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All aboard! Next stop... a new life

Battle Lake woman’s mom came to the area on the Orphan Train

By Carol Stender

A part of Jim and Jeanne Putnam’s decor pays homage to railroads, and for a good reason: Jeanne’s mother, Carmela, came to Tintah, Minnesota, on the Orphan Train.

Jeanne Putnam shows a couple train-related pieces of art from her home. The one she is holding is a drawing of the day that Orphan Train stopped in Tintah. Photo by Carol Stender

Among the artwork at their Battle Lake home is a drawing of a train station depot platform with people dressed in early 20th century clothing, standing around the depot as a nun carries a youngster to a couple. It is an accurate depiction of how Carmela Caputo came to Tintah in June of 1914.

Carmela was described as a sickly two-year-old when she arrived. Townspeople gathered on the train station platform excited for Peter and Mary Schend, who were bringing the little girl to their home.

“Everyone was so excited,” wrote Sister Alicene Tucker as she described the scene.

Little Carmela was one of 250,000 children relocated from crowded Eastern U.S. cities to homes mostly in the rural Midwest. Some claimed the children were orphaned, abandoned, abused, or homeless, but that wasn’t always true. Most of the children were of new immigrant families who were poor and destitute.

The Orphan Trains operated from 1854 to 1929 as a supervised welfare system. Once a more formal, national system was established, the Orphan Trains ended.

Three charitable institutions - Children’s Village, The Children’s Aid Society, and The New York Foundling Hospital - endeavored to relocate the youngsters with other families.

It was The New York Foundling Hospital where Carmela’s mother, Nunziata, brought her 10-day-old daughter. There were no questions asked as families gave their young ones to the orphanage. Carmela’s parents were, according to her birth certificate, Italian. Her father’s name was not listed, nor was there any information on his background.

People would bring the children to the orphanage placing babies in a bassinet meant for the little orphans. No questions were asked.

The New York Foundling Hospital placed a great deal of thought and care into the placement of the children in its care. A priest traveled the train route before the “iron horse” made its trek with its youthful passengers. At Tintah, he asked Father Hoffman if he knew of anyone from the parish who would like to adopt. His thoughts turned to Peter and Mary Schend, a farming couple, who had no children, but wanted a family.

Carmela said the Schends picked her because they knew they would get a little Italian girl with dark eyes.

Before Carmela or any of the other children boarded the train, a Notice of Arrival was sent to the family. It read, “We take pleasure in notifying you that the little (boy/girl), which you so kindly ordered, will arrive at (any town) on the (train name) train on (day, month and year) on the train due to arrive (a.m. p.m.), and ask the you kindly be at the Railway Station to receive the child 30 minutes before the train is due, and to avoid any possibility of missing connection as the train will not wait should you not be there.

“The name of the child, date of birth, and name of address of the party to whom the child is assigned, will be found in the coat or collar of the boy, and in the hem of the dress of the girl.

“The receipt must be signed in ink by both husband and wife, and is to be given up in exchange for the child who will have a corresponding number.”

Included in the letter was the receipt of child.

“We beg to acknowledge receipt of the little orphan as numbered above, and promise to raise said child in the Roman Catholic faith, and to send (higher) to school and all the advantages that we would give to a child of ours, and report to the Sisters of Charity as to health and general condition when requested…”

True to the picture hanging on the Putnam’s wall, Carmela was united with the Schends.

“Mom always felt fortunate she was in this family that loved her,” Jeanne said. “Some of the orphanages that took part in the Orphan Trains would have families pick a child. They might pick them because they would be strong for farm work or able to help with the kitchen work. A lot of them weren’t treated well. But Mom always felt that she was chosen by the Schends and that they loved her.”

Carmela was accustomed to lots of children when living at the orphanage. On the Schend’s farm, it was just Peter, Mary and her. When she was four, Carmela said she would make up her own friends, and often played with the chickens.

Carmela Caputo pictured in 1976. Contributed photo

When she heard the train whistle, Carmela followed the sound. She told her children she felt drawn to it. By the time she reached the tracks, the train was gone.

She attended country school, which was one mile from the farm.

“I walked when I went (to school), which wasn’t very often,” she wrote.

Each year, the New York Foundling Hospital sent someone to check on the children, and how they’re adjusting to their new families. Those who made the assessments stated that the “child was doing nicely” while another reported the child to be “bright and happy.”

