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98-Year-Old Woman Recounts Experience As ‘Orphan Train’ Rider

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) – It seems unimaginable now, but adoption for some families used to be as easy as showing up at the train depot.

Word would go out when kids were coming from the East Coast. They were largely children of immigrant families who’d found poverty rather than promise in their voyage to the New World.

Renee Wendinger of Sleepy Eye interviewed some Orphan Train riders for her book. Few of them are still living.

“They were found in doorways and other out-of-the-way places, hungry and starving,” Wendinger said.

The Children’s Aid Society and Sisters of Charity would send them to farming communities out west, in hopes of finding them better homes.

“Really, all they had to do was sign a form and the child was theirs to take home with them,” she said. “Farmers needing hard labor or strong labor for hard work may focus on the muscles of boys.”

Of the five that came to Minnesota, one is Renee’s mom, Sophia Hillesheim-Kral. She was a sickly child in the Bronx whose parents gave her up. Sophia did not have a happy childhood, taken in by a German widow who lived alone, didn’t speak English and had a temper.

“And if I did just something wrong, I had to lean across a chair and she’d beat me up,” Hillesheim-Kral said.

Still, Sophia and her daughter both believe the orphan trains served a worthy purpose overall. They’re grateful for the lives that were saved, and the 98 years Sophia has been around.

“Well, I think the Lord’s making up for it,” Hillesheim-Kral said.

There were many success stories among Orphan Train riders, including two boys who went on to become governors.

The Union Depot in St. Paul will host a multimedia show and performance about the Orphan Trains on Oct. 3 and 6. Click here for more information.

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