The Great Depression, along with floods and a severe drought in the 1930s, left many Kentucky families with the difficult decision to keep their hungry children or send them away to a place where they could be taken care of and fed. For at least one orphanage in Jefferson County, that meant overcrowding, and eventually the children’s home began sending orphans across the state on westbound trains.
In 1925 Maggie Hollon gave birth to her seventh child, a boy named Elmer. In all, the Maggie and her husband Buck tried to raise eight children in their struggling Hazard, Kentucky home.
Just a year or two after Elmer was born, his father was shot and killed at a local bar. Maggie couldn't manage raising the eight children on her own so she sent six of them to the Kentucky Children’s Home Society outside of Louisville.
“He was a bad child,” Hollon’s daughter Sharon Stallons said. “He fought a lot in the orphanage from what I remember the stories he told me. He had a temper.”
Stollons lives in Cadiz and says her dad tried to run away from the children’s home more than six times. His unruly behavior came to a tragic tipping point in the early 1930s when he and his younger brother Hagar decided to escape the orphanage together one night.
“He was pulling him across the railroad train tracks and the train was coming too fast, and Daddy, he let go thinking Hagar was right behind him, but he didn’t make it,” Stallons said.
It was after his brother’s death that the children’s home sent Hollon away on the orphan train. That’s how he ended up in Cadiz.
Charlie Morris helps people like Stallons in Trigg County track down their family history, especially those descended from orphan train riders. He has found the names of more than 60 orphan train riders who were brought to Cadiz between 1924 and 1936. Morris says many of the children sent west on the train were a lot like Hollon.
“The first ones that were sent down were either physically handicapped or maybe mentally handicapped or were problem children in the orphanage who kept running off,” he said.
The Kentucky orphan train was similar to a national movement that began at the New York Children’s Aid Society in 1854. In 80 years, the New York orphanage sent more than 100,000 children west on trains.
Claretta Miller was one of those children. She spoke about the New York orphanage and her 1918 train ride across the country in an interview with Janet Graham and Edward Gray for their documentary “The Orphan Trains.”
“We just ate our supper thinking the next day would be just another day, but the superintendent said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ She said, ‘You're going to take your baths and you will be issued all new clothing and tomorrow morning very early, you will rise and board a train to go to find a new home,’" Miller said.
Once she got off the orphan train in Nebraska, Miller was moved from home to home before finally finding the Carmen family.
“It seemed like it just kind of hit me when I got here that I had left everything behind, which I ha,” she said “I didn't have my sister anymore. I didn't have my parents anymore. I didn't have any friends.… But she was with me, Mrs. Carmen. She never left me for a minute. And she helped me get into bed and that's when I began to cry … I still felt all alone and yet I knew there was someone around me, but they were strangers. I didn't know them from Adam.”
Things weren’t too different in Kentucky. Elmer Hollon was also separated from his siblings. He was the only one out of the six Hollons the orphanage sent west.
Likely before Hollon reached Trigg County, where he would spend the remainder of his childhood, an ad went out in the local paper, The Cadiz Record. Some of the children’s home ads used passages from the Bible to stir people’s hearts and others included plights from specific children looking for a place to live, like this one supposedly written by a boy named Eugene:
“I’m just a thin little boy, four years old, who can eat all the potatoes and gravy and milk you have for I’ve been hungry most all of my life. Won’t some good farmer let me help milk the cows so that I can get enough to eat and be warm all winter? I’ll be a good boy.
“PS: I have a little brother here, 6 years old. His name is Harold and he is hungry too.”
Once the children arrived they would most often be taken to a church or the local court house to be “put up for adoption,” which is actually where the phrase originated. Stallons says that’s exactly what happened to her father at a Blue Springs church.
“The people that was picking them out, Dad said that they would feel you to see how strong you was because mostly it was farm work to help them,” she said.
Stallons says her father wasn’t happy with his placement and continued to act out at his new home. He joined the military as soon as he could at 16. But he eventually moved back to Cadiz and raised Stallons and her siblings there.
Stallons says she hopes to meet her father’s biological family in eastern Kentucky at a Hollon family reunion this summer. She wants to meet the aunts, uncles and cousins she’s never met.
For all the riders like Elmer Hollon who were open about their past, there are many of those still living who refuse to talk about the orphan train. Charlie Morris says between the difficulties of being torn away from their parents by death or disaster and being taken in by families that did not always treat them well, the orphan train riders are justified in their resentment.
But not all were unhappy with their placement. Take Claretta Miller, for example.
“As far as having a wonderful family, I was one of the lucky,” she said. “They were always there for me when I needed them. Always.”
Whether they loved their new families or resented them, the orphan train riders left behind many questions about their family history. Now it’s their children must find the answers.
“The Orphan Trains” documentary by Janet Graham and Edward Gray is available at pbs.org.