The Schends were eager to adopt Carmela, but the process was slow. Peter was especially anxious to complete the process after the family’s bout of Spanish Flu. While Mary and Carmela recovered with no problems, Peter continued to suffer. The family sold the farm and moved to Tintah where he worked as a house carpenter.

Finalizing the adoption became his focus. So he turned to the community for help.

Someone from the Hotel Tintah wrote to The New York Foundling Hospital, “Mr. Schend is very anxious to legally adopt Carmela Caputo. He complains that no attention has been paid to letters with answers for concerns of adoption. He is not a well man and has concerns that if he should die, relatives would not do a thing for this child. So, he wants to have her protected in order that she remain.”

Peter contacted a Wheaton law firm to help, and on Oct. 14, 1925, he received word that the court determined Carmela Caputo to be the legally adopted child of Peter J Schend and his wife, changing her name to Carmela Caputo Schend. The adoption finalized Dec. 9, 1922, eight years after she came to Tintah.

Carmela attended St. Gall’s Catholic School in Tintah and took organ lessons from Sister Leora. Once she’d graduated from high school, the Schends sent her to college.

“They educated me and treated me like a queen,” Carmela told her children.

Carmela attended St. Cloud Teachers College and graduated in 1932. She taught at a country school before marrying Raymond Keaveny of Tintah.

Raymond, 11 years older than Carmela, was a farmer and substitute mail carrier. Jeanne smiles recalling how, if something needed fixing, they called on Grandpa Schend and his carpentry skills. Apparently, Raymond wasn’t as adept with wood working.

Carmela left teaching to raise the couple’s 10 children. It was an even split of five girls and five boys, Jeanne said.

There was no running water or indoor plumbing, but that didn’t faze the feisty and energetic Carmela. She was engaged with her family. If the kids wanted to play cards, she would play cards with them, Jeanne said. And she kept up with her housework, whether it would be washing clothes or butchering a chicken for the family’s supper.

“In the summers she would always take us swimming on a hot day,” Jeanne said. “And she would stay up all night to sew a dress for me to wear the next day.”

The Keaveny family includes front (L to R): Lenore Moulsoff, Francella Keaveny; Back row (L to R): Pete Keaveny, Ceil Scroggins, Jeanne Putnam, Susie Lehner and Joe Keaveny. Contributed photo

Carmela went back to school, earning her masters degree, when her youngest child started kindergarten. She taught at LeMars, North Dakota, some 20 miles from Tintah. When a position opened in Tintah, she took it.

“She loved to read and encouraged reading with her students,” Jeanne said. “One of the girls she taught said mom encouraged them to read and said you can go anywhere you want to go just by reading a book. That comment stuck with her and was something she thought of often. She has loved reading ever since.”

Carmela taught three years in Sisseton, SD, before Tintah teachers called her back to the school.

During her teaching career, she visited with some friends and learned one lady from Breckenridge had also been adopted from the Orphan Train. The two decided to put an ad in the local paper looking for others who had been adopted.

The first year the group met, there were 16 in attendance. It spurred the group to keep meeting every year. The group celebrated its 50th year of existence in 2011. And they continue to meet. St Francis Convent in Little Falls is now the host site. Now, instead of the orphans, it’s their children and grandchildren who remain active in the group. 

Carmela retired from teaching in 1976. Raymond died in 1974 at age 72. Carmela was 70 when she passed in 1981. The couple had 10 children - Lenore Moulsoff, Charlie Keaveny (deceased), Ceil Scroggins, Pete Keaveny, Fran Keaveny, Brian Keaveny (deceased), Susie Lehner, Terry Keaveny (deceased), Jeanne Putnam, and Joe Keaveny. Those children gave the couple 27 grandchildren.

In 2012, Jeanne and her four sisters traveled to New York to learn more of their mother’s background. They went to Ellis Island where they learned of the ship Nunziata traveled on to reach the U.S. They found out she only had $4 when she arrived to the new country.

The five found the address where their grandmother lived. The apartment she’d called home was destroyed in a fire, they learned. And they visited The New York Foundling Hospital. In its entry is a statue that includes children. Near it is a replica of a bassinet like the one Carmela most likely was placed.

Through the trip, the five learned more about their mother’s past. And they remembered her feisty spirit and genuine personality.

Despite her rough beginning, Carmela embraced her past and had respect for her biological mother and adoptive parents. Her mom loved her so much she wanted her to live with a family that could support her, Carmela told her children. And she knew her adopted parents loved and supported her throughout her life.


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