For many, the word “orphanage” brings about visions of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist uttering his famous words, “Please, sir, I want some more.”
For those who lived at the former Lutheran Orphans’ Home in Oregon, the reality of life in an orphanage was more home like with a true “family” atmosphere.
On Aug. 6, 1860, Pastor Johannes Doerfler and four members of Salem Lutheran Church, in Toledo, established the Lutheran Orphans’ Home Society. Soon after, Pastor Doerfler took two orphaned boys into his home.
The first orphanage building was dedicated July 7, 1862. The two-story, wooden frame building, located on Seaman Street, would provide a home to orphans until 1919. Deeming the building inadequate, LHS built a brick home known as “The Dormitory,” which was dedicated April 6, 1919.
Due to the way some people in society began to think of orphanages and the best way to serve children, the Orphans’ Home closed in 1964.
The Lutheran Homes Society (LHS), which it is now called, held a reunion of “orphans” Aug. 5-7. The weekend was a celebration of the non-profit’s 150 years of service to both children and the elderly in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
|John Jenkins, one of several former residents of the Lutheran Orphans’ Home, led tours of the old orphanage building during the 150th Anniversary weekend festivities.
Lillian Meadows (Hartsel), of Walbridge, was one of the alumni in attendance. In 1951, at age 6, Meadows, her sister Bonnie and brothers, Larry and Robert were brought to the Home after their mother became gravely ill.
“There was a divorce, and my mother was working many jobs to support us,” Meadows explained. “She became sick with pneumonia and almost died. She had us go to the Home as her way of making sure that we were schooled, fed and taken care of until she was well enough to take care of us.”
Meadows said she remembers the sisters at the orphanage being strict, but they were not mean to the children.
“We had duties – chores to do every day and they made you listen, but they had to. There were many kids there to take care of, but they were not mean,” Meadows said. “We did not scrub the floors with our toothbrushes. The teachers were strict but that was just a part of life. Life is what you make it.”
Meadows said she remembers having a lot of fun at the orphanage.
“We loved playing in the sand box and sliding down the hill in the back of the campus in the winter,” she said. “During the holidays and Christmas, we put on pageants and we got gifts. We saw our mom on the weekends.”
Meadows said she learned many lessons while at the orphanage, not the least of which was, “don’t take what you have for granted.”
“Some of the children were really orphans and some had family that could not take care of them,” she said. “I had cousins there for a year because my aunt could not take care of them. It was a place for parents to bring children until they could get on their feet.”
The Rev. Gerald Labuhn was named executive director of the LHS in 1964. Labuhn had previously worked at the LHS in 1951 for a year as a student pastor and childcare worker. When the LHS closed the orphanage, Labuhn was in charge of placing the orphans into new homes.
Now retired and serving part-time as the archivist and museum director, Labuhn said he remembers many of the former orphans.
“I remember the ones who were here when I was living here,” Labuhn said. “We have had a lot of reunions over the years and I get to see many of them and we are able to share stories,” he said.
As the archivist, Labuhn has been able to pour over records dating back to 1860. Many of the records contain letters from children served by LHS and some state records describing the orphanage as “home-like.”
“The society has a German background and we Germans save everything,” Labuhn chuckled. “One document from 1913, when Ohio began monitoring facilities and setting standards, shows the state inspector beginning his assessment with ‘The home has an atmosphere like a family.’ Many of the children that were here were here because of tragic circumstances. They did not have a natural family, but the orphanage was the best substitute they could get outside of having their own loving parents.
“Some of the kids, during the Depression, said coming to the home was the best thing to happen to them,” Labuhn continued. “They had shelter, food and affection. They did not realize the difficulties experienced by families in the community. The children never suffered.”
In earlier days, the majority of the children at the residence were orphans, Labuhn said. In later years, the LHS took care of children who were “orphaned” by divorce, the death of one or both parents, or those whose parent was in a mental or TB hospital and the other parent was a traveling salesman, he said.
A “remarkably good experience”
John Jenkins, 58, of Oregon, came to the orphanage from Monroe, Mich., with his three brothers, Bob, Dave and Harry.
