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Christmas on the prairie


Sun, Dec 17th, 2000
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By Frances TownsendMonday, December 18, 2000

Editor’s Note: For this Christmas issue the Journal is pleased to publish a short story written by Frances Townsend of rural Preston. Frances says that she was inspired by reading a feature article in the Journal, two years ago, about the Orphan Trains, that brought East Coast orphans to homes in the Midwest during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We hope you enjoy it.

It was only two days before Christmas and most of the children at school were in high spirits. There was a Christmas program planned for the afternoon and all the parents would be there to watch. Then the winter vacation would start, with no school on Christmas Eve, and on through New Year’s. And most of all, the children were looking forward to Christmas. All except Suzette. Certainly if she weren’t in school, Klaus and Clara would find something to keep her busy. And why should she look forward to Christmas morning?

Suzette was an orphan girl from Baltimore, who had ended up out in Minnesota, in the home of Klaus and Clara Stump. Suzette’s parents had both died during a typhoid outbreak two years earlier, which left her in a home for abandoned children. After that, Suzette had prayed many nights for someone to take her home and adopt her. The girls at the orphanage would whisper stories at night to one another - stories of big, fancy houses, ponies they would have for their own, pretty dresses, everything their wonderful new parents might give them. For too many of them, all they really had to look forward to was a job sewing or housekeeping until they married, if they were lucky enough to.

In June of that year, a man had come to the orphanage with a strange new idea. He would take girls and boys and put them on a train. They would stop in the small towns of the Midwest and West and people there would come and take them home. They would have new lives in the country, where they could grow up in the healthy fresh air, away from the dismal cities of the east. Suzette wasn’t given a choice, almost everyone in the orphanage was going. But she would have gone anyway. The wonderful new parents and the house and the pony were out there somewhere, waiting.

Once the journey started, things began to feel different. At each stop, the children would get off the train and go to the town square where the local citizens were gathered. Sometimes the cutest, youngest ones were chosen, but the biggest, strongest boys were always in demand, those who could put in a day’s work on the farm. You could tell that as many people were interested in getting workers as in finding a child to love. Suzette was a slight child, nine years old, with dark curly hair - too old to be cute, too young to be very useful. So she rode on through Illinois and Wisconsin to Minnesota.

Suzette’s journey finally ended when Klaus and Clara picked her out. They asked the social worker about her particulars and then signed the foster parent papers promising to send her to school and to church. There had been one boy, Clarence, who was taken just before Klaus and Clara had arrived. He had a sad look about him, or he would have been chosen sooner, for certain. When Suzette was taken, she had the distinct impression that Klaus and Clara would rather have taken Clarence instead, if they’d had a chance.

Suzette rode out the several miles to their house in the back of the wagon, her new guardians silent as stones on the seat in front of her. The house was small and sparsely appointed. It was nothing like the fine home that Suzette had longed for. The only fanciful items were on a high shelf - a curious teapot and a small china doll.

From the very beginning there seemed to be nothing but work to do. Klaus and Clara worked constantly and they expected no less of Suzette. Feed the chickens, gather the eggs. Hoe the corn, shell the peas. Sweep the floor, wash the dishes. Being a city girl, many of these jobs did not come easily to Suzette. She would run from the angry, pecking chickens and Klaus would tell her to be brave. She would struggle to pop open the pea pods in a swift, efficient motion and Clara would show her again, saying that this was the food they would have to eat in the winter. The work was hard but the worst part of it was that Suzette always wondered why they had taken her off the orphan train - was it only to have an extra hand on the farm? At night she prayed that God would still somehow find her parents who would love her.

One day Klaus sold some pigs to a farmer who lived several miles away. When the man came to pick them up, he brought Clarence, the boy Suzette had met on the train. Clarence told her that he slept in a room out in the barn, away from the house, and that he doubted that his foster parents would send him to school in the fall, even though they had agreed to when they took him in. He looked more sullen than ever, but he dutifully helped with the pigs. That evening Klaus told Clara how helpful that orphan boy had been, and Suzette wondered all the more if they wouldn’t rather have chosen him that day in town.

When school started in the fall, Suzette did get to go. She went to Rose of the Prairie School with all her nearest neighbors, walking about a mile each way. In Baltimore, the school had been a tall brick building, full of classrooms and stairways and hundreds of children. Rose of the Prairie was a little wooden building with one big room, and a tiny cloakroom and closet on either side of the entryway. Even though Suzette was a stranger, the other children were friendly. They were drawn to her bouncy, outgoing personality, and they were amazed at her tales of life in the city.

On school days, Suzette would get up in the morning, care for the chickens and bring in firewood and water, before eating breakfast and walking to school. After school, there were also chores. There was always work to do.

Strangely, as the evenings began to lengthen, Suzette began to be wistful for the days of summer when there was more outdoor work to be done. This was because Klaus and Clara were so very quiet. On winter evenings, the little house was silent as Klaus read and Clara did darning or knitting. They never seemed to say much. Suzette looked at her school books and tried to amuse herself.

At school now, the Christmas program was just about to begin. Suzette knew it was a big event, because they had used a lot of school time practicing. The teacher had planned a drama, some poetry recitations, and singing. They practiced all morning, and at noon the big boys helped the teacher rearrange the desks and chairs so there would be room for an audience. Soon parents would arrive and the little room would be packed with happy people. Afterwards, the children, who normally had to walk to and from school, would have festive sleigh rides home. Suzette usually felt like part of the crowd, but the thought of families celebrating while she would be walking back to the farm alone made her feel especially left out.Suzette had a fine singing voice. She never sang at church, because Klaus and Clara didn’t. They held the little brown hymnal and looked at the words, but did not sing. But at school, everybody sang and the teacher had noticed Suzette’s voice and had given her a song to sing all by herself during the program. She had been practicing at home, but only when she was outdoors. Maybe Klaus and Clara did not like music. She didn’t know. It was not her place to ask them.

After all the waiting, it was finally time for the program. All the children were nervous about their parts, and there was much pushing around of scenery and putting on of costumes and parents streaming in and filling up the room. Then reluctant stars and snowflakes danced across the makeshift stage and the program began. First there were recitations about snowy days and

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