Orphan Train | Iowa | History Novel

For the Love of Pete: Photograph spurs author to pen fiction about Orphan Train

July 13, 2013 5:00 pm  •  By HOLLY HUDSON, holly.hudson@wcfcourier.com

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — The old black-and-white photograph, titled “New York Orphans,” features three young boys in tattered clothing. Their faces bear grim expressions as they sleep amongst the filth of a New York City alley.

That photo, and the accompanying article that appeared in a 1988 issue of the State Historical Society of Iowa’s “Palimpsest,” caught Ethel Kjaer Barker’s attention. It was the impetus for her to pen her first book, “For the Love of Pete: An Orphan Train Story.”

Originally from Illinois, Barker grew up in Fredsville, Iowa, located between Dike and Cedar Falls, where her father served as a Lutheran minister.

At 2:30 p.m. July 28, Barker will return to the area to speak about her book in the Mae Latta Hall at the Hearst Center for the Arts, 304 W. Seerley Blvd.

“For the Love of Pete,” set in the late 1800s, is the detailed account of what becomes of three fictional children after they find themselves alone on the streets of the notorious Five Points neighborhood of New York City.

Though the main characters are fictional, the reverend who ultimately finds the children in an orphanage and sets them on their course via an Orphan Train is based on the real-life Charles Loring Brace. Brace, an American philanthropist, is considered a father of the modern foster-care movement and is best known for starting the Orphan Train movement and founding the Children’s Aid Society.

Through his efforts, thousands of children were transported across the country to new homes.

“At that time, there were no immigration laws,” Barker said. “Huge families were coming from Europe and, finding no jobs, many ended up in tenement houses. Many children were orphaned from disease.

“Brace knew he had to get them out of the city,” she said. “He would approach his wealthy friends for donations. He would rent a whole train car and fill it up with children and send notices to small towns along the way.”

In the book, the children are put on display on the stage of a local opera house in the fictional town of Hartfield.

“It seems like an odd way to find a home, but that’s the way they did it,” Barker said.

In researching her book, Barker visited her local library, watched documentaries, visited the National Orphan Train Museum and Research Center in Concordia, Kan., and even attended an Orphan Train reunion.

At the reunion, made up mostly of descendents of Orphan Train children, Barker did get to speak with the only Orphan Train rider in attendance.

“He was in his 90s, so our conversation was limited, but I did learn about the mustard sandwiches,” she said, referring to the food handed out to the children while on the train.

Barker, 78, was a remedial reading teacher and an apartment manager before retiring and pursuing writing. It took her about eight years to complete “For the Love of Pete.”

She now lives in Iowa City with her husband of 53 years, Ed. The couple has four children and 10 grandchildren. Their daughter Susan is the illustrator for “For the Love of Pete.”

Barker is looking forward to returning to the area to share her book.

“I’m very excited,” she said. “My husband went to UNI, close to where I grew up, and we still have friends in the area.”

Book signing

WHAT: Book signing for Ethel Kjaer Barker’s “For the Love of Pete: An Orphan Train Story”

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. July 28

WHERE: Hearst Center for the Arts, 304 W. Seerley Blvd.

DETAILS: Free admission. “For the Love of Pete: An Orphan Train Story” is available at Prairie Lights and Barnes and Noble bookstores in Iowa City and on Amazon.com for $19.95. Barker will have copies available for purchase at the Hearst Center event.