“I was 7 years old when we went there,” Jenkins said. “Our mother, Myrtle, died when I was 5 and my dad had a stroke two years later and was hospitalized. We initially went to live with an aunt and uncle but they could not afford to keep us. They had three daughters of their own and my grandmother was living with them as well. Ten people in a home was just too much.”
Jenkins said he remembers being nervous at first, but that he soon had no problem being at the orphanage.
“It was a wonderful home,” Jenkins recalled. “We had chores to do but that did not hurt us. We were treated very well. The Shriners, Luther League and Kiwanis members all treated us well, also. If the circus was in town, we went to see it. We went to the zoo and a ton of places. We did not miss out on a whole lot. It was a remarkably good experience and we had excellent care. I do not know where I would be if not for being there.”
Jenkins said he remembered that the food cooked by the sisters.
“I was a chubby kid,” Jenkins said. “The food was very good. We got baked goods donated by a bakery in East Toledo. Back then, the women at the churches also canned a lot and donated the food to the orphanage. I can say that they made the worst bowl of oatmeal. It was lumpy and I did not eat oatmeal after that for many years.”
Labuhn, a licensed and accredited social worker, said the orphanage closed after “professional” opinions about raising children changed.
“Orphanages were not the optimum, but they were good,” Labuhn said. “After the Second World War, there was a feeling that there were only two good ways to raise children. One was with the natural family and the other was to have the children adopted. Everything else was considered second rate and institutional care was considered really bad. That is when the state began closing state hospitals and homes.”
Labuhn recounted the case of one girl who came to the home after living in 16 different foster homes and had two failed adoptions.
“Children are bounced in and out of foster homes,” Labuhn said. “There is a whole range of need for children. There are children who can be adopted and those who need temporary foster care. Some children need a group facility because they have nowhere else.”
LHS is still involved with helping children. The society has five group homes in the community, a home for autistic children in Henry County as well as running two schools in Oregon for children with behavioral issues.
“Some kids really need the live-in facilities,” Labuhn said. “The cottages look like homes and are in neighborhoods. They attend churches and public schools. We do not want them to stick out or to be seen as ‘institutional’ kids. They are in a family.”
Jenkins remained at the orphanage until it closed in 1964. His brother, Bob, left in 1963 when he turned 18, and joined the Air Force. Dave went to live in a foster home in the Waite school district, Jenkins said, so he could finish his senior year with his friends.
Jenkins, the youngest of the boys, and his brother, Harry, went to live with Glenn and Margaret Koester, of Oregon. Jenkins attended Fassett Junior High and then Clay. After graduating in 1970, Jenkins earned his associate’s degree in business from the University of Toledo.
Jenkins retired from Acosta Sales and Marketing in 2007 and is currently running his own food sales company. He and his late wife, Marilyn, have two children, Stephanie and Matthew.
“I have a very good relationship with my foster parents and foster sisters, Jan and Jean,” Jenkins said. “When they have family reunions, we are always invited. They treat my children as their own grandchildren.”
Meadows married Alfred Meadows and the couple has two daughters, Kimberly and Patricia. After moving out of state for several years, Meadows returned to Walbridge and eventually began working at LHS in 1992.
“I worked in the activity department and then as a receptionist,” Meadows, who retired in 1997, said. “My first day there, pastor Labuhn came up to me and he remembered who I was. It was just nice working there.”
Meadows and her children have gone to the many reunions over the years, she said, adding that seeing where she lived gives her children a real perspective on life.
“Never take your parents for granted and be thankful for what you have, because many people are worse,” Meadows said. “Many kids spent their whole life there and were never adopted. At least we had a place to sleep, live and eat. Be thankful for what you have.”
Meadows also fondly remembers “Sister Helen’s” coffeecake as one of the highlights of her three-year stay at the orphanage.
“It was a real special treat for us to get,” Meadows said. “It was just the best coffeecake.”
Labuhn said the coffeecake was also a fond memory of his. Sister Helen came to the home in 1915 and served the children for 40 years, he said. The coffeecake made such an indelible mark on both orphans and staff that LHS purchased 10 sheets of the cake for the reunion from Lange’s Bakery in Archbold, which uses the same recipe Sister Helen did.