Friday, July 13, 2012

Iowa Soldiers Orphans Home at Davenport Annie Wittenmeyer

By Harry E. Downe.

Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home at Davenport, Iowa in 1910
Any mention of the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home, brief or extended, must begin with reference to Mrs. Annie Wittenmeyer, the Keokuk woman whom Governor Kirkwood commissioned state sanitary agent and who during the long years of the Civil war was constantly engaged in works of mercy in the hospitals at the front.  In a personal letter under date of 1888 she speaks of the movement for the care of soldiers' orphans:  "I matured the plan during the Mississippi river campaign which culminated in the surrender of Vicksburg in July, 1863.  It was in the hospital where I was surrounded by men facing death, whose one anxiety was for their children, that the thought came to me, and many a dying soldier was comforted by the assurance that I would undertake the enterprise."

The actual founding of the homes for the care of the children of the brave men of Iowa who had laid down their lives for their country came about through the state sanitary organization which worked through local aid societies in collecting and distributing supplies for the soldiers, supplies which exceeded a half million dollars in value.

At a meeting of the Soldiers' Aid society held at Iowa City, September 23, 1863, attended by Mrs. Wittenmeyer, the care of children orphaned by the war was discussed, and a call published for a meeting of the people of Iowa at Muscatine, October 5, 1863.  Among the signatures appended to this call were  D. T. Newcomb and O. W. Leslie of Davenport.  At this Muscatine convention there was a good and representative attendance from all portions of the state.  Resolutions were passed that an asylum for children made fatherless by the war be established, and an organization effected to carry out the resolution.  The following officers were elected for the society thus founded:  Governor W. M. Stone, president; Miss Mary Kibben, Mt. Pleasant, recording secretary; Miss Mary Shelton, later Mrs. C. L. Poor, Burlington, corresponding secretary; Mrs. N. H. Brainard, Iowa City, treasurer; the board of trustees included; Mrs. Annie Wittenmeyer, of Keokuk; Mrs. C. Ben Darwin, Davenport, Mrs. D. T. Newcomb, Davenport; Mrs. L. B. Stevens, and Messrs. O. Faville, E. H. Williams, T S. Parvin, M. Shields, Caleb Baldwin, C. C. Cole, Isaac Pemberton and C. Henderson.

The first meeting of the trustees was held in Des Moines, February 14, 1864, at which time and place arrangements were made for raising the necessary funds for the enterprise, although the impetuous Mrs. Wittenmeyer had anticipated this action by several months having issued an appeal for the orphans to the people of the state on Thanksgiving day of 1863.  At the March meeting of the trustees Mr. Howell of Keokuk was authorized to lease a building, procure furnishings and solicit funds.  In June Davenport contibuted $600 to the expense fund.  The same month at another trustees' meeting a committee was appointed to open a home.  The movement gained in popularity throughout the state.

The special committee of the trustees reported July 13, 1864, that a large brick building had been secured at Lawrence, Van Buren county, and that it was in condition to receive the children who were in need of shelter and in three weeks from that time twenty-one children were there domiciled.  The first matron was Mrs. E. M. Elliott of Washington.

The movement for the care of soldiers' orphans gathered enthusiasm as the months went by.  Ingersoll, the war historian, says:  "There has never been any one work in the state that has convened so many people in large and enthusiastic assemblies, filled so many churches and halls, thrilled so many hearts, awakened so much emotion, suffused with tears so many eyes, commanded such great liberality, or enlisted so many great minds as the Soldiers' Orphans' home."  The soldiers in the field deeply touched by these efforts for the children of their brothers in arms contributed more than $45,000.

In addition to the home near Farmington another was opened at Cedar Falls where the soldiers' orphans living in the northern portion of the state were cared for to the number of more than 100 the first year.  Early in 1865 there was suggestion made that the Orphans' Home at Lawrence could with advantage be moved to Davenport.  In May there was a public meeting at the Presbyterian Church in which the interests of the orphans were considered with liberal subscriptions.  In October of 1865 another meeting was held in LeClaire's hall and subscriptions to the fund amounting to $5,200 were made.

The steamer Keithsburg arrived from Keokuk, November 16, 1865, having on board 150 orphans of Iowa soldiers.  Previous to their arrival the comparatively new barracks of Camp Kinsman on the present site of the home had been made ready for their reception.  The barracks contained beds, bedding and much other equipment that could be utilized and the home was furnished by the liberal contribution of patriotic citizens of Davenport, the amount running into the thousands of dollars.  Upon the arrival of the boat breakfast was served in the Christian chapel, now Hibernian hall, on Brady Street near Fifth Street by the sympathetic ladies of the city.  Afterward the party went to Camp Kinsman and the Davenport branch of the institution was established.  Mrs. Wittenmeyer consented to remain at the home as matron and this insured the perfect success of the enterprise.  M. B. Cochran of Iowa City was made superintendent.

The first superintendent of the home while it was at Farmington was named Parvin.  This was a temporary arrangement and he was soon succeeded by Rufus Hubbard who was superintendent until the removal of the home to Davenport in 1865.

Annie Wittenmeyer
In 1867 Superintendent Cochran and Matron Wittenmeyer resigned and were succeeded by Mr. and Mrs. S. W. Pierce of Fairfield as superintendent and matron.  Mr. Pierce resigned in 1886 and was succeeded by Gen. E. C. Litchfield who served less than eleven months.  Mr. Pierce was recalled and managed the home for eleven months.  Principal John R. Bowman was called from School No. 1 to the superintendency and served two years.  He was followed by Dr. W. E. Whitney who resigned in 1893 and was followed by J. H. Lukens of Muscatine who served two years relinquishing the position to M. T. Gass who held it until his death in May, 1904.   H. W. Kellogg was acting superintendent until June 8th of that year when Frank J. Sessions took charge of the largest family in Iowa.

The eleventh general assembly in 1866 acted favorably upon the petitions presented looking to change in management of the Soldiers' Orphans' home.  First established by what was virtually a private corporation and later splendidly maintained as a benevolent institution the time seemed ripe for the home to be numbered among the recognized state institutions supported by taxation.  This was done, and an act passed by which it came under the support and control of the state.  The legislature named a board of trustees consisting of one member from the state at large, and one from each congressional district.  An appropriation of $25,000 was voted and provision made for a tax levy.  The main institution was located at Davenport with branches at Cedar Falls and Glenwood.  At this time the number of children in these three homes numbered 864.  In 1875 the homes were consolidated into one institution at Davenport.

From the time when the care of soldiers' orphans was assumed by the state the Davenport institution grew and prospered.  Better buildings replaced the whitewashed barracks, and all features of the army camp were obliterated.  Handsome structures of pressed brick came into existence, administration building, cottages, hospital, laundry, machine shop, tailor shop, schools.  The state gave loving care and guardianship to the children of those who proved themselves "the bravest of the brave" and trusted their little ones to the keeping of those who survived the struggle.

The home has been visited by disastrous fires-one in July, 1886, and again the next year when lightening consumed the main building with a loss of $50,000.  The handsome chapel which serves as an assembly hall when it is desired to call all the children together was finished an dedicated in April, 1901.  In this chapel is located the handsome $3,000 pipe organ, gift of Governor Larrabee, a member of the State Board of Control at the time this body was established to manage and conduct all state institutions of a benevolent and corrective character.

As the orphans of the soldiers of the war of the rebellion grew to manhood and womanhood with the flight of time this institution was utilized for the care of the poor children of the state, the little people who have poor homes or none at all, the children who would otherwise have no place of refuge other than the county poor farms, children in danger from evil surroundings and influence.  Here they are gathered from broken homes-the number in 1910 exceeding 500, fed, warmed and clothed, given instruction in a school unsurpassed anywhere for curriculum or instruction, given healthful work on a farm of many acres, trained in habits of industry, thrift and all that makes for good citizenship, and when old enough are placed on good homes where they will have the level American chance to which all children of Iowa are entitled.

Life at the home is regular and well ordered.  The children are well treated, happy and fond of those who have them in charge.  There is a library of well selected juvenile literature and there is a systematic effort to provide for them as much amusement as possible.  Back in war days Muscatine inaugurated the custom of providing Christmas cheer in the shape of presents, a tree, a Santa Claus, etc.  This good example was followed by other communities.  The small people of the home are never far out of the minds of the people of Davenport and many treats have been arranged for them by the citizens.

The name of the institution has not been changed since post-bellum days and it is still the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' home, although the title is hardly appropriate these days, and it is to be hoped it will never be.  The state collects from the county whence a child comes for its support, and no better investment do the ninety-nine counties of Iowa make than this investment in humanity.

The institution of officered by a selected corps of efficient and devoted employees, and is under the charge of Frank J. Sessions, superintendent for the State Board of Control.

Taken from - History of Davenport and Scott County by Harry E. Downe.

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