Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In Those Days: The Orphan Train Museum

Mural at the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas
"So, what are you up to today?"

"Aw, nothing much. What are you doing?"

"Want to go exploring with me?"

"Okay. Where to?"

"The Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas!"

While this may not sound like the average conversation two twenty-somethings might have, it was one I had with a friend this afternoon. My original plans had been cancelled, leaving me to my own devices; my own devices included finding a fellow explorer to discover a local museum. Said friend was happy to oblige, while admittedly puzzled about my destination of choice. "Just because" rarely satisfies inquiries like that.

Our tour guide's father came to Louisiana as an orphan on
the train from New York City. 

I explained that I enjoy 1) seeing how local museums interpret the past, 2) museums involving trains, 3) spontaneity. A trip to the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas, Louisiana sounded like a good idea to me, meeting all three of those things. The drive to Opelousas provided time for me to share a little bit more about my background in public history, interpretation, and how I tend to assess places like museums or historic homes as much as learn from them. You would think that after saying this to him that I would have been ready for his post-visit question.

"So, what did you think?"

What!?! That is a loaded question! I am not ready! I don't know! Uhh, can I get back to you?
Some of the dresses worn by the orphans. The children
were identified by numbers; the number tag is still attached.

Honestly, I was surprised by the little museum. It is an all-volunteer-run site, an impressive feat on its own, filled with images, stories, and artifacts related to the hundreds of children who arrived in Louisiana from New York City in the early portion of the twentieth century. Admittedly, my knowledge of orphan train riders came from vague memories of The Boxcar Children (and I probably haven't read any of those in nearly two decades). Our tour guide informed us that there are estimates that nearly two thousand orphans came to Louisiana in this manner; these children were especially appreciated in these rural, agrarian areas.

Orphan trains delivered orphans all over the United States. There are a few other orphan train museums, as well. South Louisiana, however, gave these orphans a totally different experience than most other orphans; children delivered here spoke English but were accepted by families who spoke French (Acadian). The orphans often were ridiculed for speaking English and teasingly called "Yankee" by the other children. Stories handed down mention how children learned French to speak in their new homes, only required to re-learn English to enter school. The museum has files on over 300 orphans; any images or pictures of children that have been donated to them are now hanging on the wall. The two volunteers that led us through the museum were related to orphan train riders (one was the daughter of a rider). One volunteer admitted having worked on collecting these stories for over twenty years.

If I were assigned to review this museum within the ivory walls of a university classroom (an assignment I have received many times before), I could mention the lack of over-arching story, the missing dates (I heard lots of "in those days" and "way back when"), or the abundance of images. But knowing how "the real world" works, I think this museum did an outstanding job with its limited resources. I left knowing a lot more about orphans, orphan trains, and life in rural Louisiana at the turn of the twentieth century than I did before my visit. The guides made the visit particularly personal, as the story was a particularly personal story to them. I believe I left the museum a walking outcome of effective interpretation.

If you are ever looking to kill a Wednesday afternoon, stop by Opelousas and see the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum.

"Dear Friend, Within a week after the reception of the little one,
will you please fill out the enclosed slip and forward it to me.
Please also to write to us yearly about May 1st,
how the little child is progressing, with any items of interest.
Wishing you many blessings for your kindness to the orphan,
I am, in our dear Lord, Yours Respectfully, Sr. Anna Michella

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