Bob Schroeder had quite a story to tell this week at Newton Public Library, one he told in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
His father, John A. Lingenfelter, was one of five children who were treated at Bethel Deaconess Hospital in May of 1919. Those five children, four girls and one boy, came to Newton on an “Orphan Train.”
“These are stories I have heard all of my life,” Schroeder said. “... They were destitute, living in the hill country of Pennsylvania.”
Lingenfelter’s birth parents died within a day of each other as the result of influenza.
“One day John A. Lingenfelter was at the hospital and he saw a hearse go by the window. He asked the nurse, 'Is that my momma?’ She did not reply. The next day he saw another hearse go by the window. He asked, ‘Is that my daddy?’ Again, no reply,” Schroeder said. “Several days later the children were taken to the cemetery and shown the graves of their mother and father.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there isn't universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919. In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.
The youngest Lingenfelter was taken to an uncle's home, the rest to their grandparents. There, John Lingenfelter was once punished for wanting a drink of water. After a short time, he went to live with a young couple who twice locked him in a closet with a blanket when they wanted to go dancing.
"That bugged him the rest of his life," Bob Schroeder said. "He decided he was done living with them. ... After telling what happened (to his uncle), he said, 'I am not staying with them. I am running away.' "
He was taken back to his grandfather's home. At the time, there was a Mennonite General Conference meeting in Pennsylvania with the Red Cross and H.P. Krehbiel, from Newton. Krehbiel was asked if he would take care of five orphan children from the same home.
"Young Lingenfelter did not know what was happening when he and his siblings were taken to the train depot," Bob Schroeder said. "He made a run for it but was caught and put on the train under the supervision of (a missionary). 'I'll be back,' he vowed."
The first Kansas-bound orphan train arrived in the state in 1867 and the last in 1930, the same year the Orphan Train movement officially ceased operations. During that time, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 children were placed in Kansas homes.
In all, there were six Lingenfelter orphans — five made the trip to Newton on the same train.
The Bethel Deaconess Board, using grant funds, helped bring them to Newton. Four of the children were school age but had never attended school. They were poor, lacking shoes. They were short, small and malnourished.
They were kept in the Bethel Deaconess Sisters Home under the eye of Frieda Kauffman. One of those children received a free operation from Arthur Hertzler, of Halstead Hospital fame, to correct a problem with the child's neck. All were adopted when they got here.
The oldest Lingenfelter to make the trip was 13, the youngest 6.
On May 26, John Lingenfelter was adopted by the Schroeder family. It was a day that he never forgot and a story he told his children often.
"One day (Kauffman) said, 'Someone is coming to get a look at you and you might get a home,' " Bob Schroeder said. "... After washing in a hurry, he slid down the stair railing to get there first. He remembered that, and told that story the rest of his life."
It was then he met his new mother — Marie Schroeder.
"He looked at the adoptive parents and there sat momma," Bob Schroeder said. "He walked to Marie Schroeder and gave her a big hug and told her, 'I love momma.' She responded with a hug and then looked at him. 'But I wanted a girl.' A little boy's tears flowed freely, but she told him, 'I will go home and pray about it.' He responded, 'I will too.' A week later, May 26, 1919, Mrs. Schroeder returned to say, 'I am going to adopt you.' "
He spoke English. She spoke mostly German. In three months, he was speaking German.
"Six-year-old Lingenfelter told her, 'If you take care of me until I am 21 years old, I will take care of you,' " Bob Schroeder said.
He became the youngest of four adoptive children in the Schroeder home. As a youth, John asked to have his last name changed to Schroeder.
"When he was 13 years old he asked his mom if he could become a Schroeder," Bob Schroeder said. "She went to the courthouse in McPherson and set it up to change his name. Later on, when he became 21, she said 'John, I have been back to the courthouse. I have it set up if you want to change it back to Lingenfelter, you can. You are of age.' ... He said, 'Nope, I am a Schroeder, and that is what I am going to stay.' "
He went on to take over the family farm.
Some of the Lingenfelters ended up near Peabody, others near Goessel.
Luckily, the children were able to see each other — the churches that helped bring them to Newton insisted that they get together at least twice a year.
“One of the things the kids did, and that the Mennonites of Newton wanted them to do, was to visit each other and get to know each other,” Bob Schroeder said. “... We had great cousins.”
One child was adopted, at the age of 18 months, in Pennsylvania because, “They did not want to ship him out.”
There were 250,000 children from the northeast placed in the United States and Canada between 1854 and 1929 through the orphan train system. They were put on trains 50 to 60 at a time. When the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 abandoned children were living in New York City.
“They came from all over the northeast. They were street kids,” Bob Schroeder said. “The ones that got good homes, they were lucky. ... Some got bad homes and places to live. There were good stories and bad ones.”
Orphan trains came from the northeast to Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and other Midwest states.
Today, there is a museum dedicated to the orphan trains that came to Kansas in Concordia.