typical U.S. classroom, finding information about orphan trains is also difficult because there is no major database about the orphans, as well as the fact some people do not know they were one of these orphans until later in life.
“This is one of the best-kept secrets in American history, and what we do know about it comes from the people themselves,” Moore said. “Teachers now get their students to look up this stuff online, because that is where most of the information is.”
Moore and Lancaster have been traveling around the southern U.S. since 1998 as a musical duo to give informal lectures and presentations about the Orphan Train Movement. Along with music they, their friends and their colleagues wrote, the two also incorporate archived photographs and film into their talks.
During the event at the Bandera library, Moore and Lancaster showed photographs on a projector, as well as clips from the 1995 Children’s Aid Society and PBS documentary “The Orphan Trains,” which includes interviews of people who rode the trains as children.
Depending on what they saw and heard, audience members either laughed, or moaned from sadness.
Near the end of the presentation, Moore quoted a passage from her 2012 novel, also called “Riders on the Orphan Train,” to the audience.
Lancaster said after learning some of their personal stories, the orphan who stuck out the most to him and his wife was Lee Clement.
Lancaster said Lee and his brother, Leo, became wards of the state of New York after their biological father kicked out their three older siblings and decided to no longer pay the fare for him and Leo to stay at an orphanage near where they lived.
Lancaster said Lee told him he had a hard time believing in adults, and would get into fights all the time at the orphanage, mainly to protect his younger brother.
When Lee and Leo were taken to the train station with the other children, their father arrived with their younger brother, Gerald, two-and-a-half-years-old at the time. Lee was excited to see his father.
“When he gets to his father, his father hands over the little two-and-a-half-year-old toddler, saying “You’re going to have to take care of him on the train”,” Lancaster said. “Lee said “Why? Why can’t you just take us home?” He says “I just can’t”.”
The father then gave him a pink envelope with which Lee was supposed to write to him about where they would be taken and how they would be doing. After Lee fell asleep the first night on the train, the matron took the envelope and refused to return it.
After other adults adopted his younger brothers, Lee was eventually taken in by a farming couple.
During the discussion portion of the presentation, Bandera resident Dorothy Taylor said she met a real estate agent near San Antonio who happened to be one of the orphans who rode the trains. Taylor said the man told her when he was a child, he would hide up in the tree outside of his house because his foster father would beat him. He ran away at the age of nine.
The last time she talked to him was 18 years ago.
“He was a pretty nice man,” Taylor said. “He said it was quite an ordeal that they went through to be just taken out and given to somebody. It’s amazing what children can survive through.” edia and music presentation