Sadie Hunt Maxwell and the Orphan Train
by Harry Wilkins
February 10, 2017
Before the advent of modern foster care, aid groups often found homes for abandoned children through the Orphan Train program. Between 1854 and 1929, approximately 250,000 boys and girls were sent
from eastern cities to rural homes in 45 states, including Iowa, to give them the chance for a better life. Eight-year-old Sarah "Sadie" Hunt, her older sister Margaret, and little brother, Robert,
were three such children. With fourteen others, the siblings arrived in Sidney September 22, 1904, and lined up in front of the Methodist Church for inspection. Sadie, Margaret, and Robert
had been living for several years in the Five Point House of Industry, in New York City, sent there by their parents who could no longer afford to keep them. The Children's Aid Society,
sponsor of the train, contacted town officials in Sidney to set up the event, known as "placing out." Children were to be accepted into homes as part of the family, provided with care, clothing,
and schooling; formal adoption was not required but often occurred. Boys were expected to work until their 18th year and were then free to leave.
Sadie remembered the train trip as a time of great anticipation, she prayed steadily for the return of her parents as she had in the orphanage but marveled at the sights, including her
first look at a hog. She also remembered eating her first red raspberry sandwich, on the train. Sadie found a home with Mrs. Melissa Hutchison, from Anderson, but being separated from
her brother and sister was traumatic. She recalled that she couldn't eat for a week until taken to Thurman to see her sister, living with the A. R. Bobbitt family. Her brother, also placed
in Thurman, was living with the Guy Hume family.
Sadie eventually adjusted to her new home, attended the local school through the eighth grade, and found work for the next five years at Henry Field's nursery. In her spare time she taught herself
typing and decided to put her new skill to use. She studied telegraphy at Western Normal College in Shenandoah and worked for 22 years as a telegraph operator for Western Union, in Clarinda and in
Aberdeen, South Dakota. In 1929 she married Harold "Hal" Maxwell, and in 1946 moved to a farm south of Tabor. Sadie and Hal ran an apple orchard known as the "Tabor Fruit Farm," which Sadie kept
going after Hals' death in 1950. She also found outside employment for fourteen years at the Christian Home in Council Bluffs, retiring in 1958.
Sadie and her siblings remained in close contact throughout their lives. She also made several attempts to find her parents, even traveling back to New York City, to no avail. Late in life,
Sadie expressed sadness at losing them but was never bitter, relying on her Christian faith to sustain her. She passed in 1992 at age 96 and is buried in Sidney.
Source: Donated by Evelyn Birkby, the Fremont County Historical